CHAMPAIGN – Shhh! Medical students are studying for their license.
And they're doing it smack-dab in the middle of the commercial district between Market Place Mall and North Prospect Avenue.
That's just how Dr. Francis Ihejirika wants it. Ten years ago, he started a program to help medical students pass the U.S. medical licensure exam.
Since then, students have been streaming to Champaign-Urbana for four, six, eight or 12 weeks at a time to get instruction and encouragement while preparing for the test.
In February, the PASS Program – short for Physician Assisted Student Success – moved to its new location at 2302 N. Moreland Blvd., C, just east of the Menards store.
The brick building, which faces Town Center Boulevard near the intersection with Neil Street, not only has room for instruction, but also living quarters for students.
For now, most students are staying at the nearby 88 West apartment complex, but in April some are expected to begin occupying 23 rooms at the PASS Program complex.
This month, about 60 students have been getting instruction at the PASS Program. But Ihejirika said 100 to 120 students are expected to be there in May, June and July – the peak season for test preparation.
Roughly 60 percent of the students come from U.S. medical schools. The remainder come from abroad, with 80 percent having gone to medical schools in the Caribbean and 20 percent to medical schools in Africa, Poland or Canada.
The diversity is reflected in the school's parking lot, where license plates from Vermont, North Carolina, Michigan and other states could be seen last week.
Many students learned of the PASS Program through word of mouth, Ihejirika said.
"Students go where they see their friends getting good results," he said.
Alia Safi, a student from Vancouver, British Columbia, came to the PASS Program after studying medicine at Windsor University at St. Kitts in the eastern Caribbean.
She took the first step of the medical licensure exam in September but didn't pass. But the PASS Program has given her confidence to try again.
Safi said Ihejirika's method of thinking of the body as a system clicked with her.
"You don't need to know everything," she said. "You can always figure it out."
Plus, the practice tests and daily drills have helped, she added.
"It's a great place. Everyone works together to help," said Safi, who hopes to practice family or internal medicine someday.
At the PASS Program's Web site – http://www.passprogram.net – Ihejirika cites a 93 percent success rate. He said those who retook the licensure exam after failing it once boosted their score by an average of 40 points after going through the PASS Program.
Students pay $3,600 for four weeks, $5,400 for six weeks and $7,200 for eight weeks.
Ihejirika, 48, came to the United States from Nigeria when he was 8 years old. He received his medical degree from the University of Illinois in 1987 and practiced in Peoria until 1996, when he suffered a stroke. But with the help of physical therapy, he regained full functionality.
It was then he began tutoring medical students at the UI, laying the groundwork for what eventually would become the PASS Program.
Besides Ihejirika, the staff includes three part-time instructors, 10 part-time tutors, eight on the housekeeping staff and two in building maintenance. Ihejirika's brother, Valentino, is chief operating officer, and stepdaughter Ryan Cannon handles public relations.
The PASS Program regimen includes seven hours of instruction per day, plus one-on-one time with tutors. Rather than simply trying to memorize information, students are taught to think in terms of concepts – and patterns of concepts.
Ihejirika said the chief problems faced by students seem to be lack of organization and poor test-taking skills.
Medical schools haven't shown students how to organize their knowledge, and sometimes students get tripped up by multiple-choice questions, he said.
Besides introducing them to "conceptual thinking," Ihejirika said he tells them how to set up a medical practice, avoid malpractice suits and maintain good communications with staff and patients.
Before February's move, the PASS Program had occupied several different venues – including the old Illinois Central Railroad depot in downtown Champaign, the Trade Centre South complex in south Champaign and offices at 505 W. University Ave., C. Students were housed at apartment complexes and houses around town.
Ihejirika said he'll be glad to have students living and studying in the same building because of "the importance of working together" in preparing for exams.
He purposely chose the commercial district as the school's site because it gives students ready access to shopping and restaurants. Many of the students come to Champaign-Urbana by bus or plane and have no cars while they're here.
"We're bringing in nothing but consumers," Ihejirika said of the school's importance to the city. He said PASS Program students buy lunch and dinner at nearby restaurants and shop at Menards and the mall.
Last April, the PASS Program opened a separate program in St. Augustine, Fla. Known as the PASS Program South, it's operated in a strip shopping center by Dr. Hans Wolf, a former student who spent several years working with Ihejirika.
That program has a capacity of 50, compared with the Champaign program's capacity for 150. Ihejirika and Wolf each has a 50 percent interest in the Florida program, which is located close to several medical schools in that state.
Ihejirika said the economic downturn affected the PASS Program – primarily in the latter half of 2009, when banks cut financial aid to schools.
"That hit us hard," Ihejirika said. "Business decreased by 50 percent real fast."
But after six months of slow business, the financial aid spigots began flowing again.
Nevertheless, Ihejirika said the PASS Program is "doing a lot more advertising" than ever before. He attends medical conferences, advertises in medical journals and visits nearby medical schools – all with the aim of getting out word about the PASS Program.
He also made online videos, which sold well for a while before falling victim to pirating. Even though sales of the videos dropped, "bootleg" versions of the videos continued to boost awareness of the program.
The new facilities on Moreland Boulevard include a large lecture room, smaller classrooms, tutoring offices, a computer testing room, a student break room and student lounges on the residential floors.
Eventually, Ihejirika plans to add more residential facilities at the Moreland Boulevard site. He aims to have a total of 164 rooms for students when a second phase is completed. He figures that expansion is about three years off.
Down the road, Ihejirika would like to transmit his lectures to foreign medical schools that feel the need to bolster their curriculum in some areas. But he said he doesn't intend to expand the PASS Program to any more locations.
The PASS Program
What it is: School that helps medical students prepare for their licensure exam.
Address: 2302 N. Moreland Blvd., C, where it moved last month.
Founder/director: Dr. Francis Ihejirika.
Format: Students generally come for four, six, eight or 12 weeks. Program includes seven hours of instruction a day, plus one-on-one tutoring sessions, drill work and computer testing.
Web site: http://www.passprogram.net