Med School eased by comradery

by Sean Madigan

and Nichol Nelson
Medical school is daunting. New classmates, mind-boggling course work and unbelievable pressure are only a few of the elements that make a medical education challenging.
To ease the transition into the world of medical training, some University medical students turn to co-ed medical fraternities in search of like-minded friends, cheap rent and a way to benefit from the experiences of older students.
The University has three medical fraternities on campus: Nu Sigma Nu, Phi Rho and Phi Chi, all located close to the University’s medical complex.
When students are accepted to the University’s Medical School, they receive letters telling them about the benefits of living in a medical fraternity.
Unlike traditional greek and professional fraternities, alumni ties are limited in medical fraternities. After the four-year medical program is completed, medical students scatter across the United States for residencies.
“Alumni relations, as much as I’d like to turn them around, are pretty loose,” said Brian Niskanen, a second-year medical student and president of Phi Rho. “It’s hard to retain contact with people once they move away from the fraternity.”
Most of the fraternity residents are first- and second-year students. Peter Eckman, a second-year medical student living in Nu Sigma Nu, said by the time medical students are in their third year, they generally move off campus to live closer to their clinical locations.
Living with other medical students can also help relieve stress.
“You’re kind of intimidated,” Niskanen said. “In your first year, there are 165 students in your class. There are probably 164 with type-A personalities. They’re very competitive.”
Eckman said younger students often use older students as role models to gauge what they should be doing in school.
“When I first got here, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is med school, how much do I need to study?'” Eckman said. “It was nice to see an older student take a night off to see a basketball game or go to a movie.”
Niskanen said older students also told him to balance his priorities while in school.
The fraternities offer cheap housing — rent averages about $200 per month — but residents sometimes compromise space and privacy to receive the low rates. Phi Rho offers apartment-style living with a common room for ping-pong and foos ball, but the other two houses require most residents to share dorm-sized bedrooms.
Eckman has a single room in Nu Sigma Nu, but said the space is limited.
“It’s bearable, but not comfortable for very long,” Eckman said of his cramped quarters.
Many of the fraternities were initially all male, with little racial diversity.
Mike Vollmer, a second-year resident at Phi Chi, displayed a photo of fraternity members taken in the 1930s.
“Look at this photo. What do you see here?” he asked. “It’s a bunch of white guys.”
Women were not initially allowed in fraternities, but their increased enrollment in the Medical School has led to integration into the fraternities.
Members in the fraternities were not able to produce the date when women were allowed to live in the houses, but most estimate the change came in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now women comprise nearly half of the residents in all three fraternities.
Danielle Perry, a second-year medical student in Nu Sigma Nu, said people sometimes mistake her fraternity for a sorority because of her gender.
Life in the houses runs much like that in a co-op. Two of the three houses run a food cooperative where each member takes a turn making dinner for the rest. Members said the plan makes life less stressful.
“When you come home after a long day of school or clinic, it’s nice to have a hot meal waiting for you,” Vollmer said. “Otherwise, I’d be eating like crap.”
The pink-walled kitchen in Nu Sigma Nu is filled with industrial-sized pans and a giant dishwasher. The large cookware is needed to prepare meals for the 20 residents of the house, Eckman said.
To encourage comradery, all of the houses host parties throughout the year.
Phi Rho holds a haunted house each October. Niskanen said about 170 students usually attend the fright fest. He said the timing of the event is perfect for meeting fellow students.
“It’s about the time where faces look familiar, but you don’t really know everybody,” he said.