Finding Your Voice as a Nontraditional Student

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PMY 521: Finding Your Voice as a Nontraditional Student

Session 521

This week, I speak with Dr. Maurice Shoals about the value of finding your voice and explaining your path as a nontraditional student.

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

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[01:45] Maurice’s Journey

Maurice is the first doctor in his family on all sides. He wanted to be a doctor since he was six years old. He did not know where it came from but it was a seed that stuck to his head.

He went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for college. It is a historically black college university in the south and it is known as an engineering school. It is also the same school where his dad and mom went to.

His dad really wanted him to be an engineer. In some ways, it was harder for him because he had to find his voice and his own path in spite of people that loved him and supported him pushing him in a different direction.

Maurice found it both easy and difficult because when you go to an engineering school but want to go to medical school, they don’t have the infrastructure put together. There was no premed advisement where they tell you what to do and how to do it. It just rolls. It was difficult because there was no roadmap and people were not super excited about it at the beginning.

But it was easy in a way that Maurice felt really actualized.

[03:38] Getting Support from Family

Family support is one of the biggest things that is important on this journey. Maurice shares about finding the support that he needed, and convincing his dad that this is what he was meant to be doing.

Maurice thinks there are two parts to it. The first part is understanding that the people that love you and really support you want to do that in every way, shape and form possible. For a dad, there is nothing you would not do for your baby. And no matter how big you get, if you have a great relationship with your parents as he does with his, he is never too big to be their baby.

So the first thing Maurice had to realize is that whatever his dad was giving him as feedback came from a place of love. It came from a place of him wanting him to win. This was choosing something that was outside of what he personally experienced and what was experienced in his world.

The second part was the importance for him to figure out how to explain his path to folks that loved and supported him. Maurice says if he cannot explain it to them, how could he convince an admissions committee that he should be picked?

“How can I convince somebody to take a chance on me as this typical non-traditional person that came from a place they usually don't find med students?”Click To Tweet

Maurice sees this as an opportunity for anyone to find a relatively friendly audience and figure out how to make their pitch. That’s part of the process.

[05:45] The Path of a Non-trad Student

It was different when Maurice was in school because he says unlike today, there was no ubiquitous connection to the internet. He did not have access to understand all that he was missing from these very structured, highly organized programs.

It did some good things for him and kept him from overthinking. You can’t compare yourself to somebody you never saw. He thinks that helped him in some ways because knowing all of that might have freaked him out and made him do worse.

“It kept me from being anxious about what I didn't have or didn't know.”Click To Tweet

He had the naivete to believe that if he filled out the information, turned it in on time and paid his money, that they would give him an interview. He was not really stressed about getting interviews.

For Maurice, it was a double edged sword. It saved him from a little craziness but it also made him go some extra steps. He did not have medical school applications sitting around like how it is being done now when you apply online. They had to actually send postcards to the school and request an application. They would send you and say, “When you send this back, send money, or don’t send it at all.” So that process was different and it took a little longer.

[07:45] The MD/Ph.D. Cycle Process

Some people apply to the MD/Ph.D. program when they apply to medical school. That is the first cycle. Some people apply to the Ph.D. program after they are already matriculating in medical school. That is the second cycle. Maurice was first cycle MD/Ph.D.

The vast majority of MD/Ph.D. come in the second cycle. There is no difference in the degrees. There is no difference in prestige. When you apply for a cycle, you make it a little harder because the slots are more limited. And when you get a first cycle MD/Ph.D. slot, it usually comes with money. So you’re not just competing for admission, you’re competing for money.

In college, Maurice says he did a fair amount of work over the summers. In the evenings, he did minority access to research careers on the MARC program. All those enrichment processes to help people that are interested in STEM get actual experience working with scientists. He did those things so he knew research was not foreign to him. He also knew that if he was going to medical school, this was the easiest way for him to get some money and he did not mind doing research.

“I was a natural fit for M.D./Ph.D. because I was broke and poor.”Click To Tweet

[09:31] Intentionality Matters

As a first-generation doctor coming from an HBCU, Maurice knew he needed all the credentials he could get to be competitive in leadership the way that he wanted to be. He did not know how he wanted to lead but he knew he wanted to lead and so he realized early on that he had to distinguish himself in some way.

That was another reason an MD/Ph.D. was a natural fit for him because he did not only get one but two terminal degrees.

“Intentionality matters, and not just in your medical school applications, but in your life in general.” Click To Tweet

It is not about having all the answers and knowing everything you need to know. It means that you need to be very clear about what you want to get out of whatever situation. 

Depending on what your interests are, that will shape how you do the experience which goes into applying to medical school.

It is one thing to be just recreationally hanging out. When you’re being intentional, you position yourself to be chosen. Maurice encourages people to be intentional about wanting to be chosen.

[12:44] Understanding Rejection

When you put yourself in a situation to be chosen, you’re also putting yourself in a position to be rejected. The fear of rejection is a powerful demotivator.

Life is about taking risks. Sometimes those risks lead to great rewards but they come at a cost and the cost is rejection.

Maurice says he does not have any magic bullet in telling people how to deal with rejection. Nobody likes it. He also hates it because he wants to win every time and he wants to get chosen every time.

