Parents provided understanding of non-traditional students

The challenges faced by non-traditional medical students are not new to Dr. Adrienne Dolberry, OUM basic science instructor and academic advisor. She began witnessing those challenges close to home when she was growing up in Philadelphia. Her parents both made significant career changes when she was a teenager. Her mother, originally a payroll clerk, decided to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). Her father went back to college to earn his degree while he was a firefighter.

“My parents were an inspiration to me in terms of working with adult learners,” she says. “My mother would wake up at 4:00 am almost every day to review her notes for LPN school. My father and I graduated from college the same year. Adult learners have so many important responsibilities to juggle, along with their studies. My parents showed me the sacrifice required to realize both career and personal goals.”

Dr. Dolberry experienced challenges of her own as she began developing her interest in science. There were no scientists in her family, few science-related role models for African American women, and the STEM movement encouraging women to enter math and science fields had yet to launch. But a high school instructor introduced her to biology. 

Naturally curious

“As a kid, I had always wanted to know how things worked. I remember first being introduced to biology by my first mentor, an enthusiastic high-school teacher, and being fascinated by the process. There was actually a discipline that could answer my questions. There was a way to learn why the leaves changed colors, why we breathe – simply, a way for me to learn about life and its workings.” says Dr. Dolberry.

She went on to earn her undergraduate degree and PhD in biology from Drexel University in Philadelphia and was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to conduct research in microbial genetics at the University of Giessen in Germany. She also served as a graduate assistant at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, a postdoctoral associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and an assistant professor of biology at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

Focus on study skills

It was first at Salem State with students going into health professions, then at Ross University School of Medicine on the Caribbean island of Dominica, that Dr. Dolberry began concentrating on study skill development, largely for students studying basic sciences. Since then, Dr. Dolberry has fine-tuned a specialty in academic coaching, helping life science and medical students earn a competitive edge through personalized study strategies.

Out of habit, she says, many students entering a new academic program rely heavily on study techniques that have worked for them in their previous studies – techniques that may not provide enough depth for medical school.

“Medical school students, especially during their basic sciences, are required to master a great level of detail in a short period of time. Therefore, students coming from another health profession or an undergraduate program may underestimate how much detail they must be able to learn and properly apply.”

Addressing self-care

As she moved through her own career in academia, Dr. Dolberry broadened her personal practice of meditation and yoga to include it in her approach to supporting students.

“I started practicing yoga and meditation for stress relief while at MIT. But at every job, I saw the anxiety and confusion on students’ faces. I knew that I had to integrate these contemplative practices into the academic coaching,” she says.

Dr. Dolberry emphasizes the importance of self-realization, which occurs through a student’s combination of improving both study strategies and wellness.

“Students must come to realize that there is no right or wrong way to master material, that it is personalized,” she says.  “Once it registers with students that there is no magic wand that’s going to resolve their challenges, they begin to develop their own process. As they start mastering material, they build confidence, they gain more control, which improves their anxiety and overall wellness. Taking care of oneself is vitally important. If you have self-care, then you can go on to care for others.”

Dr. Dolberry’s understanding of the relationship between emotional wellness and learning has guided her outside academia, as a volunteer yoga instructor in several Philadelphia communities. In addition to teaching a “Teens and Tweens” yoga class, she also brings yoga to Cradle of Hope, an organization that provides transitional housing for new moms. Dr. Dolberry is currently enrolled in a 200-hour yoga certification at Studio 34 in West Philadelphia and is also the recipient of a partial scholarship through Shades of Health, LLC – an Atlanta organization which offers partial financial support in yoga teacher training for yogis of color.

Whether improving a student’s academic performance or reducing anxiety through providing them with a better sense of control, for Dr. Dolberry the end result is essentially restoring or extending happiness.

“While taking courses in organizational development at St. Joseph’s University, I was asked to complete the Highlands Ability Battery, an assessment of one’s natural ability, aptitudes that are not typically modified by training or practice. The results reveal a person’s response to other people and his/her optimal work environment – what you do best, what ‘speaks to you,’” she says. “I essentially learned that I’m at my best when I can help others reach their best.”

Given her career choices, academic focus, and volunteer interests – that’s not surprising.