Finding Joy in Challenging Circumstances

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PMY 554: Finding Joy in Challenging Circumstances

Session 554

Join us today as Sam, a newly accepted medical student, recounts his unique path to medicine while prioritizing and balancing family life.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

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

Early Inspiration to Become a Doctor

Sam grew up with parents who struggled with opioid use disorder. He took on the role of caring for his mother from a young age, as early as 10-12 years old, which involved managing her medications. This exposed him to the effects of substance use disorder from a young age.When Sam was 10-11 years old, his mother overdosed. Sam was the one who found her and called 911. He remembers sitting in the hospital the next morning when a doctor took time to sit with and explain things to him.

This was Sam’s first experience meeting a doctor and seeing how they cared for patients, which sparked his interest in becoming a physician to help people in similar situations.

“Being able to struggle and learn is the most important part of this for me, and it’s fun to look back and think about the journey and appreciate it.”

Later experiences like volunteering in medical settings like the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and interacting with babies born dependent on opioids further inspired Sam, as he saw how doctors could help families like his own.

Challenges in College

In his first two years of college, Sam struggled academically with a low GPA. He attributes this to prioritizing caring for his mother’s needs over focusing on his studies. His relationship with his mother was a distraction from his academics. Even though Sam was inspired to become a doctor, he faced challenges in balancing family responsibilities with his education in those early college years.

Sam transferred schools to get a fresh start. At his new school, he took a class from a professor who had been teaching for 38 years and taught Sam a new mindset of studying for understanding rather than just to avoid failure.

“I care more about understanding than I do about failing. I found joy in the fact that I can understand things.”

With this shift in perspective, Sam was able to improve his study habits and performance. He brought his GPA up significantly in his last years of college. He also achieved good MCAT scores. This upward academic trend was important for his medical school applications.

Dealing with Self-Doubt Due to GPA Concerns

Sam openly acknowledges the persistent thoughts and doubts that plagued his mind. When Sam applied to medical school, his GPA became a focal point of concern. With a cumulative GPA of 3.05 and a science GPA of 2.97, Sam recalls that these numbers occupied his thoughts as he constantly questioned himself.

However, Sam emphasizes that his low grades were primarily influenced by his performance during the first two years of college. After that period, he experienced a significant turnaround. Over the past two and a half years, Sam managed to achieve a GPA close to 3.9, showcasing his remarkable growth and untapped potential.

Finding Faith in Accomplishments

Despite his initial concerns, Sam performed well on the MCAT. It may not have been an extraordinary achievement, but it was good enough.

Looking back on his journey, Sam acknowledges that moments of self-doubt were not uncommon. However, he has come to understand that these challenges and uncertainties are integral parts of personal growth.

Sam firmly believes that embracing these experiences will provide immense value to him as an individual in the future.

The Power of Boundaries and Unwavering Support

Sam emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries, acknowledging that these conversations can be incredibly challenging. After caring for someone for an extended period, prioritizing his family became necessary. At that point, Sam’s family consisted of him and his wife. Through this process, their bond grew stronger, as they always do when faced with difficult situations.

Sam expresses deep gratitude for his wife, describing her as an unwavering pillar of support in his life. She has played a pivotal role in helping him believe in himself, even when he doubted his own abilities. While Sam always had the underlying belief that he could pursue medical school, his wife’s unwavering faith cemented that belief. It allowed him to dedicate himself fully to his academic pursuits, research, and other endeavors.

Together, they have navigated the challenges and triumphs along the way, growing closer and finding strength in one another. Sam recognizes that his wife’s unwavering support has been instrumental in his achievements, enabling him to succeed academically and excel in various aspects of his life.

“Everybody has their journey, and everybody gets to take their own journey and learn their own way.”

Shifting Mindsets and Embracing Gratitude: Sam’s Transformative Journey in Pursuit of Knowledge

Recognizing the need for change and realigning his goals, Sam made the difficult decision to take off the spring 2021 semester. Engaging in tough conversations with his mother, they worked together to redefine their aspirations.

During those three months, Sam dedicated himself to learning, focusing on the fundamental skill of understanding. This period of introspection marked a significant shift in his mindset.

From Fear to Joy: Redefining the Purpose of Study

Sam highlights a common fear among undergraduate students—the overriding worry of failure that often dominates their thoughts. He shares that he experienced a pivotal transition where he began to prioritize understanding over the fear of failing.

An influential mentor entered his life when he transferred schools, a professor with 38 years of experience. Their friendship blossomed, and this wise mentor guided Sam towards embracing the joy of learning. It transformed his perspective on studying, emphasizing that it should stem from love and genuine fascination.

