By Maggi Davis ’22
Marissa is in her first year of medical school at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson in New Jersey. She took two gap years after graduating from UVM to work for WIC. While in undergrad, she was actively involved in Feel Good. Read more about her experiences with applying to medical school, deciding to go into healthcare, switching majors, gap years, and community service. Some takeaway advice is, “Follow what brings you joy, because this path to healthcare is not easy to go down. This idea of humanity and connection is at the crux of life, so making sure to find things in this life that bring you joy outside of academics is so important to keep you grounded.”
Starting Medical School (during a pandemic):
The first year has been interesting but has academically been good. Socially, it has been extremely difficult to start a new program without the ability to create a support system. Before I started, I thought academics were going to be the hardest thing about medical school, but that has completely flipped and been an interesting challenge. Overall, it’s been ok, but that transition has been hard. I feel lucky with the pandemic. I was working when the pandemic started, and we went remote. My work picked up during the pandemic because there was a greater need. We didn’t have any demanding financial situation, though we are government funded – so it was interesting to see if we would still have funding. As a first-year medical student, we don’t have a ton of clinical experiences, so it was easier in that way to put our platform online.
It would be naïve to say that I know what type of doctor I want to be, but I know what interests me. The primary care aspect of medicine is what I’m drawn to most, though I haven’t had much exposure beyond that, so I may find I’m interested in something else in the future. What I really am looking forward to, that I have been exploring in my first year, is an intersection between medicine and advocacy. I came into medical school knowing this interest, but not fully knowing what it meant or even if it existed. To be specific, reproductive care is interesting to me because there is so much policy and politics around that topic that affects care in so many ways. Sexual health also has a lot of policy, healthcare for people incarcerated or for people who are in detention centers also centers around these social issues. This intersection is important to me, though I am still carving out my interest. That part of medicine is the most exciting to me, and I’ve seen a lot of that in primary care, but it doesn’t necessarily only exist there. For right now, that’s what I’m exploring.
Gap Years and WIC:
I studied nutrition in undergrad, and I was mostly always planning to take at least one year after graduation. I was studying abroad, so I knew that it wasn’t going to realistically work with timing to apply for medical school while still in undergrad. The pre health advisor, Cara Calvelli, advised me to take two years and I saw how that could be beneficial. During this time, I worked for the WIC program. It stands for Women, Infants, and Children. It is a federally funded state program under the USDA. WIC is a nutrition program that provides nutrition counseling to families, specifically pregnant women and children under 5. There is a lot of prenatal support and health-based education being given to people. There is a lot of advocacy around nutrition policy and access to healthcare coordination. I worked there for 2 years in the Boston area. Though WIC exists everywhere, I chose to move to Boston for social reasons and I knew I wanted to be in an urban setting.
Feel Good Involvement:
I started volunteering with Feel Good my first semester at UVM making sandwiches. I started because the people at the Activities Fair were super nice, and I was intrigued. I came into freshman year as an Environmental Engineering major, and I had ambitions to work in the clean water industry. Clearly that has changed since then. Feel Good in college was a way of volunteering and doing this fundraising work that led to empowering communities globally. I learned a lot about what it meant to be connected to things outside of school. It opened my eyes to these issues happening around me globally, and what it meant to look at healthcare from a global perspective. Feel Good helped ingrain the idea of working with people and helped teach me what it meant to educate about nutrition and sustainable food sources. Once I started learning about that, I found what I was really interested in, and found what that meant for me and my career. I became really involved with the club; I was co-President one year. When I came back from Study Abroad, I started volunteering with their Board of Directors my senior year, and I then became the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors to help at a national level as an alum. I was involved in both the UVM chapter and the National level, that gave me a lot of leadership experience. I was working with like-minded people, and I learned a lot in the organizational sense about what it means to run a non-profit, which I didn’t have experience in before. Feel Good catalyzed this mindset shift for me, I learned so much about how global issues connect people. Feed Good involvement was both super fun and opened a whole new world for me that helped to lead me down the path that I’m on now. In the pre-health sense, I had a lot of dissonance. I didn’t do any research in undergrad, and a lot of my time was spent with Feel Good. I felt like sometimes I was wasting my time or that it was wrong, or that I should be doing something else more directly relevant. I didn’t really have much pre-health mentorship within Feel Good, most other people were going into nonprofit work. Sometimes I felt a bit out of place, but now I do not believe I wasted my time at all. At the time, I didn’t know if I should be doing research or shadowing; ultimately, I chose not to, but I thought about it a lot when I chose to devote hours of my time to Feel Good. Cara told me something that I tell people now, about how you tell a story about yourself as an applicant. My story was never about hard sciences or grades, they were important, but they didn’t sell my story. The theme of my application story was about Feel Good and what it led to. I was recently talking about this idea of telling a unique story to undergrads involved in Feel Good, and about doing things that bring you joy instead of what you feel you should be doing.
