September 25, 2018

Charlotte O'Connor: Sustaining support

For every medical student, there is a team of professionals ready to assist, guide and mentor at any point along their journey

Charlotte O’Connor took on the role of Learning Specialist for the University of Michigan Medical School this past spring. She engages with medical students through the Academic Success program in the Office for Medical Student Education. Here she answers nine questions about what it means to help out our amazing high achievers.

How would you describe your role as a Learning Specialist?

I help students learn the processes that lead to academic success. Medical students are all extremely bright and extraordinarily capable. However, I would bet that most have never really thought much about the way in which they learn academic content.

Though it requires considerable effort, learning comes somewhat naturally to good students. Medical school, with its breadth of material and rapid pace, presents challenges many have never before experienced. This is where it is valuable to work with a learning specialist -- someone who understands various approaches to learning.

Each medical student is an individual with unique talents and strengths. I enjoy helping them understand how to use their strengths and minimize their weaknesses to discover the learning, time management and life-balancing strategies that work best for them. Also, I fancy myself a provider of positivity and encouragement –- the glass is definitely half-full from my perspective!

What appealed to you in taking on this role?

I’m a lifelong learner who constantly seeks new avenues for personal and professional growth. Over the years, I’ve worked with postsecondary students at all levels: from first-year students in community college to doctoral candidates at the U-M. The learning specialist position was appealing as I was certain that it would allow me to interact with some of the best and brightest students I have ever met.

Also, I knew that UMMS had recently changed its technical standards to be more inclusive of students with disabilities. With my background as both a disability services provider and an academic coach, the OMSE Learning Specialist position was the perfect marriage of my talents and interests.

What services do you offer to med students?

I like to get to know students and to discover when, where and how they study. From there, we talk about their results – are their current methods working? What, if anything, is getting in the way? What are their goals for improvement? How can we, together, come up with a more workable plan?

There are endless tips and tricks to aid the process of learning – and I’m always researching new ones! In addition, I network with other medical school learning specialists to share ideas and to stay current. Another function of my position is to coordinate disability services for medical students, including helping them apply for accommodations for board exams.

Why is it important that these services are available to med students?

We live in the age of information. It’s never been more important to have awareness of how to best take in, synthesize and retain the wealth of information that’s presented to us daily. As future physicians, our students will never cease to learn – the strategies they learn now will benefit them throughout their careers.

Studying efficiently and employing good time management provide for work/life balance, which plays a role in overall well-being. These skills and habits are important for both academic and life success.

What can students expect from their relationship with you?

As part of the OMSE Student Services Counseling team, I offer a confidential and safe space in which students can tell me about themselves and how they are faring in medical school. I provide a listening ear and pass no judgement. I strive to treat each student with respect and consistently provide both academic and moral support.

What unique challenges do students face in medical school?

Medical school demands a high volume of learning at a fast pace. Unlike undergraduate education where one professor teaches a class for an entire semester, medical school sequences and lecturers are numerous; each faculty member has a unique style of teaching and assessing students.

Also, the clinical setting is a unique and exciting learning environment that looks nothing like the traditional classroom that most students have experienced for 16+ years. In addition to adjusting to this unique setting, many students are nontraditional and come to medical school after taking a break from academics. They have histories of working, serving in the military and may be balancing medical school with relationships, children and other adult responsibilities.

What do you see as your overall mission in this role?

I’ve heard that the UMMS Admissions Office does not make mistakes -- and I agree wholeheartedly! Every student who is here has the potential to succeed. I see my role as that of supporting students over the hurdles they sometimes face and ensuring that they retain the knowledge that they are exceedingly capable.

I remind them to focus on their WHY of coming to medical school, to trust themselves and the talents that got them to this point, and to embrace the difficult times as a necessary means to achieve their dreams. Successful people do things that unsuccessful people are not willing to do!

What do you like to do outside of work?

I enjoy cooking, reading, listening to music, going to concerts, plays, and musicals, and attending both professional and U-M athletic events. As an extrovert, I renew my energy by spending time with family and friends. I value friendships and still see people I’ve known since my elementary school days!

What are you looking forward to next?

I look forward to watching our current medical students develop into physicians and leaders. Already I’ve found satisfaction in observing the growing confidence of the M1s who arrived here with some trepidation just a few short weeks ago. As an attendee at their White Coat Ceremony, I look forward to watching them cross the stage at graduation!

Also, I am passionate to support students with disabilities through their medical education. According to the U.S. Census, 1 in 5 people in the U.S. has a disability, yet disabilities and especially invisible disabilities are frequently misunderstood. I applaud UMMS’s support of inclusivity and am honored to play a small part in increasing awareness and acceptance of disability in the field of medicine.