Land of the Gator

Land of the Gator

How a bill launched by Abraham Lincoln led to the University of Florida as we know it

By Mina Radman

Illustration by Josh Clark, based on the painting American Gothic by Grant Wood.

Abraham Lincoln and the University of Florida: What connection could one of America’s most famous presidents have to a university that was newly established at the time of his death?

A very strong connection, actually: If it weren’t for Lincoln, UF may not exist today. In 1862, one year, four months and 17 days prior to the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln signed a bill that laid the groundwork for 74 colleges and universities across the country, including UF. Under the Morrill Act, as it was called, each eligible state received 30,000 acres of federal land. The profits from selling this land were to be used to establish educational institutions that offered widespread and affordable access to education in practical disciplines such as agriculture and mechanical arts. The hope was that the newly educated graduates would give back to their communities.

Established in Lake City in 1884, Florida Agricultural College was the first land grant college in Florida. The college changed its name to the University of Florida in 1903, merged with three other state-supported schools in 1905 and moved to Gainesville in 1906, establishing UF as we know it today.

One-hundred-and-fifty years later, UF still embodies the spirit of the land-grant legislation by providing students with an affordable education and opportunities for personal and academic growth. Tuition at UF is 31 percent below the national average for four-year public institutions, and 61 percent of UF undergraduate students have no student loan debt when they graduate. Because of UF’s commitment to accessible higher education, many students who otherwise may not have been able to attend college have earned degrees.

Although the original focus of the Morrill Act was agriculture and engineering, the health sciences have become crucial parts of education and research at UF, fulfilling the broad aims of the Morrill Act to advance practical knowledge and to return the benefits of that knowledge back to the community. UF’s faculty members and students have benefitted the state and nation through inventions such as Gatorade and the glaucoma drug Trusopt; studies that have led to a potential cure for common forms of blindness; and clinical expertise in areas such as diabetes and cancer.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, this month The POST is giving you a look at how UF’s six health science colleges exemplify Lincoln’s vision by shaping our students and communities into the best they can be.

An early start in community medicine

Vishal Goswami and Chelsea Wiltjer recruit patients for the UF College of Medicine Mobile Clinic.

Four UF undergraduate students aren’t spending their senior years worrying about Medical College Admission Test scores or applying to medical schools. Instead of fretting over applications, they’re helping the community.

Chelsea Wiltjer, Jack Stacey, Vishal Goswami and Rohann Whittingham are pioneering participants in the Rural and Urban Underserved Medicine, or RUUM, program, a new early acceptance track within the College of Medicine.

The program’s goal is to inspire undergraduate students to pursue careers in underserved medicine, said Nancy Hardt, M.D., director of health equity and service learning programs in the UF College of Medicine.

Participants apply for the program during the fall semester of their junior year. If accepted, RUUM students secure a place in medical school. The application process is rigorous and up to six students can be enrolled in the program.

RUUM students spend their senior year taking seminar classes to learn about health disparities and the underserved in rural and urban communities. In addition to the classes, students volunteer in health clinics and work on a thesis project about a topic within public health.

Wiltjer said she has found her volunteer work with the free health clinic the most rewarding part of her experience thus far.

“I get excited about every person I talk to,” Wiltjer said. “They are all so different, and they amaze me. I can see how their problems have progressed to where they are and how they’ve ended up at our free health clinic.”

Wiltjer, Stacey, Goswami and Whittingham were interested in underserved medicine prior to starting the program and their experiences are helping shape their future goals.

“No matter what specialty we end up in, we’re always going to have the opportunity to volunteer,” Stacey said. “Through this program, we’ve learned we’ll be giving back no matter what specialty we go into.”

Taking care of the cattle

Gabriele Maier (right), an intern with Food Animal Reproduction and Medicine Service, or FARMS, discusses a calf’s health with Charles Gregory, a third-year veterinary medicine student, at the IFAS Dairy Unit.

On a cool, sunny Thursday afternoon, Arthur Donovan, D.V.M., performed an abscess-removal surgery on a patient’s foot.

The surgery took more than 15 minutes, and the patient lay still while Donovan focused on the abscess.

The patient wasn’t a human or a small animal. Donovan, a professor in the department of large animal sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, was performing surgery on a cow.

From Monday to Thursday, Donovan teaches veterinary students about the importance of taking care of large animals, such as cattle.

One of the sites Donovan teaches at is the UF Dairy Unit, located in the outskirts of Gainesville. Students go through a food-animal medicine rotation as part of their curriculum and spend time volunteering at the UF Dairy Unit, which houses more than 800 cows. Students learn about the importance of caring for cattle throughout the process of dairy and meat production.

Most veterinary students won’t pursue careers in food-animal medicine, Donovan said, but the experience they have on the farms can help them in any veterinary practice.

Amanda Decerce, a third-year College of Veterinary Medicine student, said her experience has changed her perception on how food is produced.

