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Enhancing Student Learning: Meet Educational Specialists Nina Nunez and Christa Vaudrey

With 22 major exams in the first year alone, studying in medical school is about as rigorous as it gets. When students at the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine need help getting through it all, they head up to the Student Affairs office and make an appointment with Educational Specialists Christa Vaudrey and Nina Nunez.

“People who aren’t in medical school don’t understand that these students need to have not only academic ability, but mental stamina as well,” Nunez explained. “It can take a toll. Our students are spending 80 hours per week on content, so it’s really a sacrifice, not just for the individual student, but for their families as well.”

On an average day, Vaudrey and Nunez meet with anywhere between eight to 20 students each. Some come seeking guidance on studying and learning strategies, others need emotional support and encouragement. The educational specialists also host lunch-and-learn sessions, help the students navigate online learning resources, and emphasize the importance of wellness and nutrition. In between it all, they spend quite a bit of time on data analysis, breaking down exam grades by discipline and subjects to show students where their strengths lie and areas they can improve upon. “Sure we see students who are at academic risk, but we also see just as many students in the top ten percent,” Nunez noted.

While Nunez and Vaudrey are most definitely a team unit, it is the combination of their individual strengths and areas of expertise that make them so effective. Vaudrey, a Missouri native, comes from a long line of educators. She finished her education degree at NMSU and has been in the area for 25 years now, with most of that time spent working for the public school system. She taught elementary school for five years before making the transition to administration through an NMSU master’s program focusing on border schools. She served as assistant principal and principal at various schools in Las Cruces for 13 years before a friend recommended she look at a job posting for the new medical school in town.

“The educational specialist job description highlighted everything I love about education, without all of the things that drove me crazy,” Vaudrey explained. “This job is about instruction and learning and working with students directly, which are all the things I enjoy the most. I like working with adult learners and building relationships with them. It’s done on a very individual and personal basis here.”

Nunez grew up in Las Cruces with a natural aptitude for mathematics and found her calling while working at a tutoring center. Like Vaudrey, she earned both her education degrees at NMSU and spent 16 years working in public education, ten at Mayfield High School and another six at Arrowhead Early College High School. Before coming to BCOM, she also trained other instructors on how to teach engineering, taught online classes, and served as an adjunct instructor at Dona Ana Community College.

“Christa and I work really well together, and I think that’s partly because we are different,” Nunez said. “When students come in they choose who they’ll be meeting with, but we often tell them to meet with the other just to get a different perspective, or we both sit in on meetings if necessary. Because of my math background, I’m more structured and linear. Christa, with her experience overseeing entire schools, is more big picture and conceptual. We round each other out; we’re like yin and yang. ”

Vaudrey added that at a national conference hosted by the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine earlier this year, she was surprised to discover that most Learning specialists at other universities usually limit themselves to just working with students. “They don’t typically analyze data,” she explained. “They aren’t necessarily involved in supporting the faculty. I was amazed to find out how multi-faceted we are, and really proud of what we’ve built at BCOM.”

This well-rounded approach appears to be working. Second year student Antony Awad said the Student Affairs’ open door policy is invaluable when he and his fellow students are trying to figure out study techniques or determine the best learning strategies to adapt to a particular professor’s teaching style. “I think we would probably be in a very different place in terms of how we excel if we didn’t have Nina and Christa as a day-to-day resource,” he added. “Every single day of our school year, we know that we have this department that really promotes our academic well-being.”