Can students make a difference during the current pandemic? [Show summary]
Jalen Benson, founder of the National Student Response Network and first-year med student at Harvard, discusses what health care volunteer opportunities are out there and how to find them during the Coronavirus outbreak. Listen in.
Finding volunteer opportunities for premeds despite COVID-19 [Show notes]
Here’s a common scenario we’re hearing about from premeds and others in healthcare fields. It goes like this: “I had a great volunteer community service gig lined up for the spring and summer, but it was canceled due to COVID. What can I do to get this kind of experience and apply effectively?”
Our guest today is Jalen Benson, founder of the National Student Response Network. Jalen is a first-year student at Harvard Medical, after completing his undergrad in biology at Dartmouth and spending two years as a research assistant at Stanford University. When COVID-19 hit and students went home early, he founded the NSRP, a national network of medical, nursing, and PA students in all fifty states that helps connect volunteers with the organizations that need them and might not know they’re there. While many traditional internships and volunteer opportunities are shelved, there are still many ways you can help. The trick is to know where to ask, and realize that even if you can’t go on a far-flung internship, there are many local organizations that need help right now.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background outside of medicine? [1:55]
I’m from the town of Pensacola, Florida. It’s in the panhandle of Florida between Tallahassee and New Orleans, so way, way at the far western end. Nice and warm, nice sunny beaches. So growing up in Pensacola, I really could never be still. I loved playing soccer, and I was always doing that and running around doing a million and one things from history, to working at the beach. And my family was mostly me, my younger brother, and my mom.
And going to college I got involved more in the outdoors, and now I love hiking, and skiing, and the whole nine yards. All the things you get into going to New Hampshire when you see snow for the first time. My parents didn’t go to college, so there was no warning of what to do or how to do this, it was, “All right, it sounds great.” I visited, it looked good to me. I didn’t think about what snow was, I hadn’t seen it before, but I adjusted and I learned to love it, and I learned to play ice hockey, and ski, and go hiking. My parents still don’t know quite how that happened, but here we are.
When did you decide to become a doctor? [3:21]
It’s funny, I spent most of my life trying to avoid medicine. My mom is an MRI tech, and she raised us primarily by herself, so that meant a lot of weekends when she was on call, we were on call. Going to the hospital and sitting in waiting rooms, and I was like … I didn’t want to do this. I thought I was going to go and do law. And then as I got older, I fell more in love with science. And what struck me about medicine was the idea of the trust the patient gives you and the story. When you talk to patients it’s not like, “Oh, my leg is broken and fix it,” because I can fix problems as an architect or a lawyer, or anything else. But when they say the leg is broken they’re saying, “It’s broken, and it’s really important because my daughter has a recital next week, and my wife is sick so I need to be able to go to the recital on her behalf,” and so how to make sure we’re doing that. The trust you get from patients and those pieces of stories you get, that’s what really made me know that this is what I want to do. You help people now, get a piece of their story, and then they leave better for having seen you. Hopefully.
Were you considering a career in research when you went to Stanford and did those two years, or were you always convinced that the clinical path was the path for you? [4:21]
I definitely toyed with some ideas. I knew that the clinical path was always part of the role that I wanted to do, but I’d done work that I loved in undergrad and peds cancer research, and peds cancer surgery. And I think, for myself, I thought, “Am I going to be MD? Am I going to be MD/PhD? What does research mean?” And so I took two years to actually do two things. My day job was research in thoracic surgery at Stanford, which I loved and I had a phenomenal team. But actually, in the evenings I volunteered at a needle exchange where I was a Narcan counselor. And so it was a great juxtaposition, the mornings were robotic thoracic surgery, and the evenings were giving out bandaids and cleaning supplies on the streets of San Francisco.
It was that experience that led me to know that I’m always going to want to treat a patient and cure everyone behind them, but what I learned from that is I need to start by getting the MD. My research involves what I do with PhD during residency, maybe while I get my MPH, probably. But for now, I know that the MD is what is really important to me and that’s what I’m pursuing.
What was the hardest part of the med school application process for you? [5:34]
I think for me the hardest part was the self-doubt. I never thought I would get into medical school. Like going to Dartmouth I was not Phi Beta Kappa, I did not do well. Actually, my sophomore fall I made a D in organic chemistry. And so I really thought that it was over for me. And my grades got better, and I had a reason why, and I addressed that in the application. I told them what happened and there were things in my family, and I laid it out very honestly. But I didn’t think I was going to get in. And so the self-doubt was terrifying.
