Getting Ready for a COCC Fall-start Cohort

Feb. 9, 2023

To join a cohort-designed health program, which typically only launch each fall, spring term (April 3) is the ideal time to begin earning must-have prerequisites

For Medical Assisting students at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), the spring term of their one-year certificate program is particularly meaningful.

“They love it, it’s when they begin to see their true potential,” beamed Shannon Waller, associate professor of the program. The term focuses on two supervised practicums — 160 hours’ worth — where students learn in the working world, embedding with local clinics to hone skills and raise their job readiness.

Medical assistants, or MAs, provide support in medical settings. Trained in clinical skills like taking medical histories, giving vaccines, assisting in procedures and recording vitals, these outpatient specialists are also able to serve in administrative roles, from front-line patient support to maintaining electronic medical records. It’s a versatile, multifaceted occupation — and on the rise. Between 2021 and 2031, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the specialty occupation will increase by some 16%.

But getting to that last term — and embarking on a meaningful, in-demand new career — starts before the program actually begins. To be prepared to join a cohort of 24 students in the fall, students often need to take one or two terms of prerequisites depending on their academic track. Prerequisite class options include topics in cultural communication and medical math, among others, with courses typically offered either online or at one of COCC’s four campuses — in Bend, Madras, Prineville and Redmond — allowing students to conveniently stay closer to their hometown.

Spring term at COCC starts April 3, and students looking to join a 2023 fall cohort can enroll now and get started on the important prerequisites. In addition to Medical Assisting, COCC’s other cohort programs include Dental Assisting, Nursing, Pharmacy Tech, Paramedicine and Veterinary Tech, the latter launching a new cohort every two years (the next one gets underway in the fall of 2024).

Cohort programs, in addition to being concentrated on a clearly defined degree or certificate, offer a built-in sense of camaraderie and close-knit purpose. They promote teamwork and foster friendships.

“The dynamics of cohorts can mean that students find greater peer support as well as accountability to each other and they are more likely to complete their goals,” said Annemarie Hamlin, Ph.D., vice president of academic affairs.

“Modified” cohorts, in which students take many of the same classes but have more options to choose from for electives, Hamlin added, can offer many of the same team-centered benefits but with flexibility for students who may have family or job obligations outside of college while going to school. Those COCC programs include Culinary, Health Information Management and Outdoor Leadership.

Massage Therapy students have a choice of entering one of two annual cohorts: either entering the program in the fall (a day class program) or in the spring (an evening class program). And Pharmacy Tech cohorts are built around hybrid learning, with a mix of in-person and online coursework. New for the 2023-24 academic year, the program will offer a winter-start cohort in addition to the fall start.

Over in the Health Careers Center on the Bend campus, a Pharmacy Tech lab is underway and students — cohorts are open to 20 students — are learning about intravenous medication preparation and sterile compounding.

Pharmacy technicians are integral to connecting patients with treatments. They prepare and package medications, from drugs that battle cancer to those that punch out a persistent cold. They calculate prescriptions — mixing, measuring, weighing — and fill orders. Techs help map out a patient’s overall medication plan to safely and effectively integrate all prescriptions. It’s an interactive, on-your-feet kind of career that blends technology with people skills.

“It’s a great way to be in the medical field but not have direct patient care all the time,” expressed Stephanie O’Bryan, director of the program. “Pharmacy technicians earn a good living, and you can work anywhere in the United States,” she added, referring to the national certification achieved through COCC’s one-year program, the only accredited training east of the Cascades in Oregon.

The state of Oregon ranks fourth in the nation in average hourly wage — at $21.75 — for pharmacy technicians, according to current data from the U.S. Department of Labor. A number of regional employers are routinely in contact for new hires, O’Bryan shared. “So many pharmacies are reaching out right now,” she said.

To learn more about a cohort-modeled health program, schedule an info session by visiting or contact COCC health careers outreach coordinator Jill Ridling at or 541-383-7518.

Find out how COCC’s spring term, beginning April 3, can help prepare you for your academic ambitions by visiting or calling 541-383-7700.

By Mark Russell Johnson, COCC Staff Writer

Image: COCC Pharmacy Tech cohorts are built around hybrid learning, with a mix of in-person and online coursework. New for the 2023-24 academic year, the program will offer a winter-start cohort in addition to the fall start.

COCC Pharm Tech program is cohort-modeled.