Learning Societies Promote Student Mentoring and Friendships

Posted in GUMC Stories

Story update: At the start of the 2017-2018 academic year, the School of Medicine initiated a new Cura Personalis Fellowship designed to train clinician mentors for each academic family in the Learning Societies.

September 28, 2016 – In addition to the eponymous article of clothing, first-year students participating in Georgetown’s annual White Coat Ceremony receive a special pin — one that indicates their assignment to one of the School of Medicine’s five learning societies.

Designed to foster a sense of community within the larger school, students participate in their designated learning societies throughout their four years on the Hilltop.

“From the moment they step into their white coats, students are given something to belong to — a ‘team’ or ‘family,’ in a way,” says Sydney Palka, M3.

“Whenever professors or attending physicians mention their society at social events, there are always hoots and hollers from the crowd of students showing their support.” Palka is part of the Hufnagel Society, named for the late chair of surgery Charles A. Hufnagel, MD.

“The Learning Societies have created a foundation for students to connect with different people in the GUSOM community who they wouldn’t have had the chance to connect with otherwise,” says Palka, who also serves as chair of the Learning Societies Advisory Committee (LSAC)’s PR and communications group.

Student led and operated  

In 2014, Ray Mitchell, MD, dean for medical education, asked Rebecca Evangelista, MD, associate professor of surgery, to help establish the school’s learning societies.

Previous efforts to provide mentorship at the medical school included “academic families” which bring together first and second medical students. But over time, the academic families became more of a part of the curriculum and less like a group that promotes social and professional enrichment, Evangelista says.

Learning societies have a history at other schools, including Harvard. “While learning societies are not new, they would be very new here,” says Evangelista, who also serves as faculty director for the Stewart Society, named for the Georgetown viral oncology pioneer Sarah Elizabeth Stewart, MD, PhD.

After a group of faculty and students agreed that such societies would improve the School of Medicine experience, the students took over, preparing by-laws and a structure for student leadership.

The advisory committee includes nine students, five faculty or alumni, two members from the Office of Student Affairs and Dean Mitchell. They created the five societies, each of which include about 40 students per class year.

Helping new students adjust to medical school

The societies all strive to promote mentoring, professionalism, and reflection, and all events, including book clubs, lunches, sessions on reflective writing and more, are planned in pursuit of that goal.

The societies also hold an annual day of service. This April, members of the learning societies served at a foodbank, helped out at a therapeutic horseback riding program and cleaned a section of Rock Creek Park.

“I believe one of the most helpful aspects of the societies is mentorship both for academics and for an overall perspective on medical school. As a first and second year student, it can be challenging to meet upperclassmen and learn some of the nuances of Georgetown,” says Kerry Ryan, M4, director of the advisory committee as well as a member of the Stewart Society.

“Overall, medical school has its challenging moments, and it can be very reassuring to have a mentor tell you — yes, this is difficult, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Ryan says.

Inspiring Future Medical Educators

Ryan and Erin Haber, M4, LSAC chair of faculty and alumni relations, said that the societies gave them a new understanding about everything involved in providing a medical education.

“I have a much deeper appreciation for Georgetown, and for the faculty and staff who work hard to make our experience meaningful, enjoyable and instructive,” says Haber, a member of the Knowlan Society, which was named for the only living namesake, professor emeritus Donald Knowlan, MD, described as a master clinical medical educator and a spellbinding storyteller.

Ryan says that she wants to be involved in medical education as a future internal medicine physician.

“These experiences have led me to develop a strong interest in medical education, and I now have a greater appreciation for the ‘behind the scenes’ work that the administration does for students on a daily basis,” she says.

Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications