“Sometimes I think this is just too good to be true!” Clarence Sparks exclaimed. “I
started Midland College’s Primary Care Pathway Program in the fall of 2016, and just
seven years later—by fall 2023—I’ll be finished with medical school. The faculty
at both Midland College and TCOM [Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine] have been
super supportive. I continue to be overwhelmed by the generosity of both institutions.”
Sparks is a member of Midland College’s (MC) first cohort of Primary Care Pathway
students and is now in his third year of medical school at TCOM. As such, he is performing
clinical rotations with physicians at Midland Health. Since Sparks entered the program
in 2016, MC has helped five groups of students start the path to becoming a physician.
MC Associate Professor of Biology Joseph Schenkman serves as coordinator of the Primary
Care Pathway Program. He explained that the purpose of the program is to increase
the number of physicians practicing primary care in the Midland area and in the state
The program contains the following components: (1) An enhanced three-year premed curriculum
with two years at MC and one year at the University of North Texas (UNT); (2) Healthcare
enrichment activities that include mentoring and physician shadowing; (3) A summer
To be eligible for MC’s Primary Care Pathway Program, high school graduates must have
competitive college entrance exam scores and be U.S. citizens or permanent residents
with Texas residency. Dual credit coursework may be accepted at the discretion of
the program committee.
The average GPA for program participants graduating from MC is 3.8, and the average
GPA for program students at UNT is 3.9.
Schenkman said that students who successfully complete all of the requirements in
the prescribed timeframe while maintaining at least a 3.5 GPA may be granted an interview
that can lead to an offer of early acceptance admission to TCOM. Additionally, by
attaining only A’s and B’s, while maintaining the 3.5 GPA, the submission of an MCAT
score will be waived. Such was the case with Sparks.
“When I graduated from Midland High School in 2001, I really didn’t want anything
to do with medicine,” Sparks explained. “I’m not sure what changed my mind, but I
eventually got trained to be a medical assistant and went to work for what was then
Premier Family Care in Midland. There were only a couple of doctors there at the
time, and I pretty much did whatever they asked in the way of patient care and office
management. When one of the doctors, Dr. Prizada, moved his practice to the Houston
area, he asked me to go with him to help set up the office. That gave me a unique
perspective in how doctors’ offices are run.”
By 2015, Sparks had moved back to Midland and was once again working as a medical
assistant for Premier Family Care.
“I decided that I wanted to make the healthcare profession into a career, so I enrolled
in nursing prerequisite courses at Midland College,” Sparks said. “In the summer
semester, Mr. Schenkman came into my Anatomy & Physiology class and told us about
the Primary Care Pathway Program. I had never really considered being a doctor, but
I thought, ‘Why not. I can’t pass up an opportunity like this.’”
Sparks continued to work as a medical assistant during the first year in the program.
“The physicians were incredibly accommodating of my school schedule,” he said. “However,
the ‘schedule juggling’ was hard for them, as well as me, so during my second year
I quit the full-time job and started working part-time as a tutor at MC. By that
time, I was receiving Midland College scholarships, which gave me a chance to really
concentrate on my studies. By December of 2017, I had already been accepted into
TCOM, even though I had another 18 months to finish undergraduate school—finish the
year at MC and then a year at UNT. That’s one of the reasons this program is so great.
Those students who maintain high grades are given a chance to interview for medical
school before graduating from Midland College, and the MCAT [medical school entrance
exam] is waived. Like I said, it’s almost too good to be true!”
After graduating from MC in 2018, Sparks spent a year at UNT completing his undergraduate
work and then entered TCOM in Ft. Worth. He spent two years at TCOM, and in June,
he moved back to Midland for two years of medical school clinical rotations.
“Currently, I’m doing rotations in internal medicine,” Sparks said. “I really think
that family medicine or internal medicine are the routes I want to take. I like helping
the underserved—whether it’s rural or inner city. When I was at TCOM, I chaired the
Student Government Association’s homeless clinic, and it was a great experience. Of
course, the good thing about clinical rotations is that we get to experience all areas
of healthcare before we enter a residency program, so I’m keeping my options open.”
Sparks also said that during his fourth year in medical school, he hopes to be able
to do some clinical rotations in rural West Texas communities, and he is interested
in international clinical experiences.
“I was fortunate enough while I was at MC to be able to travel to Haiti with MC Biology
Professor Amelia Belizaire and her husband who is a physician,” Sparks explained.
“That’s one of the great things about Midland College—the experiences outside of
the classroom that are offered to students. In addition to the trip to Haiti, I traveled
to Honduras as part of an interdisciplinary team performing research on coral reefs
off the coast of Roatan, Honduras.”
Sparks said that he really enjoys osteopathic medicine because of its wholistic approach
to medicine. He has also been trained in osteopathic manipulation therapy (OMT),
which includes hands-on techniques used to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or
injury. Using OMT, a doctor moves a patient’s muscles and joints employing techniques
that include stretching, gentle pressure and resistance. As part of his education
at TCOM, Sparks has received special training in the musculoskeletal system, which
provided additional knowledge of how the body’s systems are interconnected and how
each one affects the others.
“Of course, osteopathic physicians are also trained in other aspects of medicine,
and are specialists in such things as surgery, cardiology, pediatrics, etc.,” Sparks
explained. “However, when appropriate, OMT can complement, and even replace, other
treatment options. Osteopathic medicine focuses on the patient as a whole—not just
Sparks is excited to be back in Midland, where he grew up since age 7. He hopes to
be able to stay in Midland while he is doing his residency. He admits medical school
is hard work but said that at the end of the day, it’s worth it, and he is well on
his way to a promising career as a physician. He recently successfully completed
both the American Medical Association’s Step 1 exam and the Comprehensive Osteopathic
Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX). Both of the exams were the first in a series of
three exams that medical students take during medical school and first year of residency.
To relieve studying and medical school stress, Sparks enjoys reading and cycling.
“Clarence is a rare breed,” Professor Schenkman said. “He is altruistic in the truest
sense with a real aptitude for success in the medical field. Clarence has already
accomplished so much during his time as a member of the Primary Care Pathway Program,
and we can’t wait to see what great successes are in store for Clarence as he progresses
through his journey in achieving his ‘DReam.’”
Sparks said that he would advise students interested in becoming physicians to look
into MC’s Primary Care Pathway Program, especially if they are first-generation college
students, like he is.
“The professors and staff at MC helped me navigate the system and gave me direction,”
Sparks said. “Midland College really prepared me for medical school. The classes
are small, and the professors are personable. I was able to take advantage of scholarships
at Midland College, and there was also a stipend available when I transferred to UNT.
In addition, TCOM is very affordable, compared to other medical schools.
“I started the program a little later than most students. I’m 38; by the time I graduate
from medical school, I’ll be 40. But that’s OK; I’m going to be 40 no matter what.
I may as well be 40 and starting my medical career. I’m very thankful to have this
Photo: Clarence Sparks with his mother after “White Coat” ceremony, which signifies
the beginning of medical school.