Fort Smith college ushers in first class
162 future osteopaths begin training
FORT SMITH — The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine opened Monday at Chaffee Crossing with the goal of increasing the supply of doctors to serve western Arkansas.
School officials gathered the 162 students of the college’s inaugural class in the main lecture hall to welcome them and challenge them to answer the call to service.
“This is an historic event,” said Kyle Parker, president and chief executive officer of the college. “You’re the first class that took a chance to come to a brand-new medical school.”
Ricardo Albarran, 25, of Benton County said the osteopathic college gives him the chance to study close to home and become the kind of doctor that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Albarran comes from a Mexican immigrant background and his family never had an opportunity for an education, he said, but Arkansas
has given him the chance to go to high school, to college and now to medical school.
“It’s a token of me saying this is the land that gave me opportunity,” he said. “Why not give back?”
Students will begin classes in the 102,000-square-foot main medical school building that was completed in 13 months for $40 million.
Parker said plans are underway to start construction in the spring on a second building, a 60,000-squarefoot health sciences building, using a $14 million anonymous gift.
Students will have the advantage of using the latest in technology and a physician kit worth $1,200, which was a gift from the Degen Foundation, according to board of trustees Chairman John Taylor.
The Degen Foundation is headquartered at the college and states its mission as “providing for our region’s health care needs by investing in practical solutions today with a vision for tomorrow.” The students selected from among the 3,800 applicants from across the country began Monday morning with registration. Students, college officials and visitors occupied the atrium, munching on pasties and drinking juice as electronic posters on the walls counted down the final minutes to the start for the class of 2021.
Inside the lecture hall, students sat in reserved seats and cheered as the final minute counted down on a large video screen.
Ratna Malkan, 22, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said she was excited to be a part of the first class and that school was finally starting. She said she interviewed at other medical schools but felt more welcomed by the faculty and staff in Fort Smith.
“I knew if I came here, it would be more personal with them giving me a greater experience,” she said. “Also, the academics looked great. It fit into my personality of how I wanted to study medicine.”
Taylor told the students the college had its origins in the history of the Fort Smith community.
“The DNA, the life’s blood of this community that goes back 130 years, is in these walls today,” he said.
He said that in 1887 the Rev. George Degen of St. John’s Presbyterian Church collected $500 from merchants to rent a building and hire a doctor to provide medical care for the community. First called St. John’s Hospital, the hospital later became Sparks Regional Medical Center.
Eight years ago, Taylor said, the community-owned hospital ran into financial trouble, which included outstanding bonds and an underfunded pension program.
Taylor and others who were on the hospital board had two sets of lawyers, he said — one ready to file for bankruptcy if needed, and another to search for a buyer of the hospital.
They found a buyer and sealed a deal that allowed them to pay off all the hospital debts and come away with $60 million.
That money led to the birth of the Degen Foundation, Taylor said, and the birth of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine.