For nearly a decade, the medical school faculty at UC Davis has pondered ways to better support
its 400 students academically, emotionally and socially. With the recent reorganization of the UC Davis
School of Medicine into four distinct "colleges," they're hopeful they've finally succeeded.
"We felt medical students need to be mentored and simply giving them access to faculty wasn't enough,"
says Michael S. Wilkes, vice dean of medical education, who suggested the college model, and sought support
for the idea within the dean's office and among medical school faculty.
Students also are intrigued by the new system launched in January and believe it will make it easier
to get faculty advice. "It can be intimidating to call a professor," says Fatema Mawjee, a third-year
student. "But if you know you're supposed to phone them that they're waiting to hear from you you
don't feel so bad."
Each college which students are assigned to on a random basis in their first year is headed by one
of four School of Medicine physicians: Amerish Bera, Constance Bowe, Ernie Lewis or Daniel C. West. "We're
lucky to have four outstanding college directors," says Wilkes. "They each represent different aspects
of campus, and they are uniformly excellent."
Bera, assistant dean of admissions and outreach, is enthusiastic about the new college system, which
he believes will help students reach their greatest potential, both professionally and personally. "Each
student has unique goals and passions," he says. "I like to tell my students that I am giving them the
'tools in a toolbox' that they need to reach those goals."
Each college also has a group of faculty advisers from a range of medical specialties, each of whom will
advise students on a one-on-one basis throughout their medical school careers. "The faculty response has
been very positive," says Bowe, associate professor of pediatric neurology. Some 120 faculty members have
signed on to be advisers so far. "I think they're eager to have longitudinal experiences with students."
In fact, it's possible the faculty will gain as much from the new structure as the students. "We hope
this will be a plus that it will give faculty a home, as well as make them feel more involved in medical
school training," says West, assistant professor of pediatric hematology/oncology.
Wilkes agrees, suggesting the deepening ties to students is a job perk. "There is really nothing better
than having longitudinal relationship," he says, "and not only during medical school. Some of my advisees
write me letters for years. It's one of the very best things about teaching."
The college model offers medical students more peer interaction as well, with formal and informal activities
bringing all four years into close and frequent contact. "We're all very busy," says Mawjee, "and this
is a good way to connect the classes." She also believes peer relationships are crucial: "It's a very
different connection. If you go to a faculty member, they give you official guidance, but you need other
medical students to fill in the gaps." Mawjee says there is actually a long history of students helping
students, from the Big Sib/Little Sib program to the tradition of passing down textbooks and pagers. "We've
had all of this built in, it's just been extremely hard to do," she says.
Students and faculty alike believe the college system will also help mitigate the issues surrounding
the split medical school campus with classroom work for the first- and second-year students in Davis and
clinical work for the third- and fourth-year students in Sacramento.
"There is a sense the third-year students disappear off the face of the earth into the hospital in Sacramento,"
she says, adding the first- and second-year students are extremely curious about clinical work and would
revel in listening to the third-years' experiences with patients.
Indeed, the colleges are meant to form a sense of connectedness, a family if you will. "It creates a
community of students that goes across different levels of training," says West. "And you need that peer
support, that idea of 'been there, done that'." In West's college, for example, there are a number of
regularly scheduled activities where all students get together. "There's a student governing committee
that sets priorities and goals," he says. "And our college has already identified a number of areas to
develop academic resources and support for students. But we also plan to offer social support to work
hard in medical school, but also to play hard."
These simple human connections may in the end be the most meaningful part of medical school education.
"Professional training is, of course, knowledge-based, but we're also trying to build professionals with
compassion, a sense of responsibility," says Bowe. "And if we are training them in that kind of atmosphere,
transmitting these values, they may end up then treating patients the same way."
Wilkes agrees, suggesting medicine is an increasingly complicated field. "Anything we can do to keep
medicine humane is important because it's not about test tubes, or scans; it's about human relationships,"
he says. "And it needs to start at home, so to speak, in relationships with your colleagues. It's easy
to test a student on knowledge and we should but we also need to focus on human interaction. It's
really about getting people together."