Paterno Fellows Program helps English major forge unique path to medical school

October 27, 2016

Since 2008, the Paterno Fellows Program—offered by the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts—has been challenging students to reach their highest levels of academic achievement and distinguish themselves in areas traditionally associated with the liberal arts: ethics, service, and leadership; excellence in communication; and intercultural awareness. The honors experience extends beyond the classroom by offering enriching internship, study abroad, and research opportunities; it is also one of the only pathways at Penn State for students not initially admitted as honors students to demonstrate their potential and earn their way into the Schreyer Honors College.

English major John Miller says the Paterno Fellows Program and being a liberal arts major have helped him develop a greater worldly perspective, improve his communication skills, and see how people experience life in different ways—traits that will benefit the English major on his unique path to medical school. His story is another example of how the Paterno Fellows Program encourages students to “think outside the box” and experience the world around them from a variety of perspectives. Visit the Paterno Fellows Program website at to read more stories and learn more about the program.

Medicine is part of Miller’s DNA; his father is a doctor, as are his grandfather and his uncles.  So it’s not surprising that Miller, too, hopes to go to medical school and become a doctor someday.

What may be surprising, however, is the unique path Miller has chosen so far towards his medical career—the Paterno Fellow will graduate this spring with a degree in … English.

“I’ve been surrounded by medicine my entire life,” but I didn’t want to have the narrow idea that I was going to go into medicine just because my family did it,” Miller said. “I realized what made me most passionate about medicine was the opportunity it gave me to engage with patients—not just diagnose them, but also communicate with them and motivate them to care about their health. So, coming in as a freshman I decided I could just focus on the technical skills that I will learn in medical school anyway; or, I could study something else that I believed would contribute to me being a better physician.”

As Miller points out, majoring in English is not as unusual a path to medical school as one might imagine. “In English, you study the use of language,” he explained. “How do you make a convincing argument?  What is the best way to approach how you communicate with other people? Both English and medicine rely on your ability to communicate.”

Not to mention that Miller believes medical students and physicians should enjoy experiences outside of medicine to make it a more diverse environment. “If I’m going to be a physician, that’ll be four years of medical school, four years in a residency, and probably another two or three years in a fellowship—so that’s 11 years,” he said. “Plus, I really like reading; so, [majoring in] English will help keep me fresh as I go through this long process.”

Miller found out about the Paterno Fellows Program the summer before his freshman year and was motivated to apply following a meeting with the program’s founding director, Jack Selzer. “I really liked how being a Paterno Fellow would challenge me to think outside my major and go outside the classroom,” he said. “I also liked how it would help me develop a greater worldly perspective by taking ethics courses, pursue internships, and/or study abroad.”

One Paterno Fellows experience that had a particularly profound impact on Miller was the “Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement” honors course that he took as part of the program. The class included a review of some of the more noteworthy speeches given during the movement in the 1960s; visits to storied locations such as Selma and Montgomery, Alabama; and chances to interact with individuals who participated in the movement.

“It was incredible to get the perspective of people who lived those experiences,” Miller said.  “We all live in the United States, we speak the same language, but yet their experiences are so completely different from my own.  It was a reminder that you need to get past yourself and see how people experience life in different ways.

“I think that is something that being in the liberal arts has taught me to do,” Miller continued.  “It has taught me to re-evaluate, to constantly be questioning, and to look at experiences from different perspectives.”

One of Miller’s internships while a Paterno Fellow has been with the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), a nonprofit organization that administers the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and oversees certification of all U.S. academic medical centers.  While there, he worked with the continuing education and improvement team on enhancing continuing education offerings that potentially strengthen communications among doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers, thereby enhancing the continuum of care.

Although Miller has already taken his MCAT, he has decided to take a year off before starting medical school this fall. He has applied for a Fulbright English Teaching Award, which if successful would allow him to spend a year in the Czech Republic teaching English as a Second Language. Another option is for Miller to spend the year working with Lumos, a nonprofit founded by JK Rowling that seeks to reconnect children living in orphanages worldwide with members of their families.  Miller spent this past summer interning in Lumos USA’s headquarters in New York City.

Either way, Miller will be continuing down his path of becoming a more global citizen and learning to communicate with others in a way that improves their health and well-being. “I just see it as another way to put myself out there,” he said. “You need to be willing to try new experiences and take new risks.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 31, 2016