Dismas House Living:
One of the biggest things Feel Good did for me was open this idea of connection to community and global issues. Before joining Feel Good, I was super focused on academics, and my future. Then, through Feel Good, I realized this world of policy issues and how healthcare is connected to so many things. And how it’s possible to be a humanitarian and a doctor. I lived at the Dismas house in Burlington. It is a transitional house for people in downtown Burlington coming out of prison. It is an interesting model, not a formal halfway house, one difference is that community members, mostly students, are invited to live in the house, not as a volunteer but just as a student resident. One of my professors was a part of the board of directors for it and was a big advocate for this house. I became close with him, and he influenced me in my decision to live there. I ended up living there my senior year of college, which was a cool experience. There was no project or academic connection. I lived there with 8 other people, mostly men, but there was one other woman. Mostly men transitioning from previous incarceration. We shared a kitchen, living room, and bathroom, so it was very cozy. Part of the program was to have community members come in and cook dinner. When living there, you had to attend at least 2 meals a day, so the sense of community was promoted. It opened my eyes so much to walking in other people’s shoes and seeing what other people go through. I felt like I was in such a unique position. People transitioning out of prison have so many authoritative figures in their life that they are expected to report to. I was not an authority figure; I was just a person living there who happened to be a student. I learned so much about people’s lives before, during, and after prison. It was so influential in what I’m interested in now. It was such raw humanity to live there, and it really made me want to go into medicine. Doctors and healthcare professionals hold a powerful influence and a unique snapshot of people’s lives. One person had cancer while he was in prison and told me all about what it meant to be shackled in a hospital and how he was treated. He had to be guarded and chained to the bed. I learned so many things that I would have never known. When I was living there, the house next to us was the UVM Men’s Rowing team, so it was so interesting to compare those two worlds. There was such a stark contrast within the same Burlington community, and even the same street. There’s so much going on behind doors that you may not realize. That experience opened up a lot for me, and I would have never known this house existed if my professor didn’t tell me because it is so well integrated into the Burlington community. It just opened my eyes to things that other people are experiencing or carrying with them. When I think about what kind of doctor I want to be, keeping people’s humanity and experiences they endured in mind is so important. Living there was influential in thinking about what type of provider I want to be and how I was going to make the most of my gap years.
I went through so many highs and lows when transitioning to a pre-med track. I’m happy to share the authentic version of how I got here. I realized engineering was not for me, I kept journals during that point in my life and I was considering medicine, I thought about nursing, I thought about a Master’s in Public Health, I was going to drop out and do Americorps – I really had no idea what I was going to do. Especially my second semester freshman year, I was all over the place, simultaneously I was applying to PEP and doubting that. I don’t know that there was ever a moment where I was sure of my track. At the end of senior year, after graduating UVM, I was considering taking the MCAT or enter a PA (Physician Assistant) program. Up until the day I was about to take the MCAT I was still deciding. I was worried I wasn’t performing as well as I should be academically. Most of my premed decision was continuing to take the classes in the hopes that I would figure it out and be able to apply to whichever program I wanted to. Early on, I decided I was interested in the healthcare field, but I wasn’t sure if that meant becoming an RD (Registered Dietician), or nursing or PA or MPH. I made the decision to just start taking the premed classes because that was the most demanding requirements, so in case if I did apply to medical school, I would have all the requirements. Choosing nutrition was part of the transition to healthcare. I didn’t have one moment where I decided. This is why, again, when you talk to a lot of different people it can be helpful, but to a certain degree, it could be overwhelming. Every decision felt like the end of the world because of all the pressure. Health care is a rigorous field, no matter which part you go into, you’re expected to know a lot.
Medical School Application Process:
There’s so much I could say about my application process. I feel like I have an arsenal of advice for younger students. If I had to say one sentence of advice it would be to feel solid in the things that will keep you grounded and in your support system. It is an extremely long process and there’s a lot of waiting around and sending application materials into the abyss, not knowing if they got there or when you’re going to hear back, so there’s not always a clear timeline. I remember I was doing this running race with my coworkers and we were training together, and it was so therapeutic. Especially at that time because I was right in the middle of the application process. I had been so anxious because there was no timeline, and it was unsettling to send in my application and they say, “We’ll get back to you in 1-10 months”, and you don’t really have any control beyond that. You don’t want to waste a year of your life waiting, because it can easily turn into that if you let it, so actively fighting against that, for me, was really important. More specifically, I could talk about how much Cara and the Health Professions office helped me for days, and that is not an advertisement. I wouldn’t be here in this program if I didn’t lean into her advice. It is important to decide who you are going to take advice from, because people are going to tell you all sorts of different things. Especially in the health care track, there are so many different opinions, and the field is changing so much. Mentors that are your parents’ friend or people you have shadowed have had such a different experience from what we are going to have, so just make sure to keep that in perspective. Take advice with a grain of salt and make sure to find people that you trust. It can get really clouded with different people’s opinions, especially when taking advice found online. There are a lot of forums in the premed space, it can be helpful to hear different people’s experiences, but also you must be able to draw firm boundaries of what advice you will take without finding yourself knee deep in all these opinions from the internet.