Holly is a woman, a wife, a mother, and a year 1 medical school student. But is that all that she is? These are just labels that have been given to her by others. I’ve known Holly now for around 1.5 years and she is much more than those labels…….she’s amazing is what she is. Being a non-traditional single mother while pursuing my PhD in Biochemistry at UKY, I know how tough it is. Let’s follow Holly throughout the next four years and see how she learns, the events that shape her, and how her perceptions change as she starts facing adversity in her chosen career path. This is part I of our interview. Thank you Holly for being a part of my new adventure on helping other non-traditional students achieve success while in graduate/medical school!
You have just entered into medical school a few weeks ago. Congratulations by the way. How do you feel?
The excitement still has not worn off. Mostly feeling immense gratitude for where I am, both in my life as a human and specifically at WFSM. I’m tired but obnoxiously content.
Do you think there are noticeable differences between you and other students?
No, not super noticeable, except for how mom-ish I dress sometimes. Maybe it’s the tretinoin (works super well btw), but nearly everyone I meet is shocked to learn that I am over thirty, so I guess that helps me blend in a bit. I think if I had to pick something non-physical that distinguishes me a little from most other (i.e. younger) students, it would be my perspective and how it influences things like my comfort level talking to patients and strangers; my willingness to try and potentially fail in public; my response when life doesn’t go as planned; and my incalculable sense of wonder, awe, and gratitude. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a complete mess sometimes and can lose sight of the bigger picture(s) from time to time, but I am carrying ten extra years of strife, mistakes, regrets, achievements, and joys compared to most of my classmates, so perhaps my baseline capacity for perspective stretches a little further and stands a bit sturdier than that of an average 22-year-old.
Oh, and motherhood. I think I’m one of two parents in a class of 136. That stands out a bit.
Do you feel like you are a non-traditional student? If not why? If so why?
“Non-traditional student” means so many things these days. Talking to my classmates, I’d say at least a third of them if not up to half consider themselves non-traditional. A good number took a year or two or three off—what “off” means varies quite a bit from person to person—in between undergrad and med school with some pretty amazing experiences in between from the Peace Corps and world travels to teaching high school, completing a Master’s degree, and/or working in a lab. Others worked for five or ten years in a totally different industry before deciding to pursue an MD. Before orientation began, I was very curious to find out if I was going to be the oldest student in the class of 2021, but as it turns out I am only the fourth or fifth oldest! That was pretty shocking (and AWESOME). So far during school I have not yet felt that pang of being the odd one out. However, the AFTER school and late-night scenes play out very different for me compared to the young-uns.
So to answer the question, I consider myself a non-traditional student, and I guess I feel non-traditional now that I’m being asked directly, but that feeling isn’t obvious to me. When I stop to think about it, I am so glad to be a non-traditional student; really wouldn’t have it any other way.
How have you managed your personal life in order for you to complete your first semester?
Ha! Well we just started. As a geographically single mother (spouse will be visiting once or twice a month on weekends), I do intend to make great use of the before and after care at my kids’ school. My mother or husband will be coming to stay (i.e. tend to the kids) during the weeks I have big exams. I’ve already found a really great study partner, and I love that the rest of my classmates have so far been very willing to learn from each other, teach each other, and proactively create/share opportunities for growth. We (class of 2021) recognize very clearly that we are all in this together, and someday every one of us will be a physician routinely relying on and trusting a vast network of other medical professionals all with the collective goal of caring for humans; this ain’t no competition.
I really got off track there. Honestly, I won’t have much of a personal life besides raising my family; that’s all I really want in addition to school anyway.
Do you believe that offering non-traditional students access to accommodations would be beneficial to both the student and the academic institution? Explain.
Yes, and I feel like the reasons should be obvious. (I mean, who would respond no?) Reasonable accommodations (i.e. equity adjustments) for students that have responsibilities beyond school or have unique, personal challenges certainly benefit the student herself. The diversity (of experience? of culture? of perspective? of priorities?) that non-traditional students bring to a class enriches the entire class’ medical school experience beyond simple exposure. Through daily collaboration with people unlike me I am learning all sorts of things about myself and how to be a more effective communicator, student, medical provider, friend, and human being. The students benefit tremendously from having classmates who are not all the same, and as such the school itself benefits in graduating a more robust and balanced class of physicians, the “parents” of whom were the educators, staff, curriculum, and policies of the school. Like parents, I think a school aims to be proud of the graduates it shaped, and the school’s name becomes permanently attached to each.
What accommodations could you see yourself using as a non-traditional student?
I am a geographically single mother of two. Below is a short list of the “accommodations” (many have been made policy and as such benefit all students, not just the non-traditional ones) offered/instituted by WFSM.
- For our first few years, nothing mandatory occurs outside of M-F from 0800-1700.
- Mandatory classes/events are meaningful and mandatory for a reason.
- Massive variety of wellness services, activities, and counselors. There’s something (besides medicine) for everyone, and the options seem to expand and evolve with each new class.
- Access to pretty much EVERYTHING (resources, lectures, lessons, school email, etc.) from home.
- Practically 24/7 accessibility to the school.
- Understanding (i.e. reasonable accommodations) if an emergency involving my child arises.
- Built-in study time for big exams (i.e. the week of and day before are much lighter than a regular day).
- Mentorship/sponsorship of lowerclassmen by upperclassmen with similar experiences and challenges.
What are some expectations you have of yourself and medical school this semester?
I expect that I will be challenged mentally and intellectually, I will question myself and the methods, I will love a great deal of every minute but also struggle to enjoy some moments, I will grow more confident and empathetic with patient interactions, I will sow the seeds for lifelong friendships with my classmates, I will cry, I will call my mom A LOT, and I will study my rear end off. I expect that to a large degree my medical school experience will be what I choose to make of it, particularly in opportunities I will seize or create for myself and others. We’re adults now (okay, I’ve been a functioning, mildly successful adult for quite some time, but here I’m speaking of my class as a whole), like legitimate this-is-your-life-and-you-must-take-the-reins adults, and everything we do from here on out is basically a choice. We’re all choosing to continue along this trying, expensive, time- and life-consuming path, but I for one am very happy about it and know I am exactly where I should be.