“There’s this overarching fear of failure that fills the minds of students, and we study because we want to avoid failing.”

The Power of a Grateful Mindset

For Sam, the key was not simply adhering to specific study techniques or relying solely on online resources like YouTube. Instead, the most significant change occurred within his mindset. He shifted from studying out of fear to studying out of gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to learn.

Although it didn’t mean he was constantly happy, Sam embraced a deep sense of gratitude for his circumstances. Growing up with simplicity, he developed a genuine contentment and enthusiasm for every step along his journey.

The Application Process

Sam offers a unique perspective on the application process, acknowledging that his GPA may not have been the most competitive. However, he made the decision to apply based on a deep understanding of himself and what truly mattered to him, his family, and his wife. Sam had spent significant time engaging in introspection, contemplating his values and priorities.

He firmly believed that if he could authentically convey his true self during the application process, everything would fall into place. While it may be easy for him to express this now, in that moment, he genuinely felt that staying true to his character and being self-reflective were the most crucial aspects. Whether he was accepted or not, Sam understood that the opportunity to try again was a beautiful thing.

When considering pursuing a master’s degree or post-baccalaureate program before applying, Sam acknowledged that it was a potential option on his radar. However, he ultimately decided to apply directly from his undergraduate degree. He felt confident in his application and the story he wanted to convey. He understood that others may require additional academic preparation before applying.

In the event he didn’t receive early acceptance, Sam had a plan to take classes during the spring semester to strengthen his application. While he recognized the existence of SMP/DIY programs and alternative paths, his focus as an MD-only applicant was on a specific specialty that aligned with his preference for an MD degree.

Ultimately, Sam applied broadly to 37 medical schools. He utilized advising services to strengthen his application materials like his personal statement, which he drafted and revised extensively over many iterations with feedback.

How the Mock Interviews Helped Him

Sam said that the mock interviews, especially with the advisor Dina, were “life changing” in preparing him for the real thing. At first, he thought he would be fine just talking in interviews, but the mock interviews revealed areas he needed to improve.

Specifically, he struggled with the MMI (Multiple Mini Interview) format at first, fumbling over his words with no clear direction in the responses. This showed him that it’s not just about having a framework, but truly being introspective about why certain issues are important to him and how that relates to who he is.

The feedback from Dina helped him recognize that the goal is to use the interview as an opportunity to explain who you are to the interviewers. Once he shifted to that mentality of making his responses a reflection of his character and values, he found the MMI interviews to be more enjoyable.

Ultimately, the mock interviews helped Sam gain confidence in telling his unique story in a way that would resonate with interviewers.

“They say there’s no right and wrong answers. And I think there is a wrong answer – if you don’t explain who you are, by your answer.”

Overcoming Self-Doubt

The most stressful part of the application process for Sam was worrying about how to portray his background and story in a positive light. He came from a challenging upbringing with parents who struggled with substance use disorder.

While he was grateful for the experiences it gave him, he knew aspects of how he grew up could come across negatively. He spent a lot of time concerned with framing things in a way that showed how he drew strength and purpose from his experiences, rather than focusing on negatives or eliciting pity.

It was stressful for Sam to find the right balance of transparency without it seeming like he was making excuses. He had to take a step back and realize it was okay to write from the heart about what he genuinely felt and cared about, rather than overly worrying about perception.

Receiving Acceptances

Sam received his top choice school acceptance very early in the cycle, on the first day decisions were released. The dean personally called him to discuss his acceptance. This validation after so much self-doubt was very emotional for Sam and allowed him to celebrate this accomplishment with his extensive support system who had helped him get to this point.

“It’s an accomplishment for an entire team. There’s no one person that can get into medical school alone.”

Once accepted to his top choice, Sam declined other interview invitations, showing how much this one acceptance meant to him.

Advice for Other Applicants

During times of challenge and setbacks, it’s essential to view them as opportunities rather than setbacks. Embracing self-reflection becomes paramount in understanding and reinvigorating your chosen path.

Sam believes that self-reflection has been the most transformative aspect of his educational journey and life overall. By deeply contemplating why he wanted to be a doctor and what truly mattered to him, Sam was able to stay true to his purpose. This authenticity guided him through the ups and downs, even if things didn’t unfold according to his ideal timeline.

Sam’s confidence stems from his self-reflection and gratitude for the opportunities he has been given. His biggest advice to others is to practice self-reflection and appreciate the chances that come their way.


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