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Fort Smith’s new medical school symbolizes more than economic growth and improved medical care for the area — it’s also where more than 160 students with different backgrounds from all over the world came with the intent of being future doctors.

“When students are exposed to diversity — and we first have to define diversity — diversity is race, religion, thought process, upbringing and background — for their learning environment, it gives them a varied perspective of different thought processes,” said Harvey Potts, clinical skills assistant professor at the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“You’re going to encounter those as a physician and the earlier on that you are exposed to those thought processes that can make you a better, well-rounded physician and also a better, well-rounded individual in your community.”

The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine is the first installment of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education at Chaffee Crossing in east Fort Smith.

By the time the inaugural class reaches its last year, the school will have about 600 students. The second college, the Arkansas College of Health Sciences, is expected to be ready for classes in 2020.

Student Joanna Huynh is from Grand Prairie, Texas. She said medical school makes her realize how small the world is.

“When you become a physician, you’re not going to treat just one population — not just one race, one religion — you’re going to get a mix of people and everyone gets sick. It doesn’t matter — you’re going to get sick and you’re going to need a physician and that physician needs to be open-minded,” Huynh said.

Student Kourtney LaCombe said she was interested in health care in high school, but felt discouraged from pursuing being a doctor because she was a girl.

About half of the students at the College of Osteopathic Medicine are women.

Kenneth Hensley is a professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology. He grew up poor in eastern Kentucky and was drawn to the idea of teaching at a school where the mission is to serve the medically underserved and where the students want to “move the needle” of health care, he said.

“In medicine today, we’re required to work as part of a team with people from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, experience levels, expertise, focus, so we deliberately try to maximize the diversity of our teams across multiple dimensions of diversity,” he said.


The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith boasts a diverse student population that includes both traditional and nontraditional students. In 2017, female students totaled 3,734, while male undergrads totaled 2,874. Racial and ethnic numbers included White, 4,396; Hispanic, 819; Asian, 349; African American, 275; American Indian, 148; Two or more races, 532; and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 8.

UAFS celebrates its diversity in a variety of ways, including its annual Martin Luther King Day events. In 2018, UAFS joined with representatives from the Martin Luther King Jr. Community to host the MLK awards and recognition banquet on Jan. 13.

“We have a lot of hatred and darkness in some corners of our society, so we thought it would be better to focus on the things that are lighter and bring us together,” said Dr. Williams Yamkam, an assistant professor of political science and chairman of the American Democracy Project. “We took our marching orders from our chancellor, Dr. Paul Beran, who wanted the MLK celebrations to be an educational event. That would be in line for what Dr. King would want us to do.”

Other events that UAFS hosts on MLK Day are a community breakfast and a symbolic march across campus to the bell tower. UAFS also has hosted student forums featuring its students and local high school students. The forums focus on bridging generation gaps throughout the community and included students from high schools throughout the area.