How studying abroad helped get me into medicine

Think studying abroad doesn’t fit with your future plans? Think again.

Since the day I applied to university, I had been researching how I could incorporate global learning into my undergraduate degree program, while also thinking about my future goals for getting into medical school. When I was accepted to do a Bachelor of Science with a double major in chemistry and biology, I surprisingly still found time for extracurricular activities and on-campus initiatives. One of my favorite programs was Go Abroad — my university’s international program.

I quickly realized that many goal-oriented students who are keen on applying to law, dentistry, medicine, or other professional programs often worry that studying abroad doesn’t fit with their plan. I have heard other professional program-hopefuls fear that, if they travel, their grades will be jeopardized, the extensive time away will be too expensive, and that the experience won’t contribute directly to their resume. While I wondered whether I should take these fears seriously, I was too excited to experience the world to second guess myself. I didn’t have to be convinced to study abroad as soon as I could!

I spent my whole second year of undergrad in Lille, France, where I took courses in their equivalent of biological sciences, as well as classes about French language, history, and culture. I really wanted to go to France for my exchange because my language level was OK, but I wanted to challenge myself by putting it into practice in an immersive environment. For me, this meant living in a French-language city and taking classes in French. Also, Lille is a large urban center close to Brussels, Paris, and London, so I would have the opportunity to travel for weekend trips easily.

A couple of years after I returned from the program, when I started filling out applications for medical school, I realized that the reservations fellow students had about studying abroad were off-base. Not only had I learned in the classroom, but I found that studying abroad gave me so many deeper lessons and challenges to reflect on, and that made me a better candidate for medical school. Anyone hesitant to study abroad for the sake of their medical school application should think twice — studying abroad was so beneficial for me, academically and personally! Here are some of my reflections on my study abroad program:

1. You learn extensively about a new culture. This should go without saying, but spending extended periods of time living and breathing a new culture allows you to fully immerse yourself. I remember coming home after a full day of classes being completely exhausted: I was trying to learn organic chemistry, all while trying to understand a professor speaking in French! Needless to say, my language skills improved exponentially.

Not only will you learn a new language, but you will pick up on the more subtle aspects of a culture: mannerisms, conversational etiquette and relationship building, to name a few. These are the types of things you start to notice when you stay in a new place for a longer period of time, and noticing these things forces you to reflect on your own culture’s habits and tendencies. Why do French people stare at you when you eat or drink while walking? Why do French people insist on air-kissing strangers? You begin to realize that there are different ways of approaching problems. Having these kinds of realizations and appreciations helps you become more compassionate and understanding, and allows for more effective cross-cultural communication, something that physicians need to be well versed in!

2. You experience being an outsider. Once you begin to realize all of the differences between your own culture and the one in your host country, you experience being an outsider. You no longer have the familiar feeling of being at home, and you are forced out of your comfort zone. You will have the opportunity to learn what it is like not to understand and to not be understood. Try closing a bank account in a foreign country with a clerk who has mixed up your account balance! Having compassion for patients who come from all walks of life and being able to empathize with them because you have experienced it yourself is a very powerful tool for your future practice.

3. You learn to be flexible. I had a very sudden culture shock when I arrived and realized how different French universities are: They still write on chalkboards and rarely use PowerPoint presentations. There are so many things that you won’t be able to predict when you go abroad; learning how to think on your feet and adapt to new circumstances or challenges will help you develop resilience. Being flexible and level-headed in uncertain situations is a key trait for any physician.

4. You become your own advocate. Just as important as learning how to adjust to unanticipated circumstances, studying abroad will also teach you how to say no. There are many situations you will have to decide what is best for you, with limited support and advice from family, friends, or staff at your home university. It can be tricky or intimidating to speak up for yourself in a foreign country, but the pay-off is your enjoyment of the program. Ultimately, the study abroad program is what you make of it, and if you choose to have a good time and take control of the situation at hand, you will make great memories!

5. You experience independence. Living in France was also the first time I had ever lived on my own, as it will be for many students who go on an exchange. You will learn to be completely self-sustaining in terms of your daily needs, because familiar help is often thousands of kilometers away. By doing so, you gain confidence in yourself and your abilities!

6. You make friends and connections for life. Lastly, study abroad is a wonderful social experience during which you will make friends from all over the world. Again, this ties into learning about new cultures and how important it is for physicians to be able to understand and discuss concepts from various viewpoints. The friendships you make during your exchange will be intense — exchange students naturally form very close bonds because of their shared situation.

Whether it is getting lost in a new city together, or shared confusion about the conjugation of a specific French verb, they just get you. You will experience culture shock together, but from different angles, and the discussions that arise from these situations are so entertaining and thought-provoking. Exchange friends are often friends for life — one of my closest friends from Lille, and I made an agreement to see each other at least once a year, anywhere in the world. So far, it has been five years since I returned home, and we haven’t skipped a year since. You will always have a familiar, welcoming face to visit in a far-away country.

Study abroad programs are a very natural and exciting way to learn and practice the kinds of soft skills that make you an excellent candidate for a medical program. Don’t be afraid to go abroad: The time you spend and what you learn is so valuable. Exchange fits into your plans, and makes you a much more diverse, well-rounded candidate. Keeping an open mind and being able to navigate cross-cultural communication are essential skills for any physician.

Susan Muncner is a medical student.  This article originally appeared in YouAlberta on September 16, 2019.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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