“I think it’s really important for veterinary students to work with every kind of animal,” she said. “You shouldn’t work with one kind of animal. You’re expected to learn everything.”

A Gainesville education away from Gainesville

After completing her undergraduate and pharmacy degrees in Gainesville, Jenna Rhoades, Pharm.D., wanted a little change in scenery. She chose to pursue her Ph.D. in pharmaceutics at the College of Pharmacy’s Lake Nona campus, located near Orlando.

Rhoades’ ability to pursue a UF education away from Gainesville demonstrates a key component of the Morrill Act. When Lincoln signed the act, he envisioned a future where students from different walks of life and locations could be educated equally. The College of Pharmacy demonstrates Lincoln’s hopes by offering its curriculum in four separate cities: Orlando, Gainesville, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville. The four campuses exist to meet the demand for pharmacy education.

“These campuses allow us to reach more students and give students an opportunity to attend pharmacy school in situations where they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, such as students who are more place-bound with children and families,” said Jennifer Williams, Pharm.D., assistant dean and campus director of the St. Petersburg campus.

Each campus has the same curriculum and exams but offers unique research and learning opportunities, Williams said.

Although the quality of education is the same, Rhoades said that the biggest difference in completing a degree away from Gainesville is that the extracurricular activities are different, and the pharmacy students do not interact with students from the colleges of other disciplines.

But the benefits outweigh the shortfalls.

“I had reasons for coming here, and it all worked out perfectly,” she said.

A rural resource

For more than a decade, the National Rural Behavioral Health Center has worked to improve behavioral health care for rural Americans. The center, housed in the College of Public Health and Health Professions, also provides graduate students with a one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning opportunity.

“We have graduate students who have done various projects through the center on peer victimization and school violence, and we have undergraduate research assistants who volunteer their time to assist with research projects,” said Brenda Wiens, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the department of clinical and health psychology.

The center focuses on three areas of rural behavioral health: rural disaster and trauma, violence prevention and health service delivery. The center works with the Columbia County school district to teach violence prevention and provide mental health services.

Graduate students in the clinical and health psychology program receive training from professionals at the center.

“The focus is on providing actual services for the rural community,” Wiens said, “and the students get to work with these communities and directly deliver services and research knowledge to them.”

Future nurses practice within community setting 

Richard Mellin, 56, shows nursing students Marta Smith and Allison Sap how he reads his blood sugar.

Amy Mosely spends her days visiting expectant and new mothers. She prepares them for childbirth and life with a new baby and will checkup on them for the first two years of their child’s life.

Mosely, a recent graduate of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in the UF College of Nursing, didn’t expect to end up in a job that directly helped the community nor did she expect to move to Milwaukee, where the job is located.

“It was something I stumbled upon along the way in nursing school,” she said.

Students in the College of Nursing are heavily involved with helping the community, said Joan Castleman, R.N., M.S., a clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing.

More than 300 students are volunteering in the community this semester as part of their clinical training. In one ongoing program, students helped Alachua County school nurses administer FluMist to more than 10,000 students at local elementary and middle public schools. In the past, students have helped with tobacco prevention and the St. Francis House homeless shelter.

“Educational community experiences help students better understand the factors that impact health,” Castleman said. “This is a valuable experience and provides a significant contribution to multiple community organizations.”

Mosely said her volunteering experience while at UF spurred her interest in a public health career, and it’s important for nursing students to realize they affect the community.

“If we can prevent and educate, then we are doing a better job at promoting the health of the community,” she said.

College of Dentistry

Dentistry students bite into community outreach through their work at the Alachua County Organization for Rural Needs, or ACORN, clinic.

Fourth-year students in the UF College of Dentistry can choose to spend one of their two-week extramural rotations at the ACORN clinic, a nonprofit that provides low-cost health services to the North Central Florida community, including dental care.

“ACORN is an amazing place because it’s an incredible cross-section of humanity,” said Micaela Gibbs, D.D.S., director of community-based programs for the UF College of Dentistry. “A lot of the areas it serves are rural, and people of all ages and ethnicities visit the clinic.”

All dental students are required to go through six weeks of clinical rotations before graduation, and the ACORN clinic is one place they can choose to volunteer. Clinical rotations enhance a student’s education, Gibbs said.

“They gain valuable clinical skills while making a positive impact on oral health access in the surrounding community,” she said.

Many students choose to volunteer at ACORN because of the college’s longstanding relationship with the clinic. Students receive one-on-one mentoring from both volunteer and staff dentists that not only enhances the student’s clinical abilities, but also raises an awareness of the rewards of practicing in a community-based setting.

“By providing an outstanding learning opportunity in these settings, we hope that students consider community health as an option after graduation,” Gibbs said.

Student involvement at the clinic also increases the number of patients who can be seen.

“There is only one practicing dentist, but with three or four students there, too, many more patients can be served,” Gibbs said.