From the moment they arrived at WMed last year, the COVID-19 pandemic had an immense impact on students in the MD Class of 2024.
It affected how they interacted with instructors, requiring a hybrid model of virtual learning and in-person presentations with small groups after they arrived to the medical school in the summer of 2020. Even more, the pandemic required the students to think outside of the box for Active Citizenship, a novel and longitudinal program at the medical school that empowers first-year learners to volunteer and partner with community organizations in Kalamazoo and see firsthand how they – as medical students and future physicians – can and will have an impact on improving the health systems in which they work.
“WMed has been an innovative thought leader on service learning since its creation,” said Matt Longjohn, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, who serves as a co-course director for Active Citizenship. “Service has never been so important and learning has never been so hard. In the midst of that, the Class of 2024 helped us reorganize this Active Citizenship course for the future and set a path for service learning at WMed for the next decade.”
Active Citizenship is a 15-month endeavor that begins for WMed students during their first year at the medical school. Students in the Class of 2024 each logged at least 48 hours of community service during that span for a total of more than 4,000 service hours.
The service learning took place during an array of different projects and initiatives, whether it was time spent handing out free meals, volunteering at local COVID-19 vaccination clinics, or working with elementary, middle, and high school students as part of the Early Introduction to Health Careers (EIH) pathway program. In other instances, students helped organize an underwear drive for women and children at YWCA Kalamazoo or spent time at the YMCA of Kalamazoo where they helped support the organization’s after-school and child care programs for the children of essential workers.
“In spite of the pandemic, students found a way to continue the work within Active Citizenship,” said Cheryl Dickson, MD, MPH, associate dean for Health Equity and Community Affairs, who leads the Active Citizenship program at WMed. “Students created new programs, including Young Doctors at Milwood Elementary in Kalamazoo, and they continued the important work in our other pathway programs in a virtual format.”
Dr. Dickson said she and Dr. Longjohn focused their efforts around Active Citizenship in equipping students with the core concepts around healthcare systems integration and understanding the best ways to work with the community.
“We really zeroed in on the integration of health systems science and logic models, not just going out and doing service work but really learning about the impact of that work and what can be done within the health systems to improve the issues the students see,” Dr. Dickson said. “The students really stepped up and saw how they can make a difference. I think students in the Class of 2024 will be the class that carries this experience during the pandemic with them and I think it will make them better clinicians.”
M2 Peter Awad, who worked with high school students in the EIH 2 pathway program during Active Citizenship, said the experience gave him and other fellow students the opportunity to teach the high schoolers about the different career paths in healthcare, including monthly sessions where they got to hear a “day in the life” presentation from a medical professional. WMed students also served as mentors and put together presentations for their mentees about how to apply for college or summer research programs, career planning, and how to write personal statements, among other things.
“We tried to give the students a really comprehensive experience and help them feel more confident about careers in the healthcare field,” Awad said. “We wanted to give them this experience and have them decide for themselves whether this is something they want to do.”
Awad said the COVID-19 pandemic made the work students did for Active Citizenship more challenging because it made engaging with the high school students more difficult. Still, he said he was inspired by the opportunity to try to impact the students in a positive way.
“One thing I’m going to take away from this experience is that if there is a goal that we want to achieve, it’s important to realize that the path to achieving those goals is never going to be straight forward and it’s impossible to predict the obstacles we will face,” he said. “While the pandemic has had a negative impact in so many ways, the fact that so many people at WMed have found ways to still make a positive impact is something I find inspiring.
“We’re building a class of physicians here that is really dedicated to addressing health problems in the future,” he added.
Awad and his classmates in the Class of 2024 officially completed Active Citizenship on December 9, capping the course off with a symposium in TBL 2 at the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus. The event included more than a dozen presentations from groups of students recapping the projects they participated in.
The presentations and projects covered an array of topics, from vaccine clinics and addressing vaccine skepticism and hesitancy to inspiring young students to be a part of the future healthcare workforce and preventing the consequences of hunger and food insecurity.
M2 Sam Natla was part of a group of students at the symposium who talked about their experience providing health screenings to patients facing unstable housing. Prior to the symposium, Natla said his group provided the screenings at Kalamazoo Gospel Ministries.
Natla said the effort began with simple blood pressure checks but grew to include diabetes screenings, medication distribution, and general wellness exams.
“The work really gave us an understanding that the patients we were helping had individual and specific needs that we might not have initially considered,” Natla said. “And if we can develop empathy and understanding for what they are going through and care about that, we can do that for any patient base in the future. It really gives a sense of meaning to what we do and why we’re here.
“We’re here to help people,” Natla said.