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Interest in rural medicine leads Lawless to scholars program

September 11th, 2017

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When she came to Bethel College two years ago, Cayla Lawless knew she was interested in a medical career but she wasn’t necessarily thinking “doctor.”

That changed, says the junior from Burlingame, when she had the opportunity last year to shadow family physician Dr. Marla Ullom-Minnich of Partners in Family Care, Moundridge.

Lawless learned at the beginning of this month that she had been accepted into the University of Kansas School of Medicine’s Scholars in Rural Health program.

This competitive program, which only accepts 12-14 applicants, was designed and initiated to identify and encourage students from rural Kansas who are interested in serving as physicians in rural areas.

Students apply for the program during their sophomore year in college. Once accepted, they participate in activities intended to expose them to a variety of health-care services in rural areas, including hospital and office practice, during their junior and senior undergraduate years.

Each student is matched with a physician-mentor in or near their hometown or undergraduate institution. For Lawless, that will be Dr. Ullom-Minnich, to her delight.

“She’s amazing – I loved every minute with her [so far],” Lawless says.

Students who complete the program’s requirements are guaranteed admission to the four-year M.D. program at the KU School of Medicine, and also receive priority consideration for the Kansas Medical Student Loan program, which provides tuition and living expenses for select medical students who agree to train in primary care and practice in a medically underserved area of Kansas.

Already as a freshman, Lawless knew there was a health-care profession in her future, but initially she was thinking more about physical therapy or nursing, she says. But that began to change.

She went to some workshops about primary-care medicine and learned about Dr. Ullom-Minnich – that she worked not far from Bethel and was a graduate of a small liberal-arts college in central Kansas (McPherson) as well as the KU School of Medicine.

“I had shadowed a couple of pediatricians, and I wanted some experience with family practice,” Lawless says.

She recalls Dr. Ullom-Minnich telling her about a young patient, whom the doctor had delivered 10 years earlier. That was what she wanted for her life, Lawless decided.

Her interest in rural medicine comes both from growing up in a small town and from some of the statistics concerning health-care access in rural Kansas that she learned in her Biopsychology and Health class.

“We discussed how hard it is for people to be able to get to doctors and hospitals,” she says. “I think it’s unfair.”

“The program is called Scholars in Rural Health,” says Dwight Krehbiel, Bethel professor of psychology, “and Cayla has shown herself to be both scholarly and interested in rural health. Her scholarly capabilities and interests are shown by her excellent grades as well as her involvement in research, including a project that was presented at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.”

Lawless and her student colleague Azucena Gonzalez, senior from Newton, did a study of pre- and post-season effects of concussions with a group of Bethel football players and a control group of students who didn’t play football. Gonzalez presented their collaborative poster at the national conference in Asheville, North Carolina, last spring.

“Cayla has shown her interest in rural health by shadowing physicians in small towns and volunteering in services such as Good Shepherd Hospice [Lawless worked with a patient in Halstead]. Her deep interest in access to health care in rural areas has emerged in essays and in discussions both in and outside of class. You can’t fake these things, and Cayla was able to write and talk about what she has done in a persuasive and engaging fashion.”

“Cayla is truly deserving of this recognition,” says another of Lawless’s major professors, Bethel Professor of Psychology Paul Lewis. “She is a great science student with a promising future as a practicing medical professional.”

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2016'17 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.