Dr. Anita Vanka, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Associate Advisor & Director of Hinton Society at Harvard Medical School, co-directs Practice of Medicine with Dr. Katherine Johnston, Assistant Professor of Medicine. The eleven-month course involves several hundred faculty members at different teaching hospitals and is designed to teach first-year medical and dental students how to effectively interview and communicate with patients, perform a thorough physical exam, reason through diagnostic possibilities, and translate findings effectively in both oral and written form. Given the size and breadth of the course, Drs. Vanka and Johnston developed a mentoring system which allows for each student to meet with an assigned faculty advisor at their hospital site several times a year. These meetings encourage faculty to develop personal relationships with the students, oversee their clinical progress, provide feedback, and guide students into setting goals for their learning and progress.
Mentorship can have an immensely formative impact on a student’s trajectory and sense of belonging, offering them both support and pathways to challenge them in their work. It arguably benefits the instructor as much as it does the student. “It’s a two-way street. I learn so much from my students and we often can relate to common experiences. It’s rewarding to be a small part of someone’s growth, both professionally and personally.”
“There’s a human component to mentorship, that you’re not just some faculty figure—that you’ve experienced and gone through some of the same things they’re going through—it helps make the relationship more meaningful.”
The pandemic presents unique challenges for forging these relationships. “I miss the in-person connection, with both my first-year advisees in the Hinton Society and my students in the Practice of Medicine course,” Dr. Vanka reflects. “We have aimed to bridge this divide by meeting more frequently and attempting to make video meetings as human as possible, while also openly acknowledging the challenges that remote engagement can present, particularly for first-years joining the community.”
Takeaways and best practices
Design mentorship frameworks based on specific needs.
When developing structures and opportunities within a program or course, Dr. Vanka underscores the need to first identify what gap is being filled. “Is it because there are so many course instructors? Is it because you want to ensure there’s open access to the instructor in terms of office hours? Is it because you’re trying to get to know your learners on a very personal level?” From there, create a structure that directly responds to that need.
Share your own experiences.
Dr. Vanka emphasizes the critical “human component” of mentorship— responding with empathy when students share their experiences and, when applicable, sharing your own similar experiences. “Showing that you are vulnerable too can help make the relationship more meaningful.”
Be flexible and creative to forge connections.
Amidst the pandemic, the instructors and their leadership team also helped students feel more connected to each other. For example, in prior years advisors would meet with individually with student advisees on a quarterly basis. During the virtual fall semester, however, faculty advisors have not only met with students more frequently but also brought together multiple advisees at once.
It is important to re-envision existing structures based on students’ needs and changes in the learning environment (such as going virtual) in order to provide ongoing support, opportunities for connection, and the appropriate level of mentorship. Some changes may be small, such as meeting more frequently and in a group format but can be important when aiming to forge personal connections and establish a culture of support during unprecedented times.