In this week’s episode, you can learn all about our upcoming Clinical Volunteering Mixer from Carol Hagan, Associate Director of the Pre-Graduate & Professional School advising team. Meanwhile, Michael and Mylène talk about how to best feature volunteer experience on your resume and why volunteering is just as valuable as work experience. As usual, you also get a look at the week ahead and highlights of upcoming Career Services programs.
Friends told me that volunteering in a long-term care facility would be sad and depressing. “Why don’t you volunteer at a children’s hospital,” they said, “…where you can play games with sick kids who want to have a good time? After all,” they said, “nursing homes are just full of lifeless, hopeless people waiting to die.”
It turned out that this was not the case, as I discovered shortly after beginning my weekly visits to the Penn Center for Rehabilitation and Care, a nursing and rehabilitation center where patients suffer from a variety of debilitating diseases, including stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Instead of leaving my three hours of volunteering each week with a feeling of sullenness, I leave with a sense of satisfaction. I also leave with a much-needed boost in motivation to keep working through my pre-med course requirements because I am reminded of how much I want to be a doctor.
The patients at Penn Center have become familiar people to me, each with a unique personality and story to share. Melinda, a 73-year-old resident, who owned and managed a restaurant in south Philly for her entire adult life, waits for me outside her room every Friday at2 pm, the time each week when I arrive at the center and head towards the recreation room where I play the piano to entertain the residents and help run art class. “You remind me so much of my daughter,” she told me at least five times the first day I met her. I look forward to seeing her every week as well; as a student at a big anonymous place like Penn, it is a wonderful feeling to have someone eagerly and warmly awaiting my arrival.
My experiences at Penn Center illustrated for me the basic difference between caring for young children and caring for the elderly. Yes, the tangible tasks involved are often the same: they both need help eating, speaking, and going to the bathroom. However, helping an adult with such needs requires an important additional component: you must help them while also taking care to allow them to feel respected and dignified as adults. Volunteering at Penn Center also gave me the opportunity to hear really cool life stories from the residents, many of whom are eager to share them because they are happy to see a young and vibrant person who can take the time to listen. Ultimately, I have learned a great deal from volunteering at Penn Center about how to interact with sick people, but also from the wisdom of older patients who know a great deal about life in general.
We talk a lot about “professionalism” at Career Services and, on the whole, people seem to listen. The email I receive is invariably gracious and thoughtful and I routinely conduct mock interviews with well tailored and poised applicants. But what about outside the boundaries of “sincerely” and a clean white shirt? The qualities of professionalism beyond the reach of Emily Post are also important, particularly for pre-health students.
While working or volunteering in a clinical environment or research setting, it is vital that you conduct yourself in a professional manner. Lapses in professionalism make a strong impression on faculty and staff, not only in terms of your personal relationship with supervisors and colleagues, but in maintaining clinical and research opportunities for other pre-health students. How eager is Professor X going to be to offer a lab position to an undergraduate after two people have quit when mid-terms came up? Does the hospital need to give access to volunteers who bring their friends along with them to a shift or disregard other rules, all of them important?
Consider in advance whether the opportunity is a good fit. It’s unfortunate when volunteers do not fulfill their commitment to serve because they find their time unsatisfying.
Show up on time, be polite, and ask questions when uncertain. Follow all rules and procedures.
Be humble and open to all opportunities to learn.
Respect boundaries and your work environment. Patients are not friends. Flip-flops, for example, (and I do love them) are not appropriate or safe in the hospital or lab.
If you make a mistake, tell somebody. It won’t be easy, but communicating errors is seen as a sign of maturity and professionalism.
Access to a professional research or clinical environment is a privilege. Maintaining a positive attitude and open communication with your supervisors will help you make the most of your opportunity and ensure that others will do so in the future.
Health professions schools expect applicants to have had some exposure to clinical situations before applying. I often advise applicants not to expect interviews or offers of admission without it. Why!? Because it isn’t hard enough to meet the official requirements? And what is clinical exposure? What are schools looking for and how much is enough?
For starters, this pre-health advisor sympathizes with the puzzlement over the term “clinical exposure.” I don’t care for it much and it always makes me think of those paper dressing gowns at the doctor’s office. If you come to Career Services for an advising appointment (and we hope you do), you are likely to hear someone use an elegant description like, “getting around sick people and doctors.” Working in a lab is not clinical exposure. Even if the lab is at the hospital. Even if someone in your lab is sick. Clinical research might be clinical exposure. If you are reviewing patient charts (which is a fine research opportunity, by the way), then no. Administering tests to subjects or recruiting subjects in the ER, then yes. Examples of ways to obtain clinical exposure include volunteering or working as a: hospital volunteer in a patient area, EMT, hospice volunteer, clinical researcher interacting with patients/subjects, or volunteer in a rehabilitation or mental health care facility. Shadowing a physician, yes; however, while shadowing is great, few applicants gain many hours shadowing and taking a more active role as an employee or volunteer is recommended in addition to shadowing. Volunteering in high school? Super, but you will want more recent experiences to put on your application. Eating a cheeseburger at the hospital cafeteria…no. Measuring your roommate’s gum recession…no. Dating a third-year med student…nice, but no.
So, why do schools expect this? What is the best thing to do and how much clinical exposure should you have? Health professions schools invest a great deal in their students’ training and they want people who are committed and have a very good idea of what lies ahead. They want applicants who are thinking beyond “getting in” and have considered their motivations, abilities, and general “fit” for the field. By spending time around patients, you demonstrate your curiosity about the field and, hopefully, gain a sense of the real rewards and challenges of working in health care. Most likely, either you will confirm your interest in the field and gain insight into the aspects you like the most or you may find that health care is not for you. Certainly, there are people who, through their clinical volunteering, considered alternatives to a medical or dental degree and are now happily working both in and out of health care.
As for how much, I am not sure you can have too much clinical exposure and it’s a good idea to think about it early — not as you are filling out your application. It takes some time to arrange clinical opportunities. Every applicant is different and some people will have years of clinical exposure and some will have months and they may end up as classmates at the same graduate school. Truly, I think the best clinical exposure is one that reflects your interests and where you made the most of your opportunity to help others and learn about the field. Whether you are asking patients to step on a scale, restocking bandages, or administering a questionnaire to a study participant, you will want to take in everything going on around you and reflect upon what you do and see. Your level of mental and emotional engagement will contribute to your thinking about your career. Also, the more you take in, the more you can share in your application essay or interview in a truly personal and reflective way. So, expose yourself! (In a legal, professional, and medically relevant manner.)