MENTORING MAKES GOOD MEDICINE
BY MARYANN BRINLEY
When asked to add one more
item to their "to-do" lists, medical students may moan under
the considerable weight of what they must already master in four years.
The burden of educational demands can be daunting, according to New Jersey
Medical School (NJMS) students Ritu Sharma 05 and Richard Agag 04.
"I was overwhelmed at
first," Sharma admits. "You could never understand what medical
school is going to be like, or how hard it is, until you get here."
"You can study all day
but at some point, you need to stop and make time for other things of
importance in your life," Agag says.
Yet, along with 30 of their
classmates, these students decided that mentoring 5- to 9-year-old Newark
children in local classrooms once a week was worth putting on their busy
agendas. Agag, who also mentored four years during college, says, "The
value of mentoring is underestimated." The effect of such relationships
might appear to go in one direction only, towards the childs benefit.
Yet, at least one study by NJMS student Lisa Lovas, president of SHARE
(Student Health Advocacy and Resource Education), showed how positive
the impact can be on volunteers as well.
Primary Start, a collaboration
of UMDNJs Early Start Mentoring Program and the Social Decision
Making and Problem Solving Program, is operated by the students with some
guidance from Karen Shiffman Lateiner, MA, MEd. Supported by public and
private funding, especially generous contributions from the Healthcare
Foundation of New Jersey since 1999, 175 mentors have met weekly, one-on-one
with troubled children in four schools: Queen of Angels, Camden Street,
Lincoln and 15th Avenue. Lateiner explains, "Acting out, low frustration
tolerance and poor social skills at an early age can lead to more serious
problem behaviors and put children at risk for poor academic performance,
dropping out of school, substance abuse and delinquency."
The role of a mentor is to
intervene early. The difference in a childs life can be dramatic
and Sharmas experience is just one example. Last year, her little
girl, a kindergartner, was so shy at the beginning of the year that she
was unable to speak even in answer to a school nurses questions
during a hearing test. By years end, her social skills had gone
up more than 90 percent on one measurement. "Who would have thought
I could make such a change?" Sharma asks. "I never felt burdened
by the weekly commitment. Id bring coloring books and I learned
how to be patient and let her become comfortable with me." In terms
of patient interaction, Sharma learned how to use "silence as a technique."
"You have to realize that if you sit there in silence, if you give
them time and make them comfortable talking with you, then theyll
give you the information you need."
An encounter with the nurse
in June also convinced Sharma that her presence had been no small factor.
"We did the hearing test again and she was so cooperative,"
the nurse reported. "Thank you so much."
Not a parent, professional
counselor, social worker, or playmate, "A mentor praises, prods,
connects and just listens sometimes," Lateiner explains. Agag believes
that all kids need at least one other supportive person in life besides
a family member or teacher, who may be too busy to offer enough time and
individualized attention. For three years, he has mentored the same two
boys. "The first year, after a few weeks of mentoring one of the
children, he began to cry when I was leaving for the day," he says.
"This is when it struck me how important mentoring is. For a child
to become so attached to a stranger after a few weeks of mentoring is
not natural. This was the reaction of a child who was starved for attention."
Offered as a non-credit elective,
involvement in Primary Start also puts NJMS students out in the Newark
community. "I like it here," Agag says. One of his fears about
attending medical school was that every student would be from the same
educational and social background."Students here are so talented
and from all walks of life and all backgrounds. You sit down with someone
and discover something else besides medicine that makes them special.
Everyone has a story to tell." For some NJMS students, the experience
of mentoring is one of them.