Unique experiences and interactions: A different learning environment for students
Students at medical schools everywhere have their up and down days. They listen to lectures and try to make sense of hundreds of new concepts sent their way in a span of a few hours. The multiple textbooks they carry to class are heavy, and the long hours are exhausting.
However, students at Penn State College of Medicine say that is where the similarities with their program end. What sets Penn State apart from other medical schools is the manner in which students are taught, the experiences available to them and the interactions with professors as colleagues, rather than as superiors, according to Brian Sykes, Class of 2012.
“When looking at medical schools, I could have only hoped to find the same environment [I had as an undergraduate]—one that fosters the same professor-student relationship, one that encourages taking risks but knowing someone is there to back you up, one that believes in a theory of learning through unique opportunities and out-of-the-ordinary lesson plans rather than textbooks,” he says. “Penn State College of Medicine provided this and more. Its professors want you to do well.”
That is not something that happens by chance either, according to Dwight Davis, M.D., associate dean for admissions and student affairs.
“We work hard as a faculty to create an open, collaborative, friendly, and warm environment among our students,” he says. “One of the things that is very important to me and most of our faculty is once we’ve accepted a student, there is a clear understanding that we have committed ourselves as a faculty to making that student successful.”
Before any of that begins, Davis and his colleagues must determine which students would be the best fit for their program. While most of students who apply to medical schools each year are academically adept, those accepted to Penn State have many other attributes.
“We look for diversity in the broadest sense of the word,” he says. “We look for diversity in where they come from, the environments they grew up in, their background, their educational programs and colleges attended, and the kinds of activities that make up their background.”
Of the approximately 5,000 applications Penn State College of Medicine receives each year, only 145 students are selected for the incoming class. From the moment they begin their orientation, each of these students is paired with a faculty member who serves them through graduation in what is known as the Advisory and Clinical Skills Program. In the first two years the faculty member works closely with the student on fundamental clinical skills they will need when they enter years three and four.
“It is really about helping students transition to medical school, promoting academic success, and serving as a contact person if they experience difficulty in any aspect of their life,” explains Maryellen Gusic, M.D., associate dean for clinical education. “That faculty member serves as an advocate for the student, making sure [he or she] progresses.”
It was this type of mentoring that attracted Niti Sardana, M.D. (’10) to Penn State. She had gone to a small undergraduate college and knew her professors well. “I was looking for a medical school where I could be mentored,” she remembers. “When I visited, I knew there was a lot more here than met the eye.”
When she needed to find a mentor for her medical student research project, she turned to Timothy Craig, D.O.
“I was only a first-year medical student, and he was so encouraging,” she says, adding that he continued to mentor her for four years. “He was a well-known allergist with a busy schedule, who took the time to mentor me.”
In addition to its many mentor and advisory programs, Penn State also attracts students because of its reputation as the first school in the nation to formalize its commitment to primary care and humanism in medicine.
“Humanities exist in all parts of our curriculum,” says Carol Whitfield, Ph.D., associate dean for pre-clinical curriculum. “Many students say they get interested in medicine because of the humanities—they want a practice that looks at patients more so than the dollars. It is incredible to me that the same emphasis isn’t at all medical schools.”
In their first year at Penn State, students are introduced to a family with a chronic medical problem, and they must follow them for a year. They also have a preceptorship where they spend a week in a physician’s office related to family medicine. These types of problem-based experiential learning situations are present throughout the students’ four years of schooling.
However, for Sykes, the best humanities experience didn’t happen in the classroom, but while participating in THON, an annual fundraiser to support The Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
“The greatest lesson I could have learned in medical school was watching these bald-headed kids run around with smiles on their faces,” he says. “It made me realize that medical school isn’t about me and my exhaustion; it isn’t about these disease processes. It’s about curing these kids; making them kids again and not just patients. It’s treating the whole patient, not their chart. It’s about humanities, and that’s what Penn State can teach you.”
Another aspect of the Penn State College of Medicine experience that students often mention as a defining quality of their education is the relationship they have with their classmates. Whether they are helping to study for a test, sharing class notes, giving advice or just providing encouragement, there is a true sense that they are in it together.
“We try to make it clear that they are part of a very important community in terms of their own classmates,” explains Davis. “I think it has become a part of our tradition, and certainly I hope a legacy that this medical school is a place where students work very hard, but support each other. We do everything we can as faculty, but it starts with the students.”
–By Jean Waverka