Ellie McCluey | October 27, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire world to a standstill: programs shut down, school was postponed, and normal day-to-day activities were halted. Rather than surrendering to defeat, however, Vanderbilt pre-med student Isabelle Newman found a way to mimic a sense of normalcy. When in-person shadowing opportunities for Vanderbilt students were brought to a sudden halt, Isabelle was forced to think outside the box. Her solution? Designing an entire class, from scratch, to act as an alternative shadowing experience for pre-med students.
Unbeknownst to many pre-med students, the Association of American Medical Colleges has defined and outlined 15 Core Competencies that they believe prospective medical students should have developed during their undergraduate education. The 15 competencies fit into one of four categories: Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Thinking and Reasoning, and Scientific Competencies (Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students, n.d.).
The myriad of required scientific and humanities courses offered at Vanderbilt demonstrate the predominant emphasis in undergraduate education on the development of Scientific Competencies and Thinking and Reasoning skills. However, the dramatically undervalued Interpersonal and Intrapersonal abilities are arguably the most important skills for pre-med students to develop. Skills like service, communication, cultural awareness, ethics, and resilience are much less accentuated in our undergraduate education, yet much more valuable for a career in healthcare. Isabelle recognized these deficits in the pre-med education and designed her virtual program with the goal of bridging the gap between the educational and characteristic Core Competencies.
Unfazed by her status as an underclassman, Isabelle independently reached out to several doctors, created a Brightspace page, and ultimately launched a virtual shadowing program for students. With over 500 students enrolled and 15 physicians on board, the first round of the program was strikingly successful. She found that in a time of uncertainty and adversity, physicians were enthusiastic and grateful to have an opportunity to speak to the next generation of doctors and make a positive difference in young students’ lives.
Aside from providing students with invaluable skills and exposure to physicians, the program increased accessibility for racially and financially underrepresented students in medicine. The enrollment of 72 more students requiring financial help than average and 11 more students from underrepresented racial backgrounds than average signified that the program substantially increased opportunities for these students.
Now, two years later, the program has developed into a full-fledged class offered under the Medicine, Health and Society area of study. Titled Introduction to the Medical Professions, the class is taught by HPAO Director, Dr. Michelle Grundy. What was originally designed as a substitute program during COVID has now become a valuable and unique asset to the Vanderbilt community.
What happens in this course? The class meets once a week, and each week a new physician is invited to speak to the class. Speakers often elaborate on their decision to pursue medicine and describe their unique path to becoming a doctor. Each doctor also discusses the importance of their designated core competency and shares personal experiences relating to that competency. These first-hand anecdotes help convey to students the dynamic nature of the medical field. Importantly, the class is designed to be engaging and interactive; students are encouraged to ask questions about anything, from a doctor’s work-life balance, their undergraduate experience, and to their reasons for choosing a certain specialty. Each doctor strives to educate students on the importance of the Core Competencies and gives direct insight into the countless paths available for achieving their goals.
Isabelle’s story is not necessarily reflective of the typical Vanderbilt experience. From her sophomore year to the fall of her senior year, she created an entire class from scratch. Her story truly demonstrates the lasting benefits of resilience and strong leadership. When asked what advice she would give to underclassmen looking for positions of leadership, she emphasizes the importance of trying new things and putting yourself out there. She stresses that, “If you don’t love something, you don’t have to do it, but if you don’t try it, you’ll never know”. Her last piece of advice is to do things because you love them, rather than for a resume. It is common for pre-med students to get caught up in the mindset of doing things simply because they will look good on an application. However, Isabelle highlights the importance of doing things you are truly passionate about because ultimately, they will shine through on an application and become the most meaningful experiences of your college career.