But part of maturing and growing up means we have to figure out what happens when our best-laid plans go asunder and somebody does not pick us the way we want. When that happens, you can take the approach that there’s a time, a place in space for everything. Sometimes rejection is a way of gently redirecting you.

As cliche, as it sounds, when one door closes, another one opens. You have to have that mindset to allow that. You also have to give yourself grace to allow that a rejection of you in a space, is not a rejection of you as a person. Those don’t go together.

“The fact that someone didn't choose you, doesn't mean you're trash. That just means you weren't right for them, or what they thought they needed at that time.”Click To Tweet

[15:03] Maurice’s Story of Rejection

When Maurice was practicing in Atlanta, had a big successful program and was very excited about what was going on, the administration of the organization wanted to pivot and move in a different direction. It was not consistent with the way he was leading his section.

That led to a business divorce. At the time, Maurice felt like he was being rejected by the organization, by his peers and co-workers. But it was actually a chance for him to pivot and look at employment in a different way.

Today, he is able to practice medicine but runs his own business as a medical operations expert. He also has a 501(c)(3) as a nonprofit. He spends his time connecting with and making a difference in places and spaces that matter to him.

Had it not been for that rejection in Atlanta, he said he never would have had the bandwidth to open up and understand that this kind of life was possible. 

“Sometimes, rejection is the little push we need to take a step in a direction that seems scary.”Click To Tweet

[18:12] His Life Mission

Maurice shares that his mission in life is to bring out the message that he may be the first and only in some spaces, but he will never be the only and last.

He knows that so many people will be great at what he does. They just need a path and an opportunity. So rather than complaining about how underserved places and spaces are that he might be in, his focus has been to do something about it.

Maurice intentionally finds organized medical groups like the National Medical Association, of which he is a board member. He leads the New Orleans Medical Association, which are black physicians in New Orleans. He is also involved in larger organized medicine, like Orleans Parish and the American Medical Association.

He picked those kinds of things because he wants to be in rooms, placed in spaces with people that want to go places he is interested in going. It is either they have already been there and he also wants to go, or he has been someplace which they are looking to go. It helps you understand how medicine and what life is like, beyond your little bubble.

When he does those things, he can go back and tell his students that he does not have to pick between being a New Orleanian and a position. He paraded with Zulu. He is a member of Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, an organization founded in the early 1900s and is now a signature piece of Mardi Gras culture and structure. And he is also an MD/Ph.D. from Harvard.

Maurice is not either/or. He is both. There is value, language, and there is agency in both. 

A lot of times when kids are thinking about medical school, they think of the persons they know who are successful and did things a certain way. Therefore, they too have to do it that way in order to be successful. They make their square pit trying to fit in that round hole.

Maurice is here to tell this to all those people who feel they are not quite right:

“There is a place for you, and we can find it together.” Click To Tweet

[20:33] Connectedness for Underrepresented Groups

The internet is great for creating virtual communities all over the world but you also need to be very intentional about creating your in-real-life communities right there next door.

Everybody has access to a health care center. Some live in cities with medical schools. If you live in cities of medical schools, the easiest place to start is the National Medical Association or your student’s National Medical Association. There is the National Hispanic Medical Association as well.

All these underrepresented groups have places and spaces intentionally created where they gather together. Most of those places and spaces have very strong aspects of mentorship and mentoring. It’s part of what the organization was formed to do and part of what people that actually are active in these groups want to do. You just have to show up and ask them.

Maurice says, “I encourage people to embrace and find who they are, and embrace and find things that call to them.”

You never know what is going to make a difference for you and put you over, whether you are a traditional student or non-traditional, or whether you are from a majority group or underrepresented minority group.

[23:18] Human Connection During Interviews

Being able to connect human-to-human in your medical school interview could get you into that school because there was that human connection.

Interviews are about connecting. 

“When you apply, they have all the hard data, they have your test scores, they have your letters of recommendation, they have your grades, but they don't know you.” Click To Tweet

And that is the part that they really want to know about when they are going through the interview process. That also speaks to checking for who is checking for you.

Check where students from your school have gone to for med school and where people of your age have been accepted at higher rates in other places. If you’re an older student, you would not really spend a lot of time and effort on places that have no track record of anybody older than 25. That means they are not checking for you.

[25:43] Final Words of Wisdom

Be intentional. 

Know where you are looking at applying and why you are applying to those places. Ask yourself why you would pick someplace that is clearly not checking for you. You don’t want to fight that battle while you’re trying to figure out med school. There are other places that are perfectly fine, if not encouraging, of different points of view.

“The intentionality goes to finding places that reflect the values that you have, and are looking for people that bring the kind of expertise and cachet that you bring.” Click To Tweet

Build Community.

There is a power balance discrepancy that may put students in an awkward situation. If you are already in a situation where you feel like it’s not really settling around you, the best thing you can do is build community.

That community can be within the medical school or outside of the medical school because you need somebody to understand, get and resonate with you. That is a safe space for you to talk through things.

Before it gets unbearable, find your community and find people that pour into, rather than take out from you, because they are gonna help you get through that.


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Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club