The first news that I got when I was applying to medical school, it was a school that had a nice range and it was actually one of my state schools, the University of Central Florida. They were a newer medical school, I thought I may have a chance there; my mom was really excited. And the first response I got was them telling me I was not even competitive enough to receive a secondary application.
So right then and there I almost was like, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” And that was hard, reminding myself that I can do this. But what I found to be really useful was I had good friends, and they knew I had my interviews and I would have them talk to me beforehand. And for me, when I was applying and going to interview, it’s harder to remember “What have I done that’s important or that matters?” But if you ask your friends questions like what have I done that’s useful in medicine or in college, they remember the things you did, they remember the late nights you went on and the way you care for people, and the volunteer projects. And you’re like, “Oh yeah, I guess I did a little something that was somewhat useful and helpful.” And that helped me get through it. My friends and my family.
What do you like best about Harvard Medical? [7:14]
I think that’s an easy one: it’s the people. When I was choosing my schools, I was shocked to get into Harvard, really, really shocked. And when I went I was like, “It’s going to be pretentious, and they’re going to think that they’re better than everybody else,” and like I said, I’m from Florida, from a smaller town. My parents didn’t go to college, I don’t have the nice Ivy League pedigree that a lot of people have. But I was shocked, the people were incredible, and they were caring.
What really struck me and drew me to Harvard was that I knew my classmates would push me to be better. Because we didn’t all love research, or service, or policy, but everyone loved something so, so different. And I was like this is what I need. To have someone next to me who’s going to be working in the Senate, and someone next to me who’s going to be working on nanotech, and someone down the hall who’s going to be working in clinical research. I needed to have that push. And also they were supportive. You wouldn’t know what someone was a Fulbright or Rhodes Scholar until it came out one day in passing. What I did know was that they were caring, they were passionate, and they wanted to be really good at what they did. And that’s the kind of energy I was excited to be a part of as a member of the class.
What could be improved at Harvard Medical? [8:27]
I put that in my secondary, it was a bold line, I told them that I’m excited to come to Harvard, but there are things I want to change and make better about the school. And they somehow let me in. So coming to Harvard, there’s a lot of things that can change. One thing is thinking about the socio and economic diversity of the patients. Harvard is right next to Roxbury, which is a primarily black and Hispanic area. And they don’t serve most of those patients, they don’t come to their hospitals, they go to the Boston Medical Center. So Harvard has a problem with the patients they serve, the way they do outreach, and the way that they talk to them. And even within faculty and students, I think they are lacking a lot of diversity in who’s there.
But at the same time, what I knew in going there is that in me being here, that told one patient, or one student, or one doctor that you also belong here and can be in that space. That’s powerful. Harvard has a lot of work to do to think about the way in which they impact the Boston community and the way in which they shape what leaders of the world look like and sound like. And I hope that they’re on the way to doing that.
What is the National Student Response Network? [9:30]
The National Student Response Network is a network of medical, nursing, and PA students that are around the US in all 50 states, and it’s pretty simple. Our goal is to help out hospitals and nonprofits, and government organizations with the things that are ailing them, predominantly facing COVID-19. And the simple idea was people need help and we have all the students that want to help, let’s find a way to connect them.
So many people have reached out to say they had volunteer positions that were canceled because of COVID-19? How are you dealing with the restrictions related to Coronavirus? Why are your volunteers being accepted while others have been essentially fired? [10:15]
It’s something we were trying to do when we founded it. So thinking about someone like me, let’s say I had an internship here in Pensacola, in my hometown, which would’ve made a lot of sense to save money. The hospital’s suddenly saying, “We don’t have the same role for you.” Something special about NSRN is we came and said, “I know it’s hard for you, maybe hard to imagine how students can work, but here are five or six or seven ways in which students have worked in the past at other places. Here’s what it can look like at your institution.” I think that made it powerful because then they didn’t have to imagine, do you have masks? How do we work with students? We say, “Hey, students have been involved in doing telehealth work, they’ve been on the 211 hotlines, they’ve been on poison control hotlines, they’ve delivered PPE to people, they’ve delivered food for the elderly.” And you start to give ideas to them, and they’re suddenly like, wait, there are these niches in which students can work.
I think what’s special is that we have those opportunities for people, especially with the current environment of America, with the protests that are going on and the racism that’s gripping our country. Things are changing in terms of safety and where volunteers can go. But the fact that we also have remote tasks, we have the ability to say, “If where you are is not safe, you don’t feel safe, we can also do things remotely.” And people need help contact tracing. You’re sitting in North Carolina, but you can be a contact tracer for someone in Seattle, remotely, over the phone. And so that’s what’s special about us.
So you’re working to a certain extent remotely or whatever the institution says they need you for? [11:45]
It varies. It can be remote or in person. In New York, everything is remote because they didn’t have PPE, in some places they did have PPE for our volunteers. Also, there’s contactless testing centers through the different groups that had PPE available for our volunteers to go work there and they just needed bodies. So I think we’re powerful because we’re flexible, and because we’re free to mobilize fast. I can’t give you someone for 40 hours a week and say they’ll be there every day from 8:00 to 5:00, but I can say my volunteer can be there tomorrow and they can work 15 hours a week, and they’re really passionate and energetic. And because they’re medical and some MPA students, they’ve already done their background check. Which gives some manner of security when people are looking to bring them on as volunteers.
How did you come up with this idea? [12:36]
Our medical school, Harvard, announced things were virtual, and so I’m sent home to Florida. And me being who I am, I wanted to be doing everything. I wanted to be helpful, and it was hard. Had I been in Boston, I could’ve been at the Brigham Hospital doing mask fit testing. I could’ve been at Boston Hospital Homeless doing temperature checks in their temporary clinics. I could think of all these things that I could’ve been doing. And now I’m here, and I can’t do it. But also, I realized I’m in my hometown that raised and supported me. And if the hospital down the street realized they needed someone to help man the phones or help with scheduling, they have no way to know that I’m home and I would love to help. And while I’m not a doctor, I’m not going to be intubating or writing orders, there’s a lot of things I can do that are helpful and important, but they have no way to know that I exist.
That’s where we came from, saying we have a need from local hospitals. We have students who want to fill that need; all we need to do is find a way to connect them. So that’s the way we work, and we have multi-structured labor, — we have coordinators both state and regional to help to make that happen and keep people on track and keep finding more ways in which hospitals have needs. Because hotspots pop up and they change and they move, but they need to be addressed and supported.
How many volunteers has NSRN placed? How many opportunities has it helped fill or is currently publicizing? [13:56]
I’m not sure of our exact numbers, I think we currently have 230 opportunities. And those will range from we need one person to we need 48 people, so it can vary in size. And of our 5,000 volunteers, we have hundreds of them that are working right now. We have already deployed, over time and there’s some repeats, several thousand of them. And so basically what that means, we have volunteers that have deployed but we also still have space for people to receive tasks. It depends on where you are. Some places there’s fewer volunteers and more tasks, some it’s the other way around. But we have volunteers who are working, and we have tasks that still need to be filled.
If I’m a student, how would I go about using the NSRN? What should I do? [14:50]
If you are already in school, you go on our website, which is NSRNHealth.org, and you say, “I want to be a volunteer,” and just sign up. But let’s say that you are a student who’s not currently accepted and you had an internship this summer or you want to do something because you think that when it comes time to apply to med school, you want to say what you did during COVID-19. What I’ll say is while we don’t currently take those students as part of our network, if you look on our website we have regional coordinators. Sometimes if you reach out to them they may know of opportunities that they can suggest to you that are in your area.
But more importantly, think about who’s in your area. I’m sure if you call three or four hospitals, someone has something for you. If you call the United Way, they still are taking volunteers. If you call your local Red Cross, they’re still doing blood drives, and they need people to work as screeners. And also reach out to your health departments, and see do they need contact tracers? Contact tracers. A lot of places require you to be 18, and that’s all that they will require from you. And then if you’re confused about what is training like or how do I find those things, Johns Hopkins University has an open course to be trained as a contact tracer. Partners in Health in Massachusetts has a program to be a contact tracer. And so I’d say start with that, start local, see what’s happening around you. Contact some name organizations that you know are working in your area. Just be persistent. If you want to get involved and help with the COVID-19 response, it may take you some time to find people because they’re busy, and they’re tired, and they’re overworked. But it’s something that you can do and should do.
Do you have to be in medical school or in a PA program to benefit from NSRN? Or do you just have to be in college to benefit from NSRN? [16:35]
For NSRN you need to be enrolled in medical, nursing, or PA school.
Do you have any plans to expand it to the undergraduate population? [16:52]
That’s what we’ve been figuring out. So I’ll say two things, right now we have some partners that work really well with undergraduates. So a partner we have that we’re working with is called Med Supply Drive, and they’re working all over the US, and I know they take undergraduates. For us right now, that’s not what the plan is. Come this fall when things change, and everyone’s online and the wave is worse, we then may have things separate where we have both opportunities for current health professional students and also for non-health professional students.
