By John Shea

“She’s always there. She’s always there!”

Robert Smith, who received his medical degree from the Perelman School of Medicine in May, was exaggerating – but only slightly. The person he was referring to was Barbara Wagner.

Imagine almost any official function that involves Penn’s medical students – for example, the White Coat Ceremony, Match Day, or Graduation – and the odds are excellent that she would be present. Not as the speaker or guest of honor, but as director of the Office of Student Affairs. Wagner might be helping to keep things running smoothly. Or she might be the person being hugged by a grateful student she has helped along the way. Indeed, for Smith and countless other students over the last two decades and more, much of what Wagner has done for them has gone on behind the scenes. Wagner and the rest of the small Student Affairs staff have been avail­able for counseling and advising, on matters academic, medi­cal, and personal. Perhaps Jon B. Morris, M.D., the Ernest F. Rosato – William Maul Measey Professor in Surgical Education, puts it best: “When it comes to our PSOM students, it would be hard to find a more compassionate, supportive, loyal, sympathetic, articulate, calm, staunch advocate than Barb Wagner.” And Morris has had one of the best seats in the house: for the last dozen years, he’s been the associate dean for student affairs.

Wagner, who earned her B.A. degree in American Civilization at Penn in 1983, be­came associate director of student affairs in 1990, long before Penn’s medical school be­came the Perelman School of Medicine. Ear­lier, she had been working in the University’s Alumni Rela­tions office. She cites two particular experiences from that pe­riod that helped her in her new role: she was the staff person working with the Alumni Relations Student Advisory Com­mittee, and she had organized tours for Mask and Wig, Penn’s all-male student musical comedy troupe. She had even gone on some tours with the “Wiggers.” Both experiences, she says, “made me realize how much I loved working with students.” In all, she has been director of Student Affairs under four deans, not counting those who served in interim roles!

At the end of September, however, Wagner retired – but not before the medical school held a reception in her honor. The site was appropriate: the atrium on the fifth floor of the Henry A. Jordan M’62 Medical Education Center.


Celebrating Wagner’s retirement with her are Erin Engelstad (center), formerly of Student Affairs, and Helene Weinberg, the Perelman School’s registrar.

Learning from the Faculty

When she crossed to the medical side of Penn, Wagner be­came involved with student organizations and residency matching, and the responsibilities of the position continued to grow. She also earned a master’s degree from Penn in Organi­zational Dynamics. Since 1995, when Gail Morrison, M.D. ’71, G.M.E. ’76, became vice dean of education, Wagner has offi­cially reported to her. In addition to Jon Morris, Wagner has worked closely with several associate deans for student affairs during her tenure. The first was Helen C. Davies, Ph.D., the beloved professor of microbiology, well known for the way she helped her students memorize a vast number of facts for exams by substituting new words to popular songs. Other as­sociate deans were William W. Beck Jr., M.D. ’65, now an emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and Harvey Rubin, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of infectious disease and di­rector of Penn’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Re­sponse (ISTAR). 

“They were all wonderful people with very different styles,” Wagner says. There is a certain maternal aspect to the job, she learned, and Davies was a model in that way. “She gave 150 percent to the job,” Wagner says with a laugh. “But I also learned not to have students depend on you too much.” In­stead, she has seen her role as helping them “to get to a point where they can be self-reliant.”

Morris has shown her that “a sense of humor is so import­ant.” He has what Wagner calls “an amazing way” of using hu­mor to handle a difficult situation. Harvey Rubin she de­scribes as “so amazingly brilliant and a lot of fun. He knows about everything and yet is still a student, too.” Bill Beck, who retired to Montana, still visits Penn and Wagner every year. He showed a more paternal side to the students, Wagner says. In effect, “my education has been on the job,” she says, draw­ing from the deans and from the students as well.

Trouble-shooting and Counseling

In Robert Smith’s words, for medical students, “Barb is your fairy godmother!” Wagner prefers to think of herself as some­thing of a professional trouble-shooter. Her career has in­volved academic counseling (and dealing with students’ aca­demic problems), career counseling, advising during the resi­dency process, and personal counseling. “Medical school is hard enough, even if nothing else is happening,” she says. Ev­ery year, too, there are students who have family emergencies or illnesses. Wagner emphasizes that she and her staff do not do psychological counseling but refer students to the Univer­sity’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which is available to all Penn undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. But throughout her time as director, she has always made herself accessible. And that has been the primary mean­ing of “she’s always there,” in Smith’s words, who adds, “well beyond office hours.” When students get in touch, Wagner says, “most of the time, I just listen.” Usually, “students just want to be heard and get something off their chest.” And the problems they share with her run the gamut. At one extreme, a student once called Wagner to complain that there was a mouse in her apartment. At the other extreme, another told her “I’m really depressed and I’m not sure I can go on.”

