Schermerhorn Award recognizes outstanding health students

Award winners
Winners of the Schermerhorn Award, holding the plaque on which their names will be engraved, are (from left) Magdalena Chavez, Jordan Evans, and Rachel Nielsen.

By Lin Lofley

The UT Southwestern School of Health Professions prides itself on being an outstanding place to learn, but one that’s small enough that everyone is like family. The three winners of the 26th annual Schermerhorn Scholarship Award can point to the importance of family when they talk about their learning journeys.

Magdalena Chavez in the Physician Assistant Studies program, Jordan Evans in Clinical Nutrition, and Rachel Nielsen in Physical Therapy were honored for academic excellence, leadership, and volunteer work. The awards were presented in March at the Capra Research Symposium.

The award is named for Dr. John Schermerhorn, who served as Dean of the School of Health Professions – then known as the UT Southwestern Allied Health Sciences School – from 1971 to 1986. He died in 2008.

Each year, three outstanding students are honored with the award. Winners receive $500, and their names are engraved on a plaque that hangs in the School of Health Professions.

Magdalena Chavez

Ms. Chavez attended Renaissance Charter School in Irving and graduated from the University of North Texas in 2006 with a degree in fine arts. She began a career in interior design and worked in furniture retailing, but “I always had in the back of my mind the thought of going into medical care.”

So she went back to school to complete the prerequisites for admission to the Physician Assistant Studies program. She and her husband, Joaquin, have a son, Gabriel, who celebrated his first birthday recently. Although she worried at first about entering the School of Health Professions with little medical background and a newborn at home, she’s now confident she made the right decision.

While working on her prerequisites, Ms. Chavez shadowed the clinicians and staff members at a family practice clinic near her home as she considered applying to medical school.

“But I saw the midlevel practitioners in the clinic doing a lot of the things that I wanted to do, so I set my sights on the School of Health Professions,” she said.

Ms. Chavez has participated in the United to Serve health fair and helped interview prospective Physician Assistant Studies students. She is on track to graduate in December 2014.

Jordan Evans

Ms. Evans, a Highland Park High School graduate, earned a bachelor’s degree at Clemson University in 2009. She was in graduate school at UT Dallas when her father’s cancer came back.

John Evans died in July 2012, and by that time his daughter was well on her way to a master of clinical nutrition degree from the School of Health Professions. She’ll get that degree in August – the same month she graduates from UTD with a master of science in healthcare management. 

“This is a tribute to Dad,” said Ms. Evans, who plans to work with oncologists.

Despite the time she spent caring for her father, the list of organizations and activities she is involved in is lengthy – Colleges Against Cancer, Student Dietetic Association, Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and American College of Healthcare Executives, just to name a few.

She expressed a great debt to the School of Health Professions. 

“The teachers truly care about you doing well,” she said. “They’re tough, but they’re fair. They take great care to prepare us for our rotations, and they match us with rotations that go with what we want to do in our careers.”

Rachel Nielsen

Mrs. Nielsen, on track to graduate in December, is wrapping up a year as president of the Texas Students Physical Therapy Association, which kept her busy on behalf of fellow physical therapy students statewide. 

Her career path seems to have been set early on. In high school, she was an athletic trainer, which she enjoyed, although even then she thought being a physical therapist might be more to her liking. 

When she was 17, her family was in a traffic accident. Her mother suffered significant spinal injuries and ended up at UT Southwestern Medical Center. She was given just a 2 percent chance of learning to walk again, which she did, even becoming a patient for one physical therapy class to study.

“The way my mom was treated here made me pretty sure that this would be a good place for me to continue my education,” Mrs. Nielsen said.

She graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in movement science, one of the underlying disciplines of physical therapy. Her husband, Nicki Nielsen, works in marketing, and they hope to stay in the North Texas area.