For 35 years Jerry Yutrzenka, Ph.D., taught and mentored students and provided consequential leadership at the medical school.
By Peter Carrels
If he’d been accepted into a Minnesota medical school as a young man, it’s likely Jerry Yutrzenka would not have spent a lifetime at our medical school benefiting our students.
That analysis is the beneficiary of hindsight, of course, but consider this to be another poignant example where early aspirations encounter detours that lead to meaningful destinations.
Yutrzenka’s journey started in rural, northwest Minnesota. The son of a farm equipment salesman and homemaker mom, his first nine years were spent in Argyle, Minnesota, population 650. Argyle is remote, located 40 miles northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and 60 miles from the Canadian border.
At age 10 Yutrzenka and his family left Argyle, moving to the farm where his father had been raised, and where his grandmother still resided. “Living on the farm was an adventure,” Yutrzenka remembered. “We’d left a home in town with all the modern conveniences for a home in the country that didn’t have indoor plumbing during the first year we lived there.”
“We lived a very modest lifestyle,” Yutrzenka added. “But I didn’t realize how modest it was until I went away to college at Moorhead State and met people from many other places and many other upbringings.”
Yutrzenka’s parents emphasized the values of hard work and higher education to their four children, and Jerry, their oldest son, became the first in his family to earn a college degree. He’d discovered that Moorhead State – now Minnesota State University, Moorhead – had an excellent biology department, and that became his major. His farming background provoked an interest in pursuing a career as a veterinarian, but he later had second thoughts about that choice, and applied to medical school.
When his applications didn’t yield admission Yutrzenka needed a Plan B. So he took a job teaching biology and chemistry at Brainerd Community College, in Brainerd, Minnesota, and contemplated his future. A year later Yutrzenka was back in school as a student, this time at the University of North Dakota, where he would earn M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physiology, and where he also met a woman named Barbara, who would later become his wife.
The two of them – his wife Barbara is a clinical psychologist who retired from USD in 2015 – spent 1980 in Houston, Texas, where Jerry served as a research associate in biochemistry at Baylor University’s college of medicine. Then it was off to Richmond, Virginia, for a four-year stint as a postdoctoral fellow in pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1984 Barbara and Jerry moved to Vermillion, South Dakota, looking forward to beginning and growing their careers at the University of South Dakota.
As an assistant professor in the university’s Division of Basic Biomedical Sciences, Jerry taught physiology and pharmacology to medical students as well as undergraduates and graduate students, including students in the departments of physician assistant studies and physical therapy. He also developed a National Institutes of Health-supported research program investigating the neurobiology of central nervous system depressant drugs and drugs of abuse.
In 1991, Yutrzenka was promoted to associate professor and joined the administrative team at the medical school as its director of admissions, a position he held for nearly 10 years. In 1992 he helped found the Alumni Student Scholars Program, and two years later he assumed leadership of that program, holding that position for 25 years.
During the past 25 years he led the school’s satellite office of the Indians into Medicine program. That duty overlapped with running
the science and technology enhancement program and the office of diversity affairs. From 2010 to 2017 he served as principal investigator for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Since 2014 Jerry has been the associate dean of diversity and inclusion at the medical school. Less known are his mentoring contributions to countless students both within and outside South Dakota. As part of a national group of advisors, Jerry worked with students from around the country who sought advice about medical school and health care professions. His involvement in these programs earned local, regional and national honors, including a three-year stint (2015-2018) as the national chair of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Group on Student Affairs - Committee on Student Diversity Affairs.
Despite his many and varied responsibilities, Yutrzenka remained unwavering in his focus on helping students and aiding their success. “Working with students has been a highlight of my time at the medical school,” he reported.
After three and half decades at the medical school, Yutrzenka’s observations about students reveal optimism and praise. “Students have always arrived well-prepared for medical school,” he explained. “They have always been interested in learning, and many of them have already pursued rich experiences to broaden their own lives. What has changed over the years is that today’s students have more access to information, and they are also more aware of the importance in leading balanced, healthier professional and personal lives. Another difference is the presence of women in medicine. During the the first years I was at the medical school only about 20 percent of our students were women. This has dramatically increased, and that has been a very positive trend. The addition of greater diversity in medicine – related not only to gender but also race, sexual orientation and in assorted other ways – has meant there is more diversity in ideas and perspectives and even attitudes. Today’s medical students are more aware and more sensitive about the role of medicine in our diverse culture, and they appreciate how a more diverse health care workforce benefits the delivery of health care to an increasingly diverse society.”
Yutrzenka was this institution’s first associate dean of diversity and inclusion, and before that he was the first director of diversity. His prominent role promoting health care careers to Native Americans has had him innovating and guiding medical school programs targeting greater diversity in medical fields. There are pipeline programs involving Native American high schoolers, and there are college programs, too, including the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), a program established at USD six years ago by the office of diversity and inclusion.
“Interest in enhancing diversity of our student body started picking up in the early 1990s,” Yutrzenka explained. “Early on diversity efforts tended to refer primarily to racial diversity, but these efforts have been expanded to include, among other elements, such things as first-generation college, gender, rural upbringing, sexual orientation and disabilities. Today, the effort continues toward both enhancing the diversity of our students and faculty as well as fostering a greater sense of inclusiveness.”
Yutrzenka distinguished the words diverse and inclusive. “To be inclusive,” he clarified, “is to welcome, value, respect and utilize those many attributes and talents that diverse individuals possess. A phrase that illustrates this distinction is: Diversity is being asked to the dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Paul Bunger worked closely with Jerry Yutrzenka for much of the time Yutrzenka was at the medical school. Bunger, former dean of medical student affairs who retired in 2017, noted his former colleague’s leadership role in matters related to diversity. “Jerry’s approach has always been one of sensitivity and creativity in order to bring about a greater understanding of the needs of those that may be ignored or pushed aside,” Bunger explained. “Jerry’s insight and achievements in this role have been recognized, not only at the school level, but also by national organizations.”
Reflecting on his long career, Dr. Yutrzenka expressed gratitude and satisfaction. “I am grateful I was provided opportunities to lead efforts and perform a variety of responsibilities. I was able to grow by doing these things, and I was able to contribute to the medical school and the university, including being able to directly assist students and work to diversify the student body. I have relished working with our students, with our faculty, and with the school’s leadership, as part of administration. This has meant a great deal to me from both a professional and a personal standpoint.”
“Dr. Yutrzenka’s legacy is both broad and deep,” said Dr. Mary Nettleman, dean of the medical school and vice president of the university’s division of health affairs. “His efforts have transformed the medical school and benefited students, faculty and communities. We are very grateful for his leadership over these past 35 years. He will be missed.”