Wagner has also dealt with what she calls “transition is­sues,” such as the move between college and medical school or between medical school and residency. Wagner and her staff try to help the students find their feet and learn how to balance their studies with the other parts of their lives. Many first-year medical students find the volume of work notably greater than what they faced during their undergraduate years. The transitions from the classroom to the clinical set­ting can also be challenging: students have to learn their place, learn how to act, learn when to leave and when not to, and learn to pick up on the social cues. “It’s often more diffi­cult for the quieter students,” Wagner points out. In addition, the process of applying for residencies is very exciting, but at the same time, students know “the choice will influence the rest of their careers,” and they feel the pressure. The Student Affairs office also counsels students who are not sure they’ve made the right decisions. 

Despite the rigors of medical education, the Perelman School of Medicine has a very low attrition rate, even among the first-year students. When a student considers quitting medical school, Wagner advises taking a leave of absence in­stead: “Sometimes the students need to put things in perspec­tive and need time to decompress.” Wagner’s impressions of the typical Penn Med student are not surprising. She finds them remarkable, very bright, and idealistic. “They are super­stars,” she asserts, but there is a great deal of stress on them as well – these days, she notes, more than ever before.


Wagner welcomes former students: from the left, Brian Harte (M.D. ’96), Jennifer Kogan (M.D. ’95), and Jonathan Stein (M.D. ’95).

The Path to Match Day and Beyond

During Wagner’s time at Student Affairs, she witnessed the growth of the “M.D. plus” trend. Given the demands of medi­cal school, some observers may wonder how today’s busy stu­dents manage to earn more than one degree or take a pro­gram outside their chosen fields. Wagner points to the flexi­bility of today’s medical curriculum. Students, she says, are happy to try different things, and about 40 percent now stay at Penn Med beyond the standard four years. Health care itself has broadened to include areas like global health and social justice. In addition, according to Wagner, more students today seek to use their medical education outside clinical areas. This past year, for example, eight Perelman students chose not to pursue a residency, preferring to focus on different paths, par­ticularly in business. Some students have developed apps, some have earned joint M.D./M.B.A. degrees and founded companies. McKinsey & Company, the global manage­ment-consulting firm, comes by to recruit medical students. Does that bother her? “No,” she replies. “I support students in any way – we don’t push them into a clinical path.” And she quotes her father, who used to say, “No education is wasted.”

To summarize her role, Wagner says, “It’s the job of the of­fice to advocate for the students.” 

Robert Smith, who explains that he got to know Wagner better when serving on the board of the medical school gov­ernment, says she is probably best known for guiding students through the residency process. It is a long and anxiety-pro­voking process, starting a few weeks after the previous year’s Match Day. “She always shows calm and composure through the peaks and valleys,” he says. Morris agrees, citing the “greatest emotional highs” of the academic year: the White Coat Ceremony, Match Day, and Graduation. “The fact that these three crucial events have for so long – year in and year out – come off so remarkably well is a testimony to the direct impact Barb has had at PSOM.” Penn’s medical students, he continues, “do exceptionally well in the Match, and this is no accident. Barb’s fingerprints are all over this: hours upon hours of counseling, reviewing applications and personal statements, and organizing and overseeing class meetings and workshops on the Match process.”

As evidence of Wagner’s unflagging interest in enhancing the status of medical students, Smith mentions two initiatives of recent years. One concerned the Gold Humanism Honor Society. A national organization, it seeks to recognize individ­uals who are exemplars of humanistic patient care and who can serve as role models, mentors, and leaders in medicine. “Barb championed its coming to Penn,” Smith says. “It was very important to her to have a chapter here.” The other major project, still in progress, is developing virtual “houses” for the students, to help build stronger communities and foster inter­actions among classes. Each “house” has an advisory dean and a master clinician from the faculty. Wagner, he says, “sees we all have patterns of the same problems,” and it would be much better to be more aware of them in advance. Having the virtual houses would encourage peer-to-peer mentoring and show the students that they’re not so alone in their times of need.

The Personal Touch

Following students’ careers has been a tremendous high­light for Wagner, even the careers of those whose time at Penn preceded hers. For example, she heard Michael Brown, M.D. ’66, the Nobel Prize recipient, speak on campus three times over the years. But she particularly loves to meet the younger alumni who return during Medical Alumni Weekend. Then she gets to catch up with the students she worked with so closely during their education. Wagner is keenly aware of “all the trials and tribulations” the students have gone through, and it makes meeting them again at various points in their careers all the more meaningful.

“I never really planned to become a Penn lifer,” she says, but it has certainly turned out that way. In her case, retirement will mean more travel for her and her husband – but it will also mean something very familiar. She intends to do some volun­teer work: “Interacting with people is my greatest satisfaction.”

As she begins her retirement, it’s clear that Barb Wagner will not always be there – “there” in the Jordan Medical Edu­cation Center. Morris, who calls her “my Office of Student Af­fairs soul mate,” acknowledges that she will definitely be missed. But he also makes it clear that she has had a lasting effect on the office she directed for so long. “Barb has laid down the infrastructure . . . a standard of excellence. Our motto of the four A’s – availability, assessment, advocacy, and advising – will be preserved due to all of Barb’s hard work.”

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