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“Invest in yourself”: An open letter to first-year medical students

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Dear first-year medical students,

Welcome! What an exciting time. You are now well into your first weeks at Stanford's School of Medicine, and if your experiences are anything like mine were, you feel like your dreams are coming true. I am here to tell you that four years later, my dreams are still coming true. Stanford is a place where magic happens.

The biggest decision you'll have is what kind of magic you want to be a part of. Will you work with Nobel Laureates? Will you lead the cutting edge of entrepreneurship in science and medicine? Will you see the look on a patient’s face when they thank you for saving their life? Or will you be a doctor who does the quiet work – the day-to-day digging that helps a diabetic patient live well? Any of these options are good. My only caution: choose wisely.

Time is now your most precious commodity. You are a full-time student enrolled in a rigorous academic program. Your study skills will be tested in a way that they never have before – at least mine were. But outside of lecture, Stanford offers something greater, an endless buffet of opportunities. And like any buffet, if you try to stuff yourself full, you will feel sick. Consider selecting only two or three things to be involved in outside of class. Your buffet meal can then be a delicious, manageable, specialized experience tailored to your interests.

What I’m really saying is this: Be strategic about the responsibilities you take on. Be a student. Be a team player. Find mentors. Give back to the community. Develop what you hope will become your niche. But be careful – you're still living your life. The next ten years aren't only your years in medical school and residency, they are your prime years. Invest not only in your career but in yourself. The best thing you can do with this precious commodity – time – is to give it to the people you love while you still have control over your schedule. Give time to yourself.

The last piece of advice I have is relayed from my father. My father is the most sought after plastic surgeon in Iceland. He is also currently married to his third wife. When I was home this summer, we had a deep conversation in which I told him that I finally understood why he was never around when I was growing up. My sister and I were part of the sacrifice he had to make.

My father told me he still carries the weight of his sacrifice. He confided in me the lesson that he has learned: You have to live with the decisions you make in your personal life even as you are working to become the doctor you want to be. You don’t get to relive these years. You don’t get to do them over again. You can’t put your personal life or your happiness on hold until “someday.”

Someday is always far away. Someday is always shrouded in hope and peace. Someday always looks better than today. But today is the day you are alive.

Today is the day you can do the things that make you the best version of yourself. Be true to who you are. Maintain at least one hobby that isn’t about building your resume, because your life can't be all about building your resume. Your life has to also be just that: a life. And so whether your secret passion is dancing or cooking or drawing and whether you're good at it or not, please let yourself hang on to that hobby as you enter the whirlwind of medical training. Hang on to your roots and spread your wings.

Good luck!

Sincerely, Natalia

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

Natalia Birgisson is a fourth-year medical student at Stanford University. She is in her second year off and writing her first novel, which is described on her site

Photo by AllAnd

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