MESS mentors at WMed provide classmates with important guidance and support for the challenges of medical school 

Claire Tanager and Christine Tran (Class of 2021)
Fourth-year students Christine Tran and Claire Tanager are MESS mentors and are leaders of the group.

When she reflects on her first two years as a student at WMed, M4 Claire Tanager recalls navigating the rigors of medical school, all while grappling with concern about her mother’s cancer diagnosis and, later, finding her way in the midst of the grief from her mother’s passing.

 It was in those moments, Tanager said, that she was able to lean on Claire Cameron-Ruetz, a 2019 graduate of WMed, for support and help, for an ear willing to listen to all that she was dealing with at that time.

“Having that access to highly caring and empathetic people who were willing to take time out of their lives to help other students – just having that community of people – was very helpful,” Tanager said.

That support system that was so helpful to Tanager in her time of need is the type of guidance that inspired the creation of the Mentoring Each Other for Support and Success (MESS) group at WMed.

MESS was created in 2018 by Cameron-Ruetz and Dart Newby, a fellow alumnus from the Class of 2019. And they asked Tanager, a member of the Class of 2021, to help launch the group along with classmate Christine Tran.

Tanager said the idea behind MESS was to create a group at WMed led completely by learners to provide students with strong peer support and an avenue for second-, third-, and fourth-year students to give guidance and mentorship to the aspiring physicians coming up behind them.

“We have some great things already in place at WMed like the Big Sib-Little Sib program but the feeling was that MESS could be more centralized for students to come to their peers for support and advice,” Tanager said. “I think that in medical school if you can learn to be vulnerable with your peers you can find the support you need to get through this experience whole and well-rounded, and happier.”

Since 2018, MESS has continued to grow and the outreach provided by the program’s student mentors has evolved, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group draws on a plethora of experiences with a makeup of 30 student mentors – 10 M2s, 10 M3s, and 10 M4s.

MESS is strongly focused on a one-on-one mentorship model for students in need of support or help with issues ranging from dealing with imposter syndrome and proper study habits to living away from home for the first time and handling long-distance relationships. In addition, MESS has also begun holding more themed virtual events for students, and student mentors participate in panel discussions for first-year students about making the transition to medical school and for third-year students about the transition to clerkships.

“All of it has helped me remember what it’s like to be in the different stages of medical school training,” Tran said. “It’s definitely helped me be more empathetic and remember what it’s like to be a M1 or going into clerkship. I want to use that knowledge to be a better resident and mentor later in my career.”

The support that student mentors from MESS provide has taken on added importance this year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, WMed students have had to face the challenges of medical school all while adjusting to virtual instruction and far less in-person interaction with their classmates and WMed faculty and staff.

That new reality led MESS mentors in November to hold a virtual event for students to discuss the pandemic and the things they have faced, whether it be feeling overwhelmed by their studies or being alone and isolated from their classmates.

Tanager said the event in November was very well attended and students from each class showed up to be a part of the discussion. During the event, Tanager and Tran said a Roses and Thorns model used was to prompt conversation, allowing students to talk about something good and something bad from that week and then reflect with the group. 

The idea to use Roses and Thorns for the event came from M2s Maya Giaquinta and Rachel Zamihovsky – both MESS mentors – who learned about the model this past summer during a mindfulness elective that was established by M4 Ellen Drosdick in 2019 and then led by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, PhD, the medical school’s assistant dean for Culture and Wellness.

“We saw in our elective that our fellow students were going through a lot of struggles and it was nice to have that space to talk about those things that are hard in our lives and not feel alone,” Giaquinta said. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s really easy to feel isolated.”

When she and Zamihovsky introduced the Roses and Thorns model at the event in November, Giaquinta said students quickly embraced it and found a safe and supportive space to talk about taking on the challenges of medical school while also dealing with feelings of isolation and struggles with coursework and workload, among other things.

“I think it was really important because a lot of times you can feel like you’re the only one struggling,” Giaquinta said. “Listening to other people talk about the same struggles, it feels like you have a connection out there and you’re not alone.”

During her first year at WMed, Zamihovsky said she was quickly drawn to MESS because she liked having a place where she could go to seek advice from fellow students who could help her by drawing from their experiences at WMed. Now, as a M2, she said being a MESS mentor is allowing her the chance to give back.

“Medical school is a lot, even more in a pandemic, so it feels good to give back some of what I got in terms of advice and support,” Zamihovsky said. “I’ve always been drawn to that dynamic of a group of people bonded by a specific event or an experience that they’re all going through. We can come together and share our struggles and victories.”

To keep students in the know about MESS and the resources it offers, first-year students receive information about the group after their arrival to WMed. That information includes a complete list of current MESS mentors, information about each mentor, and the specific topics each mentor can assist with.

“It’s really incredible to have students who are willing to put their name on those experiences and say they’ve been through them but they’ve come back and they’re on the other side of that now,” Director of Student Life Erin Dafoe said.

Dafoe said that even if students do not seek out the resources offered by MESS, the positive impact of knowing that fellow students understand their struggles and are there to help can’t be understated. She said MESS and its structure at WMed is unique in the way that student mentors receive training on how to respond to situations involving their classmates and how to know when it’s time to seek guidance from WMed leaders.

“We have a lot of students who are really open and want to help each other through a lot of things while going through medical school,” Dafoe said. “MESS is a phenomenal resource for all of our students and I really value the fact that we’re able to partner with them. Some people just need a peer and it’s wonderful to have MESS to refer students to.”

Kristine Gibson, MD, assistant dean for Clinical Applications, said she has appreciated the willingness of MESS mentors to share their experiences during the panel discussion for third-year students about the transition to clerkships. She said the mentors help provide “an authentic voice” for their peers about what to expect as they begin applying their skills in clinical settings.

“They are absolutely invaluable to their peers,” Dr. Gibson said. “They have a genuine desire to be there for one another, supporting their peers as they navigate into a new learning environment. They have collaborated in the development of transitions events and have been successful in demonstrating the value of near peers as teachers.”

As they prepare for graduation in May and the start of residency training this summer, Tanager and Tran said they are proud of the work they have done with MESS and all that they have accomplished as leaders of the group.

In the few months they have left as students at WMed, they are planning to hold more virtual events for students like the gathering in November. They are also working with fellow mentors and preparing future MESS leaders, including M3 Gordon Liu, to ensure that MESS continues to have a positive impact on WMed students for years to come.

“I hope MESS remains a solid and reliable source for kindness and our community at WMed caring about each other,” Tanager said. “And I hope those who are part of this group can even take this model with them into their residencies and careers. It’s a group of people who are saying, ‘I care about you and I want to hear about your life.’”

Liu, who will help lead MESS next year along with fellow M3s Jeanne Oord and Jack Stover, said he wants to work on changing what he sees as the common stigma affiliated with failure, especially in medical school and the medical field. He said MESS has a role to play in doing away with that stigma.

“It comes down to having a student-run group of people you can go to for support and there’s no judgment associated with it,” Liu said. “Everyone goes through tough times and it can be especially lonely right now during a pandemic. Bringing that to the forefront and de-stigmatizing it is a really key thing because the community at WMed is close to begin with and I think we can draw upon that and make it an even better place.”