Dear First Years...You’re Not Alone

September 8, 2017--When Jack Penner (M’18) first started medical school at Georgetown, he was excited. But underneath his excitement, he wondered if he could handle the rigor of medical school. Was he really good enough?

“Every time I heard from mentors, role models and classmates that they had felt or were feeling the same way, the anxiety diminished,” said Penner. “The challenges became opportunities.”

In an effort to recreate that reassuring feeling for the Class of 2021, Penner created Dear First Years, a collection of nearly 20 letters of advice and reflections from recent graduates and M4s.  

“Reflecting on the process of medical school has made me more appreciative of the opportunities that we have as medical students,” said Penner. “By participating in Dear First Years, you get the benefit of reflecting on your own experiences while also being useful to medical students that are following behind you.”


Click here to view Dear First Years. 


It Takes A Village

Penner didn’t launch Dear First Years alone. He reached out to the Georgetown chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society and the Learning Societies, which held a letter-writing session for third- and fourth- year students last spring. Students in the Arts & Medicine Club created the cover art.

“I think the number of people who stepped up right away to participate says a lot about the community at Georgetown,” said Penner.

While many of the letters contain lighthearted advice encouraging students to explore DC and never say no to brunch, the letters also addressed several persistent themes: battling imposter syndrome, keeping medical school in perspective and relying on peers, mentors and the larger Georgetown community during difficult times.

“I think it was striking how many of the letters mentioned the importance of relationships and mentorships,” said Meredith Njus (M’21). “It was reassuring, because it stressed that you’re not going through it alone. There are other people that are willing to look out for you during this process of medical school.”

Starting the Conversation

When it comes to challenges faced in medical school, many students are afraid to share that they are struggling, Penner said. “There’s a huge epidemic in medical school of just biting your tongue and soldiering through. I still grapple with that fear of fully opening up and have slowly come around to it,” he said. “If you just bottle it up, which I have done, you think you’re the only one struggling and that can be very isolating."

One first-year student reached out to Penner to say that Dear First Years made her feel more comfortable just to have open conversations about struggling in medical school.

“That was my favorite piece of feedback,” said Penner. “I think that by writing vulnerable conversations and signing their names to it, contributors to Dear First Years gave first-year students permission to be vulnerable, which is so important.”

Dear First Years will continue next year, and for this issue students from all four classes will be invited to write letters to the class of 2022.

Leigh Ann Sham
GUMC Communications 

Special thanks to Amanda Cain (M’18), Erica Meninno (M’20), Marielle Mahan (M’19), Lauren Klingman (M’19) and Marilyn McGowan (M’20) for making Dear First Years possible.