How do you manage the time demands of medical school and running the NSRN? [17:32]
Yes, I’ve got remote classes, and I have research that is being done remotely. I’ll say it’s two things, one is I really care about this. NSRN works a lot with health equity, working with underserved populations in community hospitals and native health groups. I got into medicine to do health equity work. My goal in being in medicine was thinking about who doesn’t have access to medicine, who doesn’t have access to care? Who may look like me or sound like me, or come from a community like mine, or from one that’s very different, and how do I help get them that care? And so NSRN is just another way that I can do that kind of outreach work and that recharges me. I care a lot more when I’m doing things outside of the classroom that make me excited and passionate, make me want to be a better doctor, because I can see who it can help.
Also having a team. So with NSRN, I’m the national director and founder, but there’s three other members who are on our executive team. And we work together to share responsibility. I also built out an administrative team, so we have a PA coordinator, a nursing coordinator, and we have three national strategy coordinators who help make things happen. And then from that, we have a structure. So we have eight regional coordinators, and then we have coordinators in all 50 states. And I think that was something that was tricky for me to learn because you don’t learn anywhere along the path of medicine how to be a leader and work within systems and everything like that. So it’s been an adjustment and a learning curve. But also it makes sense. Because I’m in Florida, I don’t know what’s happening in North Dakota. I don’t know the way North Dakota is set up. It’d be rude for me to say that I do know. But I can ask my North Dakota coordinators, Heather and Carissa, what’s happening there, what’s going on, what do you need? And the health departments are far happier to respond to someone who’s from there and knows them than someone far away.
So it just becomes a matter of me helping organize and coordinate people, and we use Slack. And then every Sunday, we have a Zoom call where we all chat together with all the state and regional coordinators about what’s happening, what are best practices, what are next steps, and how do we move forward together.
You put this together in two or three months? [19:41]
A little over two months. It was a learning curve, and it was interesting, but it’s been amazing. Because in medicine we’re all about teams and structures, everything you do will have a team of nurses, and PAs, and OT therapists, and pharmacists, as well as your attendings and their chiefs. So learning how to work within structure is tricky, and I’ve made mistakes, I’m making mistakes, but I’ve also found successes. And that’s part of the journey of medicine.
How do you advise applicants to use volunteer experiences, not only to help the communities they’re serving, but also to test their interest in specific subspecialties or professions in general, especially for the pre-healthcare group? [20:10]
This is something that you have to do. Because when you’re taking organic chemistry, and biochem, and cell bio, and genetics, it’s easy to get bogged down. You may love it, but also it’s hard and challenging. For me, I found that taking one hour a week or four hours a week to do some service, which I’m sure you all can find one hour a week, helps to recharge me because I see this is exciting.
I had to learn and see what is the way of engaging in service that feels right to me. And that helped me within medicine. I spent time working with kids who have cancer in the surgical wards and asking “Does that engage me?” Because it doesn’t make me a bad person if I realize I can’t do kids, or I can’t do cancer. Or I spent time working as a Narcan counselor working with people who were experiencing substance abuse disorder. I loved that work. I loved the people that I was working with. I learned through that, I’m not an infectious disease doctor. It’s not what I was meant to do, and that’s okay. I think there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Did it teach me a whole lot about how to deal with people? 100%. Did I really love my experience? 100%.
And I didn’t know when I tried it if I was going to like it. I had a friend who volunteered there, volunteered through the organization, a soup kitchen. And they eventually latched onto it. And so I’d say if you’re looking for things to do, look within existing organizations. Because they often have arms that are health-related, in some way, shape, or form. And you’ll find that these things engage you. And for me, doing service work made me want to be a better provider. And it made me want to be a provider so I could serve those communities.
I think that makes your story more compelling when you’re applying. More importantly, it makes you feel fulfilled. Because I love my research, but it’s hard every day trying to cure cancer on a molecular level. Going out and doing work, and two nights a week when I would go do it, it was nice because if nothing else that day, I’m like, “I didn’t cure lung cancer, but I made sure that people were happier, that they had some supplies they needed, and they left that day safer than had I not been there.” And for me, that helped fulfill me.
How do you see your career evolving? Do you see yourself going for an MPH, or an MPA, or an MBA? Are there any specialties that attract you? [22:51]
If I knew exactly, it’d be wonderful. I have some ideas, and I think what’s healthy is that it’s shifted. Like if you talk to my friends over this year, I came in saying, “I will get my MPH while I’m in med school.” And then when I was going through it I was like, “Actually, my passion is thinking about health equity and health access, and who has access to care, and to medicine, and changing the hospital system.” So I’m like, “I need an MBA.” And then I was like, “Maybe I also want to decide to cure cancer, so I need an MD/PhD.” So if you ask, I can’t say I know what my career will hold. I can tell you it’ll hold a dual degree. Because for me, medicine is what I love, but I need to be doing something else. I need to be curing the disease or changing access to a hospital, or changing how we think about healthcare. But I’m still learning what parts of those fulfill me and make me excited. I know that whatever I do I’m going to work very hard at it. And so I want to see what not only excites me, but also am I good at, and I leave it feeling charged for the next day.
In terms of specialties, I think it’ll likely be surgery. I’ve spent time in everything from ID, to surgery, to cardiology, to a variety of things. And for me, I’m not a very practical person. There’s something special about surgery, of walking in a room and doing something and saying, “I can quantify some way in which someone is better from me having walked in here.” But I think primary care is powerful and important, and with me, it’s also more challenging thinking about if I see someone for 10 years, how do I see the way that social determinants of health affect them? And the way that structures affect them? And so it’s seeing what works for me. I think it’s surgery, but we’ll see what happens in a few years.
Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask you in this interview? [24:44]
The only thing that I wish I could make sure people know is to find the things that you’re passionate about and pursue them, even if it doesn’t seem like it follows the straight and narrow. So for me in undergrad, that meant that I was president of our hiking and our outdoors clubs, and doing biomedical research.
I led backpacking trips around the US because that made me happy and I enjoyed it. And people were like, “You should be running the premed club at your school and you should be doing these things,” and I was like, “These things make me happy and are something I can be a leader in.” And when I interview people who say, “So you led backpacking trips and did biomedical research, and you did service work in different countries?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s what made sense to me,” and people found it engaging because they knew I wasn’t doing it to check a box. They knew I was doing it because I cared about it. And that’ll come through.
When you get further in your career, it can seem like things don’t fit. I know health equity is a part of the work that I do, but I also may end up being a surgeon. Those things don’t seem like they align, but they can if they align for you. You just have to find a way to make that work. And so for me, that’s in some way working in disparity access work and seeing who has access to care, and seeing ways people get to the hospital. Or what pre-op, post-op outcomes are, maybe. It can change and you can be the one person who melds together pharma co dynamics and policy, or with international work. And so if you have passions, put them together because that’ll excite you. And it’s tricky, but it makes you interesting.
The things that keep you busy are the things that make you exciting. And so when it came time to interview, preparing for questions wasn’t as hard for me because I was like, “I know what I like to do. I know why it makes sense, and these are what I’m passionate about.” They may not always mesh together, but people see that it’s easy for my face to light up when I talk about when I finally found a lab I liked after trying other ones, or talk about why I love health equity and why I love access to care, and why I love the outdoors. It’s not contrived, it’s not scripted, because I’m smiling and I’m laughing and it’s genuine.
Where can listeners learn more about the National Student Response Network? [27:43]
If you’re looking to learn more about the National Student Response Network, you can visit our website at NSRNHealth.org. And you can see there what volunteers are doing, who the coordinators are in your area, and you’ll find some ways to get involved and ways to get inspired. And for people who need help, there’s also a way they can request tasks. And I just say thank you all for listening. Keep seeing what excites you, and go for that, even if it doesn’t align with what medicine should be. If you’re in medicine, you love that, you become what medicine is. What I would tell myself when I was applying is, “Someone has to get this thing, someone has to get into these schools, someone has to be in this place, it might as well be me.”
- National Student Response Network
- Answering Your Questions on Med Admissions, The MCAT, and COVID-19: A Q&A With Experts
- How Can I Continue Volunteering in the Age of COVID-19?
- Medical School Admissions Consulting Services
- How to Apply to the Best Med Schools for You
- Apply at Your Best: Advice from a Med School Admissions Expert
- Med Student, Entrepreneur, Exercise Addict: How Does He Do It?
- Accepted to Med School in Mid October: How Did He Do It?
- Rejected From Medical School 3x – Today a Pediatric Resident and Mom
- Yoga Instructor, Holistic Health Coach, M4: Clare Brady Fits it All In