Western Med Sci During the Pandemic: The Transition to University Learning, Newfound Extracurricular
By Helia Hatam Tehrani
Hi, my name is Helia, and I am a Medical Sciences Student at Western University going into my third year. In this article, I will be discussing my journey transitioning into the university lifestyle. I will also talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic shifted this transition process as well as my involvement with extracurriculars.
Since when did you know you wanted to specifically enter this program? What made this program unique for you?
I only immigrated to Canada in Grade 9; this was my first exposure to the education system, culture, and lifestyle. At this time, I had only heard of UofT, which was known as the most world-renowned and prestigious university in Canada. Naturally, I wanted to go there. However, I soon learned that in Canada, the program matters more than the prestige associated with the university. In grade 11, I learned about programs such as Health Sciences at McMaster University and Medical Sciences at Western University. I had always wanted to pursue medical school, but at that point, I didn’t know how that pathway would look. Thus, I wanted to experience an independent lifestyle away from home and started to consider programs outside of the GTA.
Western’s Medical Sciences program stood out to me for three main reasons. First, the organization of mandatory courses in first and second year are set up for your success, especially if you are looking to go into medical school. A lot of people prefer electives, but for me, I like the structure of mandatory courses because everything is organized for me and I don’t have to worry about prerequisite courses. Second, the courses and labs that are part of the program allow you to build upon your knowledge and skills in such a way that you are able to land research opportunities more effectively. In third and fourth year, the module specializations are very honed, specific, and interesting. You can even choose to be very focused with a thesis project, which allows you to get research experience and connections with professors. Finally, Western itself is an amazing institution. The campus and London’s community allow for you to expand on your interests and build your resume. I took all these factors into consideration when choosing my program.
What are some tips and techniques you wish to share regarding the academic transition from high school to university?
I like to think of myself as studious, and as such, I did not find the transition from high school to university as difficult as some of my peers. However, there were definitely some hard patches throughout the year that I had to work around.
I strongly encourage getting an iPad if financially possible to annotate slides during lectures because professors sometimes do not provide details they mention in lectures on their slides. If that’s not feasible, printing slides is ideal, especially when the lecture refers to diagrams. Especially this year, I realized the importance of having tidy notes. It’s more organized and logical, and you find that you don’t need to spend as much time studying for exams as a result. This year also taught me that studying for exams should take a 60% reviewing notes and 40% doing practice questions approach. No matter how much you review, you need to know how to apply the content that you learned, and how you will be tested. In order to get access to past papers and practice questions, request to be added to group chats and discords where upper year students often share these resources.
One of the most difficult adjustments that I faced in university would be the exam schedules, which consisted of consecutive exams for all your different subjects. I found it really useful to use prep courses like PREP101. Although it was expensive, I felt that I needed that extra help to review the material in a condensed manner, especially since I was tight on time. The prep courses also focus more on high yield topics, which was very beneficial.
Last but not least, I highly suggest that you attend office hours with valuable questions because it shows that you are engaged with the material being taught. Some students go to office hours with the mindset of establishing valuable connections. Although this is a good strategy, it’s important to remember that professors get many students in office hours. Professors will often remember the students that attend office hours with a willingness to learn, and who have valuable questions.
How did you establish good connections with your professors, especially when all classes are online and usually asynchronous?
I found finding connections with professors to be very challenging this year because of online learning. It’s tricky because you never want to overdo your efforts in making connections; it never leaves a good impression of you. Because office hours were all on Zoom, I chose to have a profile picture with my account and turned my camera on to establish a more personal, face-to-face connection with the professor. If something wasn’t clear in the teacher’s explanation, I made sure to continue conversations with the professor regarding the topic until I was clear on the concepts. It also prepares you for professor interactions in upper year courses. Class size will be smaller, and the opportunities for you to get to know your professor greatly increases; you don’t want to be afraid to approach your professors then.
The best advice I can give for students who are doing online learning is to take advice given by professors, apply it to scenarios outside of the course, and reflect back on said advice with the professor. For example, in my first cell biology lecture, my professor recommended a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I was curious to know what the book was about, so I started reading it. At this point in life, I wasn’t aware about the extent of racism and equity issues around the world, especially surrounding healthcare ethics. After reading a portion of the book, I emailed him and thanked him for his recommendation. In the email, I talked about how reading this book changed my perspective on many different topics. He responded back very quickly, and it was a very heartwarming reply. It made me realize that teachers really appreciate genuine feedback, and this one way for you to establish a great connection.
One of the extracurriculars that you were involved with this year was “sophing” for incoming first year students. Can you tell us a little about what sophing is? How was that experience, especially during the pandemic?
One of the things I found myself passionate about is mentorship; my ideology is to let people in on me, and show them who I really am. This said, I decided to apply to be a second year “soph” for incoming first year students.A soph is a first year student’s best friend. This could be an emotional friend, a social friend, an academic friend, etc. I was most passionate about academics and mental health, so I focused on providing mentorship regarding these topics as a soph. Before COVID-19 cases began to increase in London, I was living in one of the residences on campus. This gave me the opportunity to meet the first-year students on my floor in person and provide them with my contact for any form of support, and different avenues for academic leadership.
However, with the increasing COVID-19 cases, I soon became a virtual soph, and moved out of residence. This changed my form of mentorship; I would still constantly check in with them through online platforms, and provide guidance wherever possible. However, this was a bit difficult because it is much harder to establish connections when you’re not in person. I learned that you can’t force someone to rely on you, but those who are actively seeking guidance will know that you are there for them.
Sophing taught me the importance of choosing relevant extracurriculars. You can participate in many clubs, but it’s important to find what you are actually passionate about, and invest your time to the fullest. Sophing ultimately paved the path for me to be the academic and leadership programmer for a residence this upcoming school year.
You also co-founded Hygiene for Her this year during the pandemic. What inspired you to start this organization, and what makes it so special?
I saw that there were a lot of women-related clubs on campus, but only a few were centered around women’s health. I also come from a country that disregards a lot of women’s rights, and topics about feminine hygiene are not talked about, and are not taken seriously. However, the pandemic is what really inspired me to start Hygiene for Her. Many community centres which provided free menstrual and personal care products were closed due to lockdown protocols. I wanted to know how closures affected the women who took advantage of the products at these community centres. I made an effort to call women and homeless shelters in London, and asked about their inventory for women hygiene products. I learned that products were very scarce and many women were walking long distances to get these basic necessities. This broke my heart and thus, prompted me to fundraise for menstrual and personal hygiene products. I also wanted to provide volunteers to shelter homes and educate people about feminine personal hygiene. The concept of educating people was very important to me, because this project taught me that feminine personal hygiene is so much more than menstruation (consider hair care, the intricacies of the female body, etc.). It’s very exciting to see how much the team has grown now, and all the differences we continue to make in our local community!
What advice would you want to give to incoming first year Med Sci students?
I would say, hone your focus on academics, but allow your mind to explore. The connections made with professors, and all the information you learn in lectures will be important in your future. Also, don’t stress too much about extracurriculars, research opportunities and jobs, but don’t miss out on opportunities that are given to you! These experiences allow you to make more informed decisions; you may change your mind about your career along the way based on such opportunities. Last but not least, enjoy the process!
Interviewed and transcribed by Divya Balendra
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