Mark and Mike Nakhla, both ’13, have a lot on their plate. After graduating from Wesleyan last year with degrees in neuroscience, they dove right into the grueling four-year journey that is Penn State College of Medicine, located within the Penn State Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They room together at Penn State with Nala, their puppy of 10 months, and between their ridiculous curricula and the emotional growth/self-actualization required to become a capable doctor, they are both already much smarter and more adult than this Argus reporter ever hopes to be.
The Argus caught up with the Nakhlas in early February to get a look at what medical school is actually like, what differentiates Penn State from other medical schools, and what they wished they had known going in. Interviewed separately, both Nakhlas told The Argus in haunting twin-verbatim that they have learned more in five months at Penn State than they did over four years at Wesleyan.
“It’s definitely a lot less glorified than people make it out to be,” Mark said. “You spend the majority of the day just studying. The speed and the pace that they go at is ridiculous…it’s nothing like you’ve ever experienced before.”
Mike concurred. “The first semester was very much basic sciences, and it felt like undergrad on cocaine,” he said. “Much faster; much more difficult. Everything was so compressed. It felt like another year of college, but compressed into a very, very small window.”
Their daily routine consists of classes that begin at 8 a.m. and conclude at 12 p.m. (relatively little class time for medical school; Stony Brook University School of Medicine, for example, holds class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays), followed by four hours of studying after lunch and two to three more after dinner. The sheer amount of class material means that falling behind is simply not an option.
“It’s a lot of self discipline,” Mike said. “I’m like, ‘I know I have to get my shit together TODAY.’ You can’t do it tomorrow, because you have to do something else tomorrow. There’s never a day where you don’t have something new to do. That becomes pretty mentally exhausting pretty quickly.”
Although the data-crunching side of medical school is an immense challenge in and of itself, that’s only one part of what prepares a student for life as a doctor. Both Nakhlas mentioned that Penn State takes a uniquely preemptive approach to clinical training by integrating humanities courses that focus on how to develop positive doctor-patient relationships; these are areas of studies that medical students often don’t experience until their third and fourth years.
“The whole basis of their medical school is, every med school’s gonna churn out somebody who can read labs, take your tests, and give you a diagnosis and a treatment, but that’s not what makes the best doctors,” Mike said. “That’s a very good scientist, you know what I mean?”
Mark similarly noted the difference between their experiences and those of other first-year medical students.
“I was at a party for New Year’s in the city, and there were a bunch of Mount Sinai kids there,” Mark said. “They were like, ‘We haven’t seen a patient, we haven’t touched a patient, we haven’t learned any of that stuff.’ That’s not to say they won’t do it. They’ll do it in a different manner. For us, it’s scattered throughout our whole time here.”
Mark mentioned that relationships with professors at Penn State are completely different from the ones that Wesleyan students develop. On one hand, because learning in medical school is so much more self-directed than it is at Wesleyan, there is a certain amount of distance within the student-professor bond. On the other hand, for the hands-on, clinical side of things, doctors are much more accessible—in keeping with Penn State’s philosophy.
“Doctors are very open to anyone going to shadow them whenever they want,” Mark said. “I think the one biggest difference between Penn State and Wesleyan in terms of interaction is that at Wesleyan, it’s like, ‘Oh, you do research with a professor.’ It was this sort of competitive thing…with research in the sciences, at least. And at Penn State, it’s not like that at all. I can literally email any of the doctors that work here that do research and be like, ‘I want to do research with you.’ They’ll be like, ‘Great, let’s meet.’”
With a class size of roughly 150 and a campus contained entirely in one hospital, Penn State offers a vastly different lifestyle and social setting from that at Wesleyan. Despite this, the Nakhlas maintained that, especially when compared with city schools, Penn State’s small size and relative confinement are Wes-like in how they maintain a unified campus community.
“I was really hesitant to go to Hershey, [but] when I was thinking about it, I really appreciated Wesleyan’s small community, and how everyone was really integrated around campus, and I really like that here,” Mark said. “It really facilitates your ability to maintain close friendships.”
Mike agreed that the school’s small size has been beneficial, both socially and academically.
“It’s weird when you’re close with most of your class, you know?” he said. “It’s cool. I made a lot of friends, which is great, and you’re all going through the same thing together. There are very few people here who don’t do what I do [in terms of study time], and those guys are, like, geniuses. And generally social outcasts [laughs].”
When asked what they wished they had been told about medical school during the application process, the Nakhlas both seemed to agree that the difficulty was not properly communicated to them, but that this might have been more a limitation of the English language than of the intentions of their mentors.
“They keep telling you it’s hard,” Mark said. “I guess they can’t really get that across to you. You just have to start it and experience it. Honestly, I wouldn’t change much about what I did. The only thing I would change is that I would take time off. But that’s also not true of everyone.”
Mike voiced similar sentiments.
“We focus so much on getting in, but we don’t focus on, ‘Is med school right for you?’” Mike said. “Not only, ‘Can you do it,’ but, ‘Do you want to?’ …Part of me wishes I took time off, but there are pros and cons to each. You just have to decide what’s best for you.”
Ultimately, Mike added, he thinks he made the right decision.
“Things get better,” he said. “I was a lot more negative first semester. I was just like, ‘I hate this place.’ But you get used to it.”