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Challenge accepted: In Penn’s Pre-Health Programs, aspiring health professionals build an inspiring community

coursework can be adapted to virtual and remote delivery

Pivoting to online classes to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic introduced challenges—but also opportunities. Our innovative LPS community discovered new ways to stay connected.

As a program dedicated to educating future health professionals, it makes sense that Penn’s Pre-Health Programs would opt to keep courses remote through the fall of 2020—even as other universities and programs were tentatively scheduling on-campus courses. The sudden shift to remote learning in the spring and summer had taught faculty and administrators that they were capable of maintaining high-quality instruction at a safe distance. “I loved in-person classes, but I think the professors are doing an excellent job of getting us content and communicating well,” says Dean Wertz (Core Studies ‘21—expected). “I took a biology course over the summer, and they sent us a fetal pig and a lamb’s heart, brain, and eye to do dissection in our kitchens. I thought it was mind-blowing that they were able to pull something like that off.”

But while coursework can be adapted to virtual and remote delivery, some students missed on-campus opportunities to connect with their peers. "The Pre-Health classes are meant to be intense and demanding, and that's good because I wanted a program that would prepare me for the rigor of med school,” says Daniela Schmulevich (Core Studies ‘21—expected), “but my experience taking virtual classes has taught me that is that it's hard to engage with other students unless you really take the initiative." As the fall term approached, she felt concerned for incoming Pre-Health students who would be starting the program remotely, without having had the opportunity to meet in-person for student interest groups, study sessions, or informal conversations. So Daniela, Dean, and other executive members of the Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health Programs Society (PBS) worked together to come up with ways to keep everyone connected.

One initiative that emerged from the PBS board is the bimonthly CommuniTea events, which offer students the virtual equivalent of getting coffee together. Hosted by the PBS executive board, CommuniTeas invite Pre-Health students to sit down with a beverage and have an informal conversation on topics such as how to balance work while taking classes or where to look for research and tutoring opportunities. “We wanted to create a stress-free no-teachers kind of virtual gathering,” emphasizes Daniela, who is president of the PBS executive board. "It is a nice opportunity to see what new students are thinking, and for them to get to know our board members, who are so incredible—I cannot speak more highly of them,” says Daniela.

Another way to stay in touch: a podcast headed up by PBS executive board vice-president Dean, who has experience hosting college radio. “It’s called Penn Pals: Bringing Philadelphia stories to you from a distance,” says Dean. “With us being separated, it was a perfect opportunity to ring in the community a little bit.” Dean brings in guests to discuss topics in medicine with applications to the real world, particularly in Philadelphia, and he wants each episode to be accessible not only to Pre-Health students but to curious listeners who might not be as familiar with medical terminology. “It’s a lot of fun for me, and I think it’s cool content,” says Dean, whose interviewees have included senior medical scholars, a full-time teacher who takes Pre-Health classes at night, and a PhD candidate who is researching the therapeutic potential of Dungeons and Dragons.

PBS also sends out a monthly newsletter which illustrates the range of Pre-Health student interests: MCAT practice questions, interviews with alumni, mental health and wellness resources, and opportunities to volunteer, including neighborhood clean-ups, meal delivery, card- and letter-writing, tutoring grade school children for whom English is a second language, and sewing and distributing masks. “It has been really inspiring to see the extent to which fellow students are stepping up, taking on leadership roles, and trying to help one another during this very strange time,” says Daniela. Cait Cavarocchi, 2020 president of the Penn Future Women in Health club which coordinated mask donations, notes that many of the volunteer initiatives were coordinated across student groups with varying interests. “Our cohort works very well together, so I’m excited to keep the collaboration going,” she says. “It’s hard to remember when you’re pretty much alone, studying all the time, but we’re all here to do the same thing, and we can all get there together.”

Daniela agrees—community has been an invaluable resource. “The thing that really helped me get through physics class was meeting every week with three other students in the class. It helped me stay on top of the material and was a way for me to connect with friends outside of the classroom. Seeing friends (even just virtually) and having a community has been so important,” she says.

To read more about volunteer efforts of Penn’s Pre-Health Programs students, read “In a health crisis, past and current Penn Pre-Health Programs students pitch in.”

To see how other College of Liberal and Professional Studies programs have met the challenges of learning during the pandemic, read “Challenge accepted: For Penn's MBDS program, remote learning opened the door to global community.”