I asked one of my lower performing medical students to explain why, with all of the resources available, why this student consistently under-performs and why is this student at high risk of dropping out the the very competitive program in which they achieved admission. “It’s simple, professor,” my student said. “I just don’t belong here with these other students”.
I was almost dumbfounded because this student, the first in her family to graduate from college, a good undergraduate institution with good academic skills does have major problems with the medical curriculum. She’s a minority and from an inner-city family but she’s fought the temptations and actions that claimed the life of her brother and sister early in their teens. She is a single-mother with a daughter who is excelling academically in middle school. She is the major caregiver for her mother who suffers from a chronic illness, something that takes significant time and energy but still, she is not new to this role either.
She feels strongly that others in her class are far more prepared academically and socially for the challenges of professional school. She feels strongly that she cannot overcome enough of her background to continue to navigate this curriculum. In short, she feels that she just doesn’t “belong” in this program. No amount of my stating that she more than “belongs” can change these feelings for her.
I am at a loss, somewhat, as to how I can show her that just as she navigates getting to the school on a daily basis, she can navigate this curriculum. After all, there is nothing complicated, in the the manner of difficult concepts. It is her conception of her lack of resources and professionalism that is troubling. She’s on probation at present, needing to achieve a grade of Honors in order to remain in the class. She’s frightened that something will “trip her” resulting in her dismissal for academic reasons.
Why did she seek my counsel? She says that when I speak with her, I expect her to do well. This is not the case with other professors from whom she seeks assistance.She says that she often feels other instructors and students expect her to fail. In truth, I expect all of my students to do well because they are among some of the brightest scholars anywhere but this student seems to hold any negative comment to heart.
Make no mistake, she’s very intelligent and very capable. I not only expect her to survive but I expect her to be an outstanding contributor to the medical profession. Her confidence is fragile at this point. I have to find words that will help her see the magic that she has.
I look back in my life, at the instances where my confidence has taken a beating, last year comes to mind. My ministry studies play “havoc” with my confidence in that I often feel that I just don’t “belong” in the business of assisting other spiritually. My running and meditation help with these feelings but I find myself in a constant learning environment as my duties increase.
I also have a great confidence problem when it comes to my skin color in that being biracial, I never feel comfortable in American culture, black or white. As the daughter of two Brits, I am quite comfortable in that culture but I live in the United States. I am fortunate to have a few colleagues and friends who probably see me and not my color first but I have much trepidation in most social situations. I have learned to hide these feelings but they are there and often surface.
I look at instances in my life where I am confident and feel in control. My medicine/surgery is where I start. I connect with my patients and feel a great kinship with those who have the most devastating of injuries or physical problems. I admire how these patients who are often difficult for my colleagues are a source of wonder for me. I often feel that they sense my great admiration and connection; confident that I convey these feelings when I encounter them.
I am starting to feel a bit more confident in my running and physical conditioning. As I continue to run faster and longer distances, my confidence increases. Running has become my place of joy and safety. I look at some of my more experienced and talented runner/marathon friends, the feelings of not being in their class or even close come back in floods.
I understand my student’s feelings of “not belonging” very well. I struggle with them myself. I will seek out the counsel of my wise academic colleagues, some of the best in the world. We are all fortunate to share challenges and fellowship. Still, my student weighs heavily in my meditations because the world of medicine needs her. I must find a way to help her even as I continue with my struggles but maybe I am not her best resource right now.