Just the Beginning – First Year in Reflection

Starting medical school during the COVID-19 pandemic put the Class of 2024 in a unique position, and we have had to find creative ways to adapt and connect during our first year of medicine. As we approach the end of our first year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with three of my colleagues, Seth Friesen, Gem Newman, and Charith Karunatilake to reflect on their experiences.

Written by Yael Ripstