Scholarships allow a champion pole-vaulter to set a high bar in medical school, too
Andrea Stember knows how to seize an opportunity. When an ankle injury curtailed her budding career as a teenage gymnast, the Bemidji resident decided to take up pole-vaulting. Astonishingly, she managed to break the school record on her first try.
“It was not a lofty goal,” Stember jokes. “The record wasn’t all that impressive.” Still, her initial success spurred her to put some serious effort into the sport — practicing for hours, attending training camps — and she eventually won the state pole-vault championships three years in a row.
“I worked hard to get better at it,” she says. “If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish it.”
Hard work is important, but Stember, now a 27-year-old medical student at the University of Minnesota, also acknowledges the help she’s received from other people on life’s path. Her coach played a vital role in her success as a vaulter, and generous scholarship support has made her enrollment at the U and her medical studies possible.
Stember grew up in northern Minnesota, in a family of five that grappled with medical issues almost daily. Her oldest brother was born with a host of complex health problems, including serious immune deficiencies and type 1 diabetes. When the family wasn’t hunting, canoeing, gathering wild rice, tapping trees for maple syrup, or traveling to trapping conventions (where Stember participated in tomahawk-throwing competitions), they were often attending medical appointments. Stember remembers tagging along — her toy doctor’s case in hand — as they visited innumerable clinics and hospitals.
Those visits made an impression on Stember. “My brother’s doctors were sometimes annoyed if my mother had one too many questions or my father didn’t understand something that the doctor had said,” she recalls. “So I try to keep that in mind when I interact with people: When a doctor says something, it’s like a foreign language to someone who doesn’t know medicine. I need to remind myself that my whole reason for being there is to care for the patient — and that may include caring for his or her family, too.”
New drug treatments, multiple surgeries, organ transplants, and a positive attitude have kept Stember’s brother alive over the years. But caring for him has been both an emotional and financial drain on the family. When Stember turned 17 and decided to pursue a college education, her parents — her father is a construction worker and her mother a paraprofessional for the Bemidji school district — could offer little financial help. Her summer job cleaning cabins didn’t pay enough to cover tuition, either.
Reaching new heights
To Stember’s surprise, pole-vaulting provided the answer: “Through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and many hours on the track, I was recruited out of high school,” Stember says. “Had it not been for the scholarships offered to me, I would have not even considered attending the U, and I would have missed out on an incredible undergraduate experience.” Ultimately, she received a full academic scholarship that supported her as a sophomore, junior, and senior.
In 2008, Stember completed her undergraduate degree, majoring in biology, society, and the environment. She planned to go on to medical school, but again required financial assistance. Now in her fourth year of medical school, Stember is grateful for the support of four different scholarships, including the 2012 Samuel J. Ravitch Scholarship.
“It definitely eases the burden and the stress,” she observes. “Financial stress doesn’t go away. The tests come and go, and you can cross those off the list, but the [expenses] continue to pile up.”
This summer, Stember will begin her emergency medicine residency at the Denver Health Medical Center.
But she’s already putting her technical knowledge and bedside manner into practice. last spring, her brother underwent a pancreas transplant, and Stember found her family turning to her for answers.
Being immersed in the situation as both a family member and a doctor-tobe reinforced the notion that practicing medicine requires empathy, as well as technical knowledge. “It reminded me that when a family is in a stressful situation, the things you say as a doctor don’t necessarily stick,” Stember says. “you have to take all that into account.”
By Joel Hoekstra, a Minneapolis-based writer and editor