December 02, 2020

Jennifer Fokas: Exploring opportunities

Branch years bring students the flexibility and time to explore their interests

Students and faculty member smiling at camera

Left to right: Classmate Bryana, Dr. Allen, Dr. Gelb and Jennifer during Tag Days, an annual Michigan Medical School fundraiser for local children's charities

Jennifer Fokas is a fourth year medical student who is currently interviewing with neurology residency programs across the country. As a first-generation, low-income student, Jen has brought her unique insights and compassion to the Michigan experience and made it her own. Here she shares why she chose to pursue medicine, what she wished she had known prior to applying, how she's worked to make an impact while in medical school, and more.

Why did you choose to explore a career in medicine?

I must have been about 5 years old when my grandma asked me, in Greek, if she would get a discount at my medical office when I was a doctor. I was raised in a three-generation, immigrant household defined by interdependent cultural values, and I grew up with a sense of obligation to make the most of my opportunities, so that I could later turn around and give back to those around me.

From a young age, I attended Greek school, and studying the language, geography, history, and mythology of my ancestral home imbued me with a love of learning. In particular, I was drawn to better understand the way that culture intersects with health care. I was the first in my family to obtain a four-year degree, in which I continued to focus on biology, psychology, and human culture. In medicine, I can continue to learn and apply the sciences I love, without ever losing sight of the good I can provide for individual people.

What’s one thing you wish you would have known before going through the med school application process?

I wish I knew more about the premium of research experience before applying to medical school. In college, I focused on gaining shadowing experience, and I only took significant time to participate in research after graduating. In my research experience, I was able to meet incredible people, learn how to delegate responsibilities, adjust to feedback, and build administrative skills.

I also think it’s important to utilize the pre-med advising office, so that one can learn early on the steps to create the best foundation for a productive medical school experience. Knowledge provides the power to make decisions, and I would try to engage with and learn from as many medical students as possible, in order to be able to hit the ground running at the beginning of med school. You can reach out to the admissions office to help with this.

What has been your favorite part of the Michigan curriculum so far and why?

The Branches (3rd and 4th years of medical school after taking step 1) have been my favorite part because I’ve gotten to customize my schedule with electives, take on research projects, and help mentor students who are earlier on in their medical school journey.

I am going into neurology, and my movement disorders clinics during the Branches was so interesting that I asked to do a longitudinal apprenticeship with my preceptor. This allowed me to follow up patients at multiple points in time to see if my interventions worked. This essentially amounted to a mini-fellowship, an experience that most medical students do not have the opportunity to obtain.

What are some of the ways in which you’ve been able to explore your passions during med school?

As someone who was undecided about specialty at the start of medical school, I’ve liked being at an institution that is so strong in so many specialties. I was a blank slate, able to explore everything around me and formulate my own opinions. I got to work with many great faculty who were passionate about education and who inspired me. The flexibility of the curriculum in later years was critical to finding my clinical passions and for me to be able to champion causes that I care about.

One of my passions is supporting the pipeline in medicine to build greater diversity across all medical specialties. I believe the health care work force must look like the patients it serves. I am most proud of working towards getting our Michigan Medicine First in Family group formally established to assist students in their medical school journey.

First-generation, low-income (FGLI) medical students are the first in their family to obtain a four-year college degree and to pursue medical education, and these students face unique challenges during their medical education. In the last year, we expanded our FGLI mentorship program beyond near-peer student mentorship to include residents and even faculty who identified as first-generation or low income when they were students. I have also really enjoyed working collaboratively with other identity-based student groups and our student diversity council. These groups are so important for helping students with less knowledge of the medical education system gain the opportunity to find mentors that they can relate to. I hope that these efforts will increase student belonging and facilitate professional development.

What resources at Michigan have been the most helpful to you in your medical education so far?

There are so many resources, and this is a journey that takes a confluence of contributions. The Doctoring course provides mentorship and a tight knit community in which to learn communication skills and physical exam skills. At the start of medical school, the Leadership curriculum represents a unique opportunity to examine your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. The Transition to the Clerkships course is basically a boot camp of standardized patient encounters and important didactics to ease the transition to the hospital wards. I have found the informal interactions with my peers, residents, and faculty to be the most important in helping me develop as a doctor.

How would you describe your fellow students and the community at Michigan?

My fellow students at Michigan are incredibly hard working and always striving. They have created new medical innovations, performed basic and clinical research, obtained additional degrees, and even thought of ways to contribute to the health care system during the pandemic with the implementation of the M-Response Corps. They are always thinking of new ways to get involved; creating opportunities if they do not exist. I think the best ways to find community are with activities like the Smoker (medical student musical), working in the trenches clinically with other students, and when you are collaborating on research projects.  I am proud to be in an environment where students take it upon themselves to advocate for their peers. 

What do you like to do outside of the med school, and how do you find balance?

I have really enjoyed exploring the parks in Ann Arbor. My favorites are Argo Park, Bird Hills Nature Area, and the Barton Hills Nature Area, where I like to relax and float on the water. You can drive across the state in either direction to visit a Great Lake on a weekend off!

Why has Michigan been a good fit for you?

Michigan has been a good fit for me because you see patients who come from all over the state and beyond for their care, and I’ve been able to care for patients with rare and complex diseases. I always felt like I was valued on the patient care teams. Michigan is such a large academic center that almost any opportunity that you can think of exists here. The curriculum is innovative, and the only limitation to your accomplishments is your own creativity and your willingness to ask for help. 

What would you say to a prospective first-generation student who is considering the University of Michigan Medical School for their medical education?

As a first-generation low-income student at the University of Michigan Medical School, you will have the insight and compassion to relate to patients in unique ways. You can be a change maker addressing social and health disparities.