Gap Year

“What should I do with my gap year??”

Take a step back. Celebrate the progress you’ve made in life. I don’t think we do this enough because we tend to think in future tense and worry about the next step. I have been asked the above question several times from pre-meds, not realizing in the moment what a privilege it is to be on the other side with the ability to inspire the next generation.

I took one gap year before matriculating into medical school, and I would recommend this for anyone that feels burned out from college, unsure if they want to become physicians, or want to gain more life experiences (while you’re young). In this post, I’ll share what I did with my gap year and some tips I’ve shared with high schoolers and pre-meds.

My mentality for my gap year was that I wanted to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I remembered hearing about AmeriCorps sitting in one of my neuro classes during senior year. I decided to look at health-focused programs across the U.S. in late summer after graduating from college. A lot of them excited me! I was thinking about moving to California to use Cantonese to help patients in the Asian free clinics or Cleveland to coach patients in making lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation through motivational interviewing. Ultimately, I chose the COMCorps program in Athens, Ohio because of the diverse experiences and I knew I wanted to attend Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, so I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about the school and its mission.

AmeriCorps is described as the U.S. version of PeaceCorps. It’s a government-funded program that employs volunteers across the country in public service work with a goal of helping others and meeting critical needs in the community in the fields of education, public safety, healthcare, and environmental protection. Benefits include: living allowance and a $5,750 education award upon completion of 1700 hours.

I joined a cohort of 24 members whom were placed at different sites, such as schools, non-profits, and health departments. Our program’s mission is to maintain or decrease the rates of childhood obesity and diabetes through healthy food access, nutrition and cooking lessons, and physical activity. My service site was at a local school district near Athens, Ohio. It was my first time seeing a school that held preschool-12th grade. My main duties were threefold:

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  1. I worked alongside the two nurses in the school clinic to triage sick (or malingering) students and provide first-aid. I routinely documented chief complaints, took temperatures, created and gave ice bags for injuries, gave crackers and water for upset stomachs. I didn’t realize how many students try to get out of school by feigning sickness. In any given day, we would see around 100 students. I also realized scrubs are so comfy to wear to work! I really enjoyed this role because it felt like what a doctor would do, but with more minor cases, and I got a chance to personally provide comfort in times of distress.

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2. I taught five one-hour classes of the Live Healthy Kids curriculum to all of the 2nd graders. I have always loved teaching, especially in topics I enjoy, such as nutrition, health, and wellness. I was super excited! I quickly found a newfound respect for all elementary teachers. I had so much knowledge I wanted to inspire the students with, but I had to take into account a younger mind’s shorter attention span and use classroom-taming strategies to re-focus the group. Despite the challenges, it was an excellent learning and growing opportunity for me, as well as the students. Every week, we brought in a cart full of fresh and healthy food, cooking appliances and supplies, and a new recipe every week. We taught the students basic cooking skills, such as measuring, preparing fruits and vegetables, and safe cutting techniques with a knife. The first semester, we made a fruit tart, oatmeal bar, quinoa salad, tofu ranch dressing. The second semester, we “travelled around the world” to create dishes from different countries: Japanese lettuce wraps, Russian borscht, tofu stir fry, taco bar, Ethiopian injera and wat, sweet potato curry. Before cooking, we had a powerpoint where we would educate the students with facts about the food we’re making that day, name of ingredients and methods of cooking, MyPlate, healthy decision making, and fun facts about the different countries. After cooking and eating together, we complete a quick worksheet re-inforcing knowledge and also do some physical activity together (quick circuits).

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Such good memories with these kiddos. It was fun getting to know their individual personalities over a year. A team of researchers from Ohio University are conducting a study about the effectiveness of Live Healthy Kids. As a teacher, I administered pre- and post-student knowledge tests, parent surveys, and helped organize data. They are five years into the study, and I can’t wait to see the results.

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We saw the parent feedback at the end of the year. It was so heartwarming to know that we made a difference in families’ lives.

Screening

3. I organized all the vision, hearing, and lice health screenings for my school. This was a tough feat requiring lots of attention to detail due to the volume of students in preschool-12th grade. Thankfully, our 24-member cohort help the members stationed at schools with the screenings, so it wasn’t a one-woman show. It was neat to learn how to perform all the screenings ourselves. After the massive screening days, I looked through all the paperwork to see who I needed to refer. We send a letter with the results to the parents recommending that they take their child to an optometrist for glasses and/or an audiologist for hearing aids. I tracked the follow-up rate and results. I saw the power of prevention from a new perspective.

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Aside from the three main duties, we have the opportunity to use our creativity to implement new programs or events at our site.

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My school had a carnival night, and I created black bean dip for people to sample along with a host of healthy tips. Those corn tortilla chips are made locally with natural ingredients — so so good!

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I collaborated with Ohio University Recycling and Zero Waste to collect 900 pounds of food that were used to create 34 food boxes and then distributed to 30 families, collectively serving 80 children in the school district during winter break. I had the unique opportunity to work closely with our school’s outreach worker from Athens County Children Services to travel on home visits to distribute food boxes, fruit baskets, and holiday gifts. It was an enlightening and often heartbreaking experience to personally observe where the students live and hear their stories.

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Read more: Campus Recycling Partners with School Outreach Programs to Host Successful Winter Food Drive

Love of Humankind

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I was requested to do the annual 4th grade hygiene and puberty presentation. It instantly brought back awkward memories of my experience with this presentation in 5th grade. I tried to make it as interactive and practical as possible. First, we brought all the 4th graders in the gym for a talk on basic hygiene, such as using deodorant, brushing teeth, and washing hands. Then, we split up into boy and girl groups. Luckily, I recruited the only young male in my cohort to lead the boy’s discussion. I led the girl’s discussion with an OU student intern. We taught them the basics about puberty changes, reassured the girls that everyone is on their own schedules and not to compare to their peers, menstrual cycles and cramps, and how to use pads. Towards the end, we welcomed questions, and I was so happy the girls weren’t shy to have discussions. They had great questions, and we almost ran over time. It felt nice to have open, honest, and genuine conversations. We awarded all the 4th graders with hygiene goodie bags: deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, mouthwash, floss, pads and tampons (girls).

Other than activities at my school, we had community events that we help out with throughout the year. Two examples are:

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Building a sustainable garden behind an elementary school.

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Painting mile markers on the community bike trail.

I definitely got really nostalgic thinking about my time and memories in AmeriCorps. It definitely challenged me as a person, helped me gain rich life experiences, and provided me a way to give back to society in a meaningful way right after graduating college.

I’m grateful I finally took the time to share my AmeriCorps experience in words and pictures. Throughout first and second year of medical school, I had frequent flashbacks: learning about fever (taking temps), childhood intellectual/behavioral disorders from parental neglect/abuse, which can be associated with encopresis and enuresis (heartwarming memory: a boy who endured a rough childhood came down to the clinic at least once a day to change his undergarment always wanted to tell me fun facts about things he’s learned, which surprised the two nurses because he normally doesn’t like talking to people), malingering (sifting through real and fake complaints), teaching the kids that we get vitamin D from the sun (they were so amazed).

Tips for your Gap Year

  • It’s okay (and frequently recommended) to take time off before professional school
    • You will NOT be at a disadvantage. It can even boost your chances for admission.
    • Differentiate yourself in interviews by talking about your gap year with passion. Show schools who you are, what your motivations are for becoming a physician, and who you see yourself becoming through your experience. Be honest and reflective. Medical school admission teams like to see genuine personal development, not just another activity you did just to “look good”.
  • Time time for reflection and rejuvenation.
  • Do something meaningful and purposeful to you. You’ll be a stronger candidate for professional school.
    • PeaceCorps, AmeriCorps, Study Abroad, Mission Trips, Research, Teach for America, etc.
    • Get a Masters (MPH, MHA, MS in anatomy)
  • Sometimes, a postbaccalaureate program after college is the right choice for students that have lower GPA’s, MCAT’s or are career changers.
  • Many people work/volunteer in a healthcare setting to get more clinical experience.
  • Update resume/CV with each new job/experience.
  • Stay in touch with professors and contacts, continue networking.
  • Don’t be afraid to take chances.
    • May learn a lot about yourself and what you don’t want to do
  • Continue to learn!
    • Job shadow, informational interviews, join young professional clubs, travel abroad, read books, network with mentors in the field, participate in a scholarly activity, take classes.
  • Spend time with family, friends, and loved ones before beginning professional school.
  • Work on your professional school applications.
  • Save money.
  • It’s okay if you decide not to go to med school after your gap year adventures. It can be a long, arduous, stress-provoking, often isolating, and ironically dehumanizing journey. Make sure this is where your heart and mind is before you begin. If this is your true calling, you will use the hardship to become a better doctor 🙂
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