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Updated: Feb. 11, 4:45 p.m.

Barnard pre-med students say they are receiving inadequate support from Dean for Pre-Professional Advising Adjua Starks, citing her lack of background in medicine or health services and inaccessibility to students.

Students applying to medical school expressed concerns that Starks' lack of background in medicine or other pre-health fields and the consolidation of the pre-med and pre-law advising role diminishes her ability to adequately guide their appointment process. Students interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous because Starks must write them a letter of recommendation during the medical school application process.

Starks was appointed in 2006 as Barnard's assistant dean for pre-professional programs and international students, following the death of Assistant Dean Jayma Ann Abdoo. According to Starks, Barnard currently has 498 registered pre-law students, 337 registered pre-med students, and 41 registered pre-dental students that she advises.

Starks declined to be interviewed for this story. She responded to some, but not all, of Spectator's questions via email. Students interviewed for this story said that Starks' background in law has posed challenges for students in pre-health tracks.

"My biggest problem with the pre-health advising is that Dean Starks is a lawyer and to my knowledge she has no background in medicine or science," said one pre-health student. "So she actually gave me some inaccurate information."

Prior to coming to Barnard, Starks was employed as the associate director of career services at New York Law School. She also worked at several nonprofit legal organizations including the Harlem Legal Services and Community Office of Legal Assistance. Starks graduated from Cornell Law School.

Another pre-med student said that she was surprised with the lack of support provided by Starks.

"My big thing is it's just not nearly as supportive as I would have expected it to be, especially with us being a small women's liberal arts college that is known for our close-knit advising."

The same student said that Starks informed students of a mandatory meeting schedule during class time a week before the day of the meeting. When students expressed concerns about missing class, Starks suggested they schedule a separate meeting with her.

"You can't get meetings with her. One time my freshman year I remember I made a meeting but she had to cancel it," a student said. "Especially now that she's a pre-law advisor, it's kind of a shit show. Every time I check it she's completely filled."  

Starks said in an email that she does "routinely meet with students from both pre-professional tracks to help address a wide range of questions and topics."

Some students said that their issues with Starks might stem from the fact that she's overworked.

"I've emailed her multiple times and she never responds to her email, which is unacceptable from anyone in administration," a third student said. "I feel like she's not competent, either she's overwhelmed—something is wrong there."

The third student also complained that Starks "doesn't really respond to emails" and limits her interactions with students to 20 minute time slots.

"I wanted to ask her about various programs, and I go in to meet with her and she misses my meeting, so I was waiting there for 40 minutes, she never shows," said the student. She characterized the rescheduled meeting as "very unhelpful."

In 2008, Barnard President Debora Spar hired management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to evaluate the Office of the Dean of Studies, resulting in a reorganization of positions that caused Starks to become both the pre-health and pre-law adviser.

Dean of Studies Natalie Friedman told Spectator in an email that the decision to consolidate the two pre-professional offices was part of a "broader decision to redistribute responsibilities among staff in the Dean of Studies office."

"We will be monitoring and tweaking this arrangement as we continue to look at all the other pre-professional advising our office does, including pre-engineering, pre-business, and post-bac," Friedman said.

Barnard had a 75 percent medical school acceptance rate from 2009-2013, according to the pre-health professions website. In 2013, 62 percent of Barnard students that applied to medical school were accepted, a decline of 13 percent. Both Vassar and Smith colleges list higher admissions rates on their website, 76 percent and 86 percent, respectively. Columbia does not make its info about undergraduate admission rates publicly available.

However, Barnard's acceptance rates remain significantly above the national average for first-time applicants was 41 percent in 2014, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The second student said she was advised by other pre-med students to take advantage of Columbia's pre-med advising resources, and to go to Starks' office "basically go to her to suck up and get your letter of recommendation."

"I'm not saying she's not a highly educated woman, but she always talks about how she has these connections, and it makes me curious how she got these connections," the second student said. "She says we're so well-connected, but I don't see the proof because when you look at our stats I find our stats startlingly low. I guess we're right at the average, but I would assume we'd be so much higher."

"I just haven't seen any personal catering to me as an applicant," the student said. "It's good for Barnard for me to do well so I don't understand."

catie.edmondson@columbiaspectator.com | @catieedmondson

prehealth advising adjua starks med school
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