by Susan Davis
When Noriko Anderson became pregnant during her first year of medical school at UCSF, she faced a number of difficult questions, including whether she could continue going to classes during her third trimester and how she would keep up in the weeks following the birth of her baby. So she turned to Ellen Hughes, MD, PhD, her Advisory College mentor.
"She congratulated me and gave me her full support in whatever I decided to do," Anderson, now in her third year, said. "She encouraged me to make a plan for my second year. She advised me to study early for my Step 1 exam and helped me identify other faculty and staff who could help me. I ended up being able to study for six weeks between my first and second year to get ahead."
Dr. Hughes is one of eight faculty mentors working with students through the School of Medicine's "Advisory Colleges ." There are four Advisory Colleges, each led by two faculty mentors*. Each mentor works with about 75 students.
The program is specifically designed to guide students through the wealth of course offerings, career options, and clinical care settings available to them. But it is also designed to help the students develop closer relationships with faculty and other students, and to enhance their personal and professional development.
"By assigning them Advisory College mentors, UCSF is basically saying, 'we value this relationship. We're going to help you get started,’” Hughes said.
UCSF's medical student mentoring program is part of a “broader effort to create and support a culture of mentorship at the university," said Mitchell Feldman, MD, who is the associate vice provost for faculty mentoring and the co-director of the CTSI Mentor Development Program .
It is also part of a national trend toward providing more support for medical students. "Many medical schools are trying out models," said Maxine Papadakis, MD, the School of Medicine’s associate dean for student affairs. "It's a challenging area, because it can be hard to provide the right kind of mentoring and support for many students with differing needs. But lots of medical schools are experimenting with this now."
What is different about UCSF's program is the way that the advisory college mentoring system is integrated with competency coaching and UME staff advising.
Competency coaches, for instance, help four students each to "develop clinical skills and discuss larger issues in patient care," noted Phaedra Bell, PhD, the director of Undergraduate Medical Education  (UME.). "They also read the MD Portfolios (a self-reflective report) that the students are working on,” she said.
Meanwhile, the three staff members in the UME office function much like advice nurses in a doctor's office, according to Bell. "Anybody can come to us and ask any question, and we will help them figure out where to go for an answer."
Mentors, coaches, and staff advisors have overlapping abilities to support students in each phase of their education. They can also refer students to UME career advisors, who offer discipline-specific advice as students weigh different career options. And they will gladly refer students to one another for particular issues.
"Our goal is to develop a network of advisors who are related to each other in a meaningful and complementary way," Bell said. “We want students to feel like they have totally individualized education experiences and that they have a safe place to go at all times.”
Mentors and coaches often encourage students to meet with other faculty members who may have a particular specialty or even personality that fits the student, too. "I'm not the only person for my student," Hughes said. "I want my students to find mentoring and support in all sorts of places."
Being supported by a variety of faculty, staff and peers gives students more opportunities to find a good match for their needs. It also gives them the chance to practice building mentoring relationships – a great skill to hone for their overall professional development.
While the Advisory College program is focused on the first 18 months of medical school, many students continue to meet with their advisors throughout their years here and specifically in their fourth year, when they are likely to need guidance in applying for residencies.
"The Advisory College mentors support the professional development of students across the continuum of their medical school training," said Maxine Papadakis. "That includes figuring out what courses to take, how to access resources on campus, how to apply for clerkships and residencies, and how to fit into the culture of medicine.”
Despite being high achievers, some UCSF students do not find it easy to adapt to the environment at medical school and the expectations put upon them. As Ellen Hughes pointed out, "anybody accepted here is a rock star. They get here because they're smart and hard-working and have histories of unbelievable accomplishments and commitment to public service.”
But once they get here, they find that they are one star among many. “It's not uncommon for them to think, 'I'm used to being one of the best, but now, I'm just average. Maybe I don't deserve to be here,’” said Hughes. “I went through it myself when I started med school here.”
“I try to normalize that, to let them know lots of people are going through that, and that it's important to be gentle with yourself, to be aware that you have special gifts, that the drive that got you here will continue to serve you well."
For Noriko Anderson, having a faculty member support her drive to succeed, even as she prepared for motherhood, was enormously helpful. "She has been there to encourage and support me academically and emotionally, both when things are challenging, and when I'm successful," Anderson said. "She's been helpful to me even past my first year. She stays open to leading students and takes it upon herself to stay in touch. Plus, since she went to UCSF, she can relate to what we go through a lot."
Notes Hughes, "It's an honor to support the students as they begin this journey. They are becoming fully developed human beings. They have a sense of purpose. In the initial meeting, I always tell them, 'I am the lucky person who gets to be your 'go to' person.’"
*The other mentors are Drs. Mohammad Diab, Mike Harper, Beth Harleman, Sharad Jain, Carol Miller, Andy Murr, and John Stein who make up the Hughes-Harper, Miller-Diab, Jain-Stein and Murr-Harleman Colleges.