Starting a new (non)tradition
‘Nontraditional’ first-year student Hollie Bearce goes from medical lab scientist to UND medical student.
“I should start by explaining that I’m rocking because I have a baby in my lap,” begins first-year medical student Hollie Bearce, tilting her computer’s camera downward to reveal a sleeping infant. “I’m a nontraditional student in many ways—there aren’t that many of us with kids.”
Such was the focus of the video chat Bearce had just joined: discussing the “nontraditional” medical student experience. For although she is hardly alone, Bearce is correct in suggesting that even in the twenty-first century few American medical students fit such a definition: exceeding the 24 years-old average matriculation age, claiming a spouse and/or children, and having spent several years working in a different profession before pivoting to medicine.
Bearce checks each of these boxes. Plus, she’s a first-generation college student—a rarity among medical students.
Rather than seeing all of this as a disadvantage, though, the medical laboratory scientist (MLS) by training considers herself in an enviable position.
“My background in biochemistry and MLS have been tremendously helpful,” she says. “Of course, there will be units where I don’t have a trick in my in my bag. The next unit is musculoskeletal, and that’s probably my least strong area. But there has definitely been an advantage [to my background], especially this unit.”
Furthermore, the ex-laboratorian explains, being both a spouse and mother has prepared her for the medical curriculum. There is, after all, much health education to be gleaned from sitting up late at night with sick kiddos.
“I block off eight to five, Monday through Friday and I hit the books hard,” Bearce says, reflecting on her busy schedule, which she manages via color-coded spreadsheet. “I pay attention in lecture and I take the notes. And then from five until their bedtime, I’m home with the kids. I don’t do interviews, I don’t do schoolwork, and I don’t attend any interest groups. With some exceptions, [school is] off-limits for me.”
The evolving medical student
The medical student profile is evolving, though. As such, Bearce’s experience is less unique than it used to be in that matriculants identifying as nontraditional make up a growing proportion of medical students than they did a decade ago.
According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), whereas only 13.4% of 2019 first-year students claimed a gap of 3-4 years between their undergraduate degree and beginning medical school, that same figure was 15.2% in 2021. Likewise, the percentage of 2021 medical school matriculants who returned to school five or more years after graduating college was up modestly to 8.5% relative to 2019’s figure of 7.9%.
These numbers are the result of many national and global factors, likely including the coronavirus pandemic, the advent of easier online and distance learning, and changes in the economy broadly. Floating just below these factors are tweaks among medical college admissions teams that likewise want students with rich life experiences and a diversity of socioeconomic, racial, and experiential backgrounds in their cohorts.
Such diversity, after all, is good not only for students and their institutions but patient outcomes.
One 2019 meta-analysis from the National Medical Association claims, for example, that greater diversity in the provider pool positively correlates with “higher profits and a range of financial rewards [for health systems] including: innovation, increased productivity, improved accuracy in risk assessment and … improved patient health outcomes.”
Et tu, UND?
Understanding this all too well, medical schools and the AAMC increasingly tend to encourage diversity within their ranks.
UND is no different, say multiple School of Medicine & Health Sciences officials.
“Non-traditional students are able to draw on their personal and professional experience and perspective when working in the medical curriculum, especially in settings such as [patient-centered learning classrooms] or clinical courses,” says Susan Zelewski, M.D., assistant dean for phases 2 and 3 of the revised SMHS medical curriculum.
The School’s Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Admissions, Jim Porter, Ph.D., agreed, noting that such students bring skills that more traditional students sometimes lack.
“A nontraditional student can bring resilience and maturity to the medical classroom,” he adds. “From my point of view as a classroom educator, these aren’t always things that can be taught—they often only come with time.”
To that end, says Porter, officials within the SMHS tend to seek applicants not simply with the highest organic chemistry and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores so much as those with good scores plus unique attributes, personal stories, and experiences that better position them to succeed in the profession.
All of this brings us back to Bearce, who not only participates in the School’s Indians Into Medicine (INMED) Program but double-majored in Italian and biochemistry as an undergraduate.
Taking a course in Italian almost on a lark, Bearce found out she was both good at language learning and that Italian was very close to Latin—which happens to come in handy in the health professions.
“So I broke up my science by getting to exercise both the right and left sides of my brain,” the Washington state native smiles. “And now I can speak Italian, which you would think is just kind of arbitrary, but it was intentional. It really helps me with medical terminology.”
“Fluency” in other fields notwithstanding, data on medical student demographics suggest that older students can face challenges that their younger colleagues might not. The social isolation that can come from being five or 10 years past their cohort is one challenge. Furthermore, some research demonstrates that nontraditional students typically score lower on the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 exam, if for no other reason than because they’ve been out of the testing game for so long. (The same data show that these students have caught up to their peers by the Step 2 exam, however.)
When asked about these challenges, Bearce didn’t miss a beat. Speaking of the stresses of high-stakes testing, she explains that she’s not especially worried about the Step exams—the first of which was recently converted into a pass-fail test.
“I took a national board exam when I became a medical lab scientist, so I have a very clear idea of the stress that goes into preparing for [these tests],” she shrugs. “I honestly think that in some ways, [Step 1] might be easier. The MLS board is a computer adaptive test that is designed to try to make people fail, whereas Step 1 is for general medical knowledge. If you have the knowledge, you should be able to pass it.”
The AAMC seems to agree, admitting in one article from its many publications that “Once older students adjust [to the medical testing regime] they often emerge as leaders in their classes and excel in areas where younger students stumble.”
Smarter not harder
And adjust Bearce has.
After recognizing that her “old school” methods of studying don’t work quite as well these days—“There’s no time to make flashcards, so you have to buy products that are already assembled for you to study from or you will drown in material”—she concedes that she had to find the time and place to study both harder and smarter.
“The challenge with med school is really just the pace, right?” she laughs. “So most of the time I’m locked in a closet in the INMED office. That way I’m not disturbed by other people. I tried for the first two units to go to all the in-person lectures, meeting my classmates, and now, with family at home, I don’t have time for that. So—into the closet.”
Like a caterpillar in a cocoon, then, Bearce expects to emerge from that closet soon a changed person: one capable of not only producing and reading lab results but practicing direct primary care with a variety of patients.
At least that’s what her spreadsheet has planned for her.