November 09, 2018

Jennifer Imsande, PhD: Inspiring culture

Connection is critical for surviving and thriving in medical school

Dr. Imsande (in black shirt) cheering on the M-Home Olympic teams

Jennifer Imsande, PhD took on the role of M-Home Program Director for Michigan Medical School last year. Dr. Imsande works with med students to help them develop means of support through the ups and downs of medical school. Here she answers seven questions about what it means to create the structure that helps our students achieve their highest potential while they train with us.

How would you describe your role in M-HOME?

So I describe my role as inspiring a new culture, one where medical students feel safe asking for the support and connections they need. My work is to help students feel a sense of belonging and connection while in medical school, and use whatever means available and whatever partners are available: curricular, co-curricular, student services.

I see my role as doing everything humanly possible to create a learning culture in which students feel empowered to take risks, to fail, to be extended beyond what they thought possible. None of us can aspire to greatness and innovation without a safety net. We also need to show up with our A-Game—with our genuine, authentic, best selves. M-Home exists to create a culture of home. If students (and their families or significant others) are going to spend a minimum of four years here, we should help make their learning environment feel like a home.

What appealed to you in taking on this role/position?

I was attracted to this role because for a long time, I thought that being an academic historian and professor would be my “forever” career. I was fascinated with how humans try to change broken systems and how, against all odds, they change the culture. Medicine is a hard culture to change. But if we’re going to change it, we need to tap the best that we all have. Our best talents. Our best hearts. Our best heads. In the process of teaching students about how people created change in the past, I fell in love with creating learning environments where students could learn how to create change in the present.

I see my job as being a “vision carrier.” Leaders hold the emotional future of the organization. They keep reminding everyone, “What is our highest purpose.” M-Home’s purpose is to foster well-being in our learners through authentic connections. We all need a place where we belong. We need to know that it’s safe to ask for help. We need to learn to ask for help. No one likes to be vulnerable. No one likes to admit that he doesn’t know something, doesn’t understand something, needs a mentor or a friend or some help. What an amazing job, right?

Why is it important that this community is available to students?

We call this learning community M-HOME for a reason. The AMA might visit and ask about our Impact and innovation. And I sit there thinking, you know what, we had a pumpkin carving contest. How is that about innovation? Simple. Because if human beings don’t feel safe being vulnerable and being genuine and being authentic, then they’ll never EVER feel safe enough to take the risks required to innovate. I feel that my job is the most important job I’ve ever had. My job is help people feel that they’re home. My job is to help people feel safety, belonging, authenticity.

You have a varied and interesting background. What cues or direction do you take from your past and bring to your role in M-Home?

I’m a historian of social change who went back to graduate school for my MFA in creative writing. I realized that I was studying how human beings navigated change in the past, but I needed to develop my own capacity for creativity and innovation if I were going to change the future. That’s what I'm doing now. I value and support humans who are trying to change the culture of medicine. When I was hired, Dean Mangrulkar said, “We’re sending our students into a broken and dysfunctional system and we need to prepare them to thrive and create change in broken systems.” That resonated with me. What else does it mean to be human, but to navigate change?

What are some of your favorite things within M-Home?

Getting to be a funnel for student interest and need. I love when students come to me saying, “I have an idea!” Or, “A bunch of us have decided that we need ____ (fill in for X).” I trust humans to know what they need. And I think students do things best. So I really appreciate that I have a background as an educator, as an historian, and creative writer. I feel my whole life has conspired to help me do this job. And my job is to listen. My job is to encourage. My job is to inspire, connect, inspire, connect. Ad infinitum.

What have you learned so far about working with med students in this capacity?

Holy smokes. I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a professor of Women’s Studies and History. I’ve been a professor of political advocacy and communication. I’ve always worked with passionate, smart people. When I thought I was burned out as a professor and needed to move to Michigan for family reasons, I started a business. I’ve had to change and adapt a lot in my life. But I think this job is the job where I, as an individual, have been able to grow the most. (And will grow the most.) This is a complex system. This system will not go gently into that good night. This system needs strong, creative, resilient leaders who will show it how to change. My goodness, is there a better job on the planet?

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love work. But I’m smart enough (and seasoned and old enough) to know that if I’m not taking care of myself then I won’t be able to take care of anyone else. So I take great care to pay attention to what I need and what the rhythms of my life require. Only then will I be at my best. I have lots of interests outside of work. Friends. Reading. Running and cycling. Family. Dancing. Writing. And I tend to them. Or at least I try to. Sometimes I work too much and the laundry and dishes pile up. (As does the gunk in my head.) When it gets bad enough I breathe. I wake up early. I drink coffee. I call a friend. I ask for connection. I do what I hope our students are doing.