Pre-meds face new troubles in finding volunteer opportunities

While the economy has made it difficult to find positions, admissions officials are raising expectations.

Pre-meds face new troubles in finding volunteer opportunities

Katherine Lymn

When University of Minnesota student Anya Dmytrenko started volunteering at a hospice at a local childrenâÄôs hospital a year ago, she did not expect to experience the grief of an entire family. âÄúWhen we got trained in for hospice, I was really under the impression that I would be mostly âĦ volunteering with a patient that had some sort of condition that you couldnâÄôt see as well,âÄù the senior pre-med student said. But this was not the case for the child assigned to Dmytrenko. âÄúHis condition deteriorated much more than anyone thought,âÄù she said. âÄúThey expected him to live for several more years.âÄù The child died three weeks after Dmytrenko began her visits with the family. âÄúWhat was hard, was that I couldnâÄôt do anything about it,âÄù she said. The child in hospice was cared for at home and was deaf and blind by the time of his death. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt supposed to happen,âÄù she said. âÄúIâÄôve never thought about stuff the same way after that.âÄù Though DmytrenkoâÄôs experience was unique, more and more University of Minnesota students are volunteering at area hospitals in hopes of getting real life medical experience and improving their chances of getting accepted to medical school. But the competition for volunteer spots is often fierce. Applicants must submit letters of reference, have interviews with officials and pass a background check âÄî all for unpaid positions. âÄúNot just handing out towelsâÄù While shadowing a doctor was often enough experience for pre-med students applications, associate dean of admissions at the Medical School Paul White said expectations have been raised. Now, shadowing is just an introduction to what type of volunteering is needed for an outstanding application, White said. âÄúIt isnâÄôt just handing out towels,âÄù White said. âÄúWe really want [applicants] to understand what it means to be a medical professional [and] what it means to work with patients.âÄù Working as a patient advocate or as a scribe âÄî a doctorâÄôs assistant who documents patient records âÄî are good ways to get this type of contact, White said. Volunteer experience is seen on approximately three-quarters of applicants, he said, adding most of the substantive patient contact volunteering comes in applicantsâÄô junior and senior years. Dmytrenko has worked at the ChildrenâÄôs Hospital in Minneapolis for three years, specifically with pediatrics and child care. In addition to working at the hospice there, Dmytrenko has had a variety of other duties at the hospital, including comforting families in waiting rooms, holding babies and playing with children. âÄúYou learn how to be the best doctor when you learn how to interact with people,âÄù Dmytrenko said. Lucy Wall , assistant to the dean of admissions at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said volunteer expectations have broadened more than they have been raised. âÄúWeâÄôve expanded our view of what volunteer service is,âÄù Wall said. Wall explained admissions she oversees look for both exposure to medicine and demonstrated community service in applicants. âÄúSome of the schools say they prefer not so much the depth of activities, but the breadth,âÄù Dmytrenko said. And a breadth of duties is available, according to volunteer coordinators. Duties are generally assigned âÄúto help enhance the patient experience,âÄù said Anita Bilden , volunteer coordinator for the Hennepin County Medical Center . âÄúIf a volunteer can go and provide companionship with a patient âĦ thatâÄôs great patient contact for that volunteer,âÄù Bilden said. âÄúIt also helps nursing staff [since they do not] have to respond to as many inquiries from patients.âÄù Bilden said of the 225 active volunteers at HCMC, approximately half are University students. Most are undergraduates. Pre-med senior Thuy Nguyen-Tran has volunteered in a variety of capacities, including as a research associate at HCMC eight hours a week. She worked gathering clinical data through surveys and tests with patients. However, such hands-on experience is often hard to find. âÄú[The] challenge is making sure volunteer work doesnâÄôt overlap with paid-staff work,âÄù Bilden said of the thin line between duties requiring accreditation or licensure and those done by volunteers. âÄúOur pre-med students, they understand why they canâÄôt be a little more hands-on, although they wish they could,âÄù Bilden said. Getting there While HCMC âÄúreally want[s] to recruit pre-med students,âÄù the application process for the research associate program is âÄúrigorous,âÄù and included a short answer questionnaire and multiple letters of recommendation, Nguyen-Tran said. Even volunteer positions not directly related to medicine require extensive applications. Nguyen-Tran said that for another position she held, as a âÄúbook buddyâÄù who read to children at the hospital, she had both a background check and an interview with a volunteer coordinator. âÄúI think the [application processes] are appropriate,âÄù Nguyen-Tran said. âÄúThey help make sure that youâÄôre matched with âĦ the position youâÄôd be interested in.âÄù Out-of-work adults and recent graduates who cannot find jobs are now filling up volunteer spots at hospitals. âÄúWe have been very full with volunteers,âÄù said Maureen Vanek, manager of volunteer services for North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale , where 530 people are active volunteers. Bilden, who interviews about ten potential volunteers a week, said this influx is making the applicant pool much more interesting, and is bringing different types of skill sets to the table. When students are turned down for a position, âÄúitâÄôs more often than not just the logistics of scheduling,âÄù Bilden said. She added the beginning of the semester brings more students applicants, and that number winds down as the semester nears an end. But admissions officials have little sympathy for pre-meds who struggle in finding volunteer opportunities. âÄúIf theyâÄôre truly motivated, theyâÄôll find something,âÄù White said.