Owano Pennycooke arrived at Rutgers in the fall of 1995 with an idea that he might like to study computer science. But a chance meeting with an old high school friend sent him down a different road altogether.
The friend suggested that he speak with Kamal Khan, director of Rutgers’ Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences (ODASIS). “He thought Dr. Khan could help me navigate through the science courses,” Pennycooke RC’99 says.
Khan did more than guide Pennycooke through his science courses. It wasn’t long before he was steering the young man toward an even more challenging vocation, one that follows the university’s effort to help minority and economically disadvantaged students pursue medical careers. Today, some 16 years after their initial meeting, Pennycooke is a vascular surgeon practicing in West Long Branch, New Jersey. His wife, Shelley-Ann Pennycooke RC’00, whom he met in a biology course at Rutgers, is an emergency room physician at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune.
The Pennycookes are among nearly 1,000 Rutgers graduates who have benefited from the intensive supplemental instruction ODASIS provides. Funded in part by donations, ODASIS recruits first-year Rutgers students and helps them with free books, study sessions, summer programs, and opportunities to shadow doctors. Programs designed to reach New Brunswick high school students provide free SAT preparation, college and scholarship application assistance, introduction to an array of health careers, and college-level introductory English courses.
A part of the Division of Life Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences, ODASIS began this work in 1986. Before then, Khan says, few minorities were gaining entrance into medical schools. “Back in the early ’80s, they just weren’t getting in,” he says. “Today, we’re getting students into Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.”
Just as outstanding MCAT scores are necessary for acceptance to medical schools, successful fundraising is essential to ODASIS, which has an annual operating budget of $1 million. A portion of the budget is funded by donations from Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and a number of ODASIS alumni. According to Khan, the program currently relies on state funding for 70 percent of its operating costs. But with state resources declining in an ever-shrinking economy, an endowment, Khan says, is the only long-term solution. “With an endowment, ODASIS would be empowered not only to focus on surviving through the next funding cycle, but to form visions for the expansion and enhancement of the program to better serve our students,” he says.
Because of the profound effect ODASIS has had on their own lives, the Pennycookes return to campus periodically to speak at motivational workshops for incoming students. Both credit the program for getting them on the right track toward careers in the medical profession. “I knew I wanted to go to medical school but I didn’t know how to get there,” Shelley-Ann says. “ODASIS provided a map.”
If not for ODASIS, Owano isn’t sure he would have made it through Rutgers, let alone medical school. But the program continues to play an even stronger role for this husband-and-wife team. “Even to this day, those of us who went through the program, we’re still connected,” Owano says. “It’s a journey that you’re on, and in a sense, you’re in life together. That’s really what propelled the relationship between Shelley and me, and it’s been a source of support even beyond and outside of ODASIS.”
Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Mo Daoud.