2008 Corvias Scholarship recipient Ariana Melendez recently marked the culmination of her journey through medical school with a successful Match Day! On Match Day, thousands of medical students from around the country find out what residency programs they’ll be heading to for their first positions as doctors. Ariana matched with UC-Irvine’s OBGYN program and will be officially graduating from medical school in about a month! Ariana recently agreed to answer some questions from the Corvias Connects blog and share her experiences with our community.
All opinions and experiences represented are Ariana’s own and do not represent those of any institutions she is affiliated with.
1) Could you tell us a bit about your med school journey up to this point? How did you decide you wanted to attend med school, and where have you been studying so far?
This is a bit of a doozy – unlike a lot of people, I wasn’t totally set on medical school before, or even when I graduated from, college. It was something I had always considered, but I wasn’t sure it was the right path for me, and at the time of college graduation, I couldn’t iterate quite why medical school was a good fit for me. Having said that, I always loved the sciences, so I majored in Biology at the University of Chicago. As a part of that, I had the opportunity to take some classes on the ethics of medicine that really inspired me. Following college graduation in 2012, I served with Teach for America teaching high school biology and physics. While I absolutely LOVED my kids, I realized I missed being a part of the process of scientific discovery. Combining that with wanting to continue to serve under-served communities and being involved in advocacy, I felt like medicine could be a great fit. I started medical school in 2014 at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago.
2) How exactly does ‘med school’ work? What makes it different from, say, a university experience?
Alright, stick with me here – it’s a long process and I didn’t know how a lot of it worked until I got there. Most medical school programs are four years of training. Roughly the first two are classroom years – lectures on the basic sciences (think biochemistry, genetics, physiology) and combining that knowledge with medical basics (immunology, pathology) to begin to formulate a basis for making diagnoses. We also take classes on how to be good doctors – how to conduct patient interviews, write notes, and concerns specific to certain populations. At my school, we also spent some time involved in patient care during those first two years. Then, we take our first board exam – Step 1.
The third year, we start clinical rotations – essentially, we work at hospitals and clinics in a variety of fields – surgery, internal medicine, psychiatry, and my favorite, obstetrics and gynecology. During third year, we work a lot with residents – doctors who have graduated medical school and are onto their next level of medical training in a specific specialty. We also work with fellows (doctors getting additional training in a sub-specialty following residency), attendings (doctors who have completed their training), nurses, physical therapists, social workers, and everyone else who makes a hospital run. As students, we see patients, assist in procedures, and help the team function administratively.
During our fourth year, we take our second set of board exams (Step 2 CK and Step 2 CS), do additional rotations – usually starting on rotations in whatever specialty we’re interested in, and ending on rotations we need to graduate and elective activities such as research – and interview for residency. Some people take additional time in medical school to get additional degrees – MPHs, MBAs, and more – and others take time to do research to help them be more competitive residency applicants.
Overall, medical school was pretty different than college for me. The last two years of medical school are much like having a job, and not like college at all. In college, all of my classes were mandatory, and most of them were small seminars. In medical school, many of our classes were large lectures for our whole class (~185 people) that weren’t mandatory. This meant I could stay home and watch lectures online at a speed that was better for taking notes or comprehending the material. Additionally, we do a fair amount of small group team-based learning in medical school, which helps develop our abilities to form diagnoses. My college experience was a lot more focused on understanding processes and having discussions based on specific topics, whereas my medical school experience was much more rooted in mastering a large volume of information. We often joke that med school is like drinking from a fire hydrant – a lot comes at you fast and you have to keep up! It’s hard, but it’s so worth it!
3) Could you explain how the “Match Day” process works?
The Match Day process is actually just a small part of the longer residency application process. Everything you do in medical school is part of your residency application, as can be experiences you had before medical school (work experiences, research), however, the application opens the summer before fourth year begins, and we can begin submitting our applications in mid-September. There are also separate earlier matches for people participating in the military match or applying to specialties like urology and ophthalmology.
Our application includes a personal statement, letters of recommendation, test scores, a CV, personal information, and a list of all the programs we’re applying to. Most people only apply to one specialty, but some people apply to two or even three, and some specialties require doing a preliminary year in surgery or medicine before starting their official specialty.
After we submit our applications, residency programs offer candidates interviews. The interview season goes from October-January, and can involve a lot of travel! It’s a lot of fun to see and meet different programs, but the process can be exhausting too!
In February, both applicants and programs submit a rank list. For candidates, that’s a list of the programs we interviewed at in the order we want to go to them, and for programs, it’s a list of candidates they interviewed in the order they want them. After our lists our submitted, an algorithm runs a matching process which pairs applicants with their top program that also ranked them. Then, we wait!
The Monday of Match week, we find out if, but not where, we matched. Sometimes people don’t match, and they enter a process called the SOAP, where they can try to match at programs that did not fill all of their spots. That Friday, or Match Day, we find out where we matched!
4) Does this mean that we get to call you ‘Doctor’ now?
Not quite! But after I graduate in May, yes! (Editor’s Note: It’s official! Feel free to refer to her as Dr. Melendez at the next summit 😀 )
5) How did you actually find out where you had “Matched”?
At my school, we have a ceremony where we’re all given envelopes containing our match results, have a countdown, and open at the same time surrounded by friends and family. Some schools have students go up one-by-one and open their envelopes at a podium. I was really anxious going into the match and could hardly speak after I opened my envelope, so that would have been really hard for me. Overall, it’s really interesting because some people are very excited by their matches (like me!) and others have more bittersweet experiences (like some of my friends who have to move away from loved ones, or who didn’t get one of their top choices.)
6) How did it feel to find that you had matched with UC-Irvine’s OBGYN program?
I was absolutely thrilled! The process had been very stressful for me, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. UCI was my first choice, and I think it’s going to be a great fit! I had a lot of people rooting for me throughout this process, and they kept telling me it was going to work out, but the voice in my head was less sure. One thing I learned through this process was that I should listen to the people around me a bit better! Because I was going through this process with my husband, I knew he was also really relieved to be going back to his home state, so that made it even better!
7) How are you feeling about moving to the West Coast?
I LOVE Chicago, but given that it snowed here a day ago (it’s April!) I’m ready for a change of pace! My husband’s family lives in California, and his job is based out there, so it works out well for both of us! Of course, moving isn’t easy, but as a brat, this is old hat. 😉
8) Now that you’ve matched: what comes next? When will you start transitioning towards your residency, and what will that process look like?
At this point, I’m just wrapping my last course of medical school, then graduation is in about a month, then we’re taking a vacation before heading off to our new lives in California. For now, it’s filling out a lot of paperwork, but once I start I’ll hit the ground running – full on doctoring – with support of course! Another point of clarification – a lot of people wonder if internship and residency are the same thing – interns are just first year residents. It’s kind of like squares and rectangles.
9) This is, in some ways, a culmination of your experiences in medical school. Have you been reflecting on the experience lately? If so, what has been coming to mind?
Yep, this is definitely the end, and I’ve been doing tons of reflecting. Overall, this experience has been hard and has taught me a lot about myself – how to take care of myself and my mental health better, what my identity is an adult, woman, and doctor, and how I can best help those around me. I’m also really grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn from those who have done it before me – I’ve had residents, attendings, other medical students, and patients serve as mentors and teachers. I’m so excited to finally be in a position to help others reach higher in the medical field!
Additionally, one of the biggest things that comes to mind is something I was told my first week of medical school – that I would meet some of my best friends here. At the time I didn’t think it was likely, but now I’m leaving with a tight-knit group of friends I couldn’t have done this process without! Even though we’ll be going all over the country, I know I’ve made friends for life – some of whom were even my bridesmaids – and I can’t wait to plan trips to see each other!
10) How did your experiences as an Army brat shape your experiences in medical school?
Resilience and compartmentalization both play huge roles in medicine. We’re often tired, but the world doesn’t stop turning and people don’t stop getting sick. It’s our job to be there when things go great, but also to keep patient care going when things take turns for the worse. It’s a real privilege to be able to be there during some of the most emotional (good and bad) parts of people’s lives. By being an Army brat, I think I developed a pretty strong sense of emotional maturity at a young age, and I think that’s served me well. Doctoring is hard, and experiences often come home with you. Having healthy ways to process strong emotions – whether success, failure, helplessness, or any number of other things – is really valuable.
I also think there’s a lot to be said for diversity in medicine. As a brat, you meet so many people from so many backgrounds, and as a doctor, the same is true. It’s so important to take the time to listen to hear people’s experiences and to know their perspective on their illness. As military kids, we have a lot of opportunities to move between communities. Medical school has allowed me to be a part of even more communities – not just as a medical student and future physician, but as an advocate for women’s health and for equitable treatment of people with disabilities – two things I always innately felt, but didn’t really have enough knowledge about to speak on. Growing up in a multi-ethnic family and having lived in Puerto Rico for three years as a kid has also helped with my Spanish, which is really valuable in letting Spanish-speaking patients know their concerns are valued too!
I talked to a lot of people throughout this process, and it was funny how many people compared the match to getting orders in the military – you bloom where you’re planted was a phrase that came up a lot on the interview trail and describes a lot of my life experiences pretty well. At the same time, from my perspective as a brat, I never got a choice of where we were going, so having a choice in my rankings was certainly a luxury, but also a really tough decision to make!
Finally, as military children, the statistics aren’t always the best in terms of pursuing higher education because there is so much transition. To be able to represent the perspective of someone from a military family as a medical student and future physician is really exciting, and I hope it motivates others from minority backgrounds to keep reaching for their dreams!
11) We know that many Corvias scholars are also working towards careers in the medical field. What advice would you give people who are interested in working in medicine or are already studying medicine?
I think the best advice I can give is to stay humble and actively try not to get jaded. It’s easy when you’re exhausted to take the easy road or not give 100%, but that devalues patients and leads to errors. Sometimes it’s a conscious effort to check yourself, but it’s an important thing to do. For people who are already in medical school, I’d say to keep doing your best – if you got in, you deserve to be here! There are so many rich experiences in medical school – friends, extracurricular activities, faculty, rotations, teaching, and patient experiences – treasure those!
To everyone, medical school isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay, but if you think it’s for you, don’t let imposter syndrome get in the way of your success! Take the time to take care of yourself – emotionally, physically, mentally – you can’t give to others if you can’t take care of yourself. It’s okay to step back and prioritize yourself and your health! Remember that while it can be hard, medicine is not the only hard thing in the world and we are privileged to do what we do. Finally, and I think this is true of all fields, the perfect “work-life balance” does not exist – work and life will never be in equilibrium, but they can be integrated.