From his job at a drug company in San Diego, Patrick Donohue could see how much the nation needed pharmacists. So the Baltimore native made a practical decision to go back to school and train for a career that seemed recession-proof.
What he didn't realize is that he'd also get to be a pioneer.
When Donohue and 69 others start courses at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland today, they will become the first class of the first school of pharmacy at an American women's college. Notre Dame will become the second institution in Maryland to train professional pharmacists.
"I really like the idea that we're the first class, that we'll be taking a leadership role," Donohue said at Wednesday's orientation. "Of all the schools I looked at, this one seemed to have a fresh perspective. Patient care is not all about counting pills, and they stressed that more than others."
Though men make up 41 percent of the class, Notre Dame will nod to its history by focusing the four-year curriculum on women's health issues. The school will dwell less on producing researchers and academics than on training students to serve patients, whether at hospitals or grocery store drug counters.
"It's all about caring for patients," said Anne Y.F. Lin, the school's dean, in her orientation remarks to the first class. "It's not about shoving facts into your brains. We are about taking care of people."
An incorrect test answer shouldn't be seen as a threat to a student's grades, Lin said. "It is about whether that mistake you make will hurt someone," she said.
At a time when the recession has caused students to think more practically about fields that lead directly to lucrative jobs, pharmacy seems a good choice. The median income for a pharmacist with eight years' experience is $103,000. And with new anti-aging drugs arriving every year and baby boomers swelling the ranks of senior citizens, researchers don't expect demand for pharmaceutical care to go down soon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 53,000 more jobs for pharmacists in 2016 than there were in 2006, a 22 percent increase.
Mary Pat Seurkamp, Notre Dame's president, hadn't considered such statistics when her husband offered a casual pitch a few years ago. The college did such a good job producing teachers and nurses, he said, so why not pharmacists?
The notion intrigued Seurkamp enough that she studied it and discovered the growing market for pharmacists. With only one school of pharmacy operating in Maryland (at the University of Maryland, Baltimore), she agreed with her husband's instinct that Notre Dame could fill a niche.
"I got a vision, but it took me some time to get there," Seurkamp told the initial class when she greeted them on Wednesday.
Seurkamp was right on the mark in perceiving a statewide need, said Howard Schiff, executive director for the Maryland Pharmacists Association. Demand for pharmacists has eased some, with veterans putting off retirement due to the recession. But another source of fresh talent is welcome, Schiff said.
"There is still a demand, and there will be well into this century," he said.
Notre Dame hired Lin, who previously served as dean of Midwestern University-College of Pharmacy in Arizona, to launch the school two years ago. Most of its 26 faculty members were in place a year ago. In an indication of the demand for pharmacy training, Notre Dame received almost 500 applications for its initial class.
The school will strive to keep classes intimate and to give students hands-on work as quickly as possible, Lin said. Members of the first class said they were drawn by that practical philosophy and by the chance to create something from scratch.
Julie Gibbons, 24, worked as a pharmacy technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She wanted to upgrade her training without moving and liked the idea of helping to shape a new program.
"I was impressed with the sense that they wanted to change the way pharmacy is taught," she said of the Notre Dame professors she has met. "They seemed not as much focused on book learning as on getting us into clinical settings right away so we can get a more hands-on experience."
Many pharmacy programs do not send students to work with patients until the second or third year. But Lin said Notre Dame students will help deliver medicine to seniors in nearby high-rises in their first year.
"From all the schools I applied to, this is the one that will give you hands-on experience in the first year," said Ali Tharoo, who moved from Orlando, Fla., to attend.
The first class at 9 a.m. Monday will feature a town-hall-style discussion of the U.S. health care system. "They'll understand how important they are right away," said professor John O'Brien, alluding to the current national debate about health care.
After two years of planning, administrators and faculty seem eager to interact with students.
"You won't have a single burned-out faculty member," promised Michelle Fritsch, chair of the department of clinical and administrative sciences. "We are so student-starved."
At a glance
Today, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland opens its School of Pharmacy, the first at an American women's college.
* Number of students in first class: 70
* Number of applications received: about 500
* Percentage of male students: 41
* Number of faculty members: 26