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Exposing Teens to Medicine: A Med Student Q&A

Profile photo of Charles Pan, 3rd year M.D. student. Albert Einstein College of MedicineEditors’ Note: We recently spoke with Charles Pan, a third-year M.D. student at Einstein, about his volunteer work with the Einstein Enrichment Program (EEP). EEP is part of a New York State–funded enrichment program called STEP (Science Technology Entry Program), which encourages high school students from groups that have historically been underrepresented in the medical and scientific professions to pursue careers in the field. For the past 25 years, students who have completed the program have shared what they’ve learned during a poster session where they are joined by their Einstein mentors. Charles, who received the program’s Award of Excellence in Mentorship, is interviewed in the video below. We asked him to share his thoughts on helping young people learn about careers in health in the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity.

How does the Einstein Enrichment Program work? How did you choose what part of the program to participate in?

The EEP is a wonderful program at Einstein open to local high school students. It is a yearlong program in which students come to the Einstein campus twice a week after school. They are exposed to many different aspects of the science and medical fields.

Each student picks a Teen Action Project (TAP) as part of his or her commitment to the overall program. Hoops 4 Health (H4H) is one of these projects. Each month, medical students and EEP students in H4H meet and engage in a variety of discussions and activities.

The H4H students also travel to the Longwood Police Athletic League in the South Bronx, where they assist us in exposing elementary school children to nifty science experiments and help teach the importance of healthy eating and staying physically active. At the end of the academic year, the EEP students create posters that showcase the work they’ve done in their TAP groups. The poster sessions have always been a highlight of the year for me, because they allow the EEP students to flex their creativity and originality.

What motivated you to volunteer with the Einstein Enrichment Program?

Being a teenager in high school anywhere is tough. But being a teenager in high school in New York City is a completely different beast. As a kid from Queens who somehow successfully navigated his way through high school, I know all too well how challenging this can be.

In my opinion, the supposedly unattainable goal of maintaining good grades and extracurricular activities, getting adequate sleep, and having the social life classically associated with college is something NYC high school students face while in high school. I never found the perfect balance, but I was lucky enough to have a guidance counselor during my senior year who did much more than just recite college admissions and test-prep numbers to me. I would often go to her office just to chat about life and some of my long-term goals that were not immediately dependent on high school and college. She and my family were a rock for me, and they got me through my senior year of high school. I only wish I had gotten in contact with her earlier.

Her influence and a desire to pay it forward pushed me to join the Einstein Enrichment Program. I also knew from previous experiences that I loved working with teenagers, so the decision was a no-brainer. As a mentor, my goal was for all of my students to have someone they felt comfortable engaging with about academic and nonacademic matters, someone who challenged them during TAP sessions to think outside the box and in the process helped them discover and/or solidify more of their own identities, and someone who would always have their back.

What was your previous experience working with teens like?

During college I worked with teens at a program similar to EEP in terms of its structure and values. In fact, I enjoyed working with students there so much that I continued to work at that program on Saturdays during my first year of medical school. The most appealing aspect of working with teens is watching their curiosity unfold in front of your eyes. As an educator or mentor, it’s extremely rewarding to watch as teens translate their curiosity into knowledge and power. My favorite aspect of working with them has to be the palpable growth, development, and maturation of each student. Whenever I go back to visit those students, their continued transformation never ceases to amaze me.

How many EEP teens did you mentor?

The number of teens in each TAP group varies. During my first year, due to scheduling difficulties, I was able to mentor only a couple of teens. There was a dramatic increase in attendance my second year, and by the end of the semester I was working with 11 students. This year we have 9 students. Some teens have been in my group for multiple years, which makes for a nice continuity.

What were the toughest and the most rewarding parts of the program?

One of the toughest parts of the program is the limited time that medical students have in which to interact with high school students. We are usually given one session per month with our students. I understand these constraints, given the other components of EEP and the students’ regular schoolwork and extracurricular activities.

Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of the program has to be working with the students. It honestly doesn’t feel like a task. During my second year of medical school, the TAP sessions were welcome outlets of relief from the stresses of studying for the USMLE Step 1 examination.

What changes did you see in the students you worked with?

I think the biggest change I saw was how all the students became more confident in themselves as the year progressed. One of my students kept second-guessing her answers and wondering if they were incorrect, even though her grades indicated that she was an outstanding student. With reassurance, encouragement, and elimination of negative thoughts throughout the course of the year, she finished by collaborating with a fellow student on an excellent research piece on fecal transplants.

Why are you so passionate about your volunteer work?

I am passionate about my involvement with EEP because it’s truly an amazing program from start to finish. Not only do EEP students get to experience and see things in the medical field that few of their peers do, they also graduate from the program ready to tackle the challenges of college and beyond. Last year, the graduating H4H EEP seniors all matriculated at fantastic universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania, St. John’s University, and Connecticut College—many with full-ride scholarships.

Teenagers are often mislabeled as “challenging,” but perhaps it’s because people aren’t willing to dedicate time and effort to help the teens through an exciting but also tumultuous phase of their lives. EEP accomplishes exactly that. Given that most, if not all, EEP students are from groups underrepresented in healthcare, it’s welcome news that EEP is helping address the lack of diversity in the field. I’m proud to be a part of that effort.

Finally, it’s important to recognize the students themselves. Pipeline programs such as EEP require a big commitment. If teens are willing to come to Einstein twice a week throughout the year, and integrate EEP into their busy schedules, then I need to match that commitment as their mentor.

How has your EEP experience changed you and your thoughts about your career in medicine?

Working with EEP is one of the best decisions I made in medical school. I can’t wait to hear about the great accomplishments that each of the teens I’ve mentored has in store. I was pleasantly surprised and humbled last year when the EEP staff presented me with the Award of Excellence in Mentorship. It’s cemented my goal of continuing to work with teenagers when I become a provider, regardless of the specialty I choose. After graduation, I would like to become involved with pipeline programs such as EEP or other teen mentoring programs. I’ll also make myself available for interested students to shadow my work and advocate for my colleagues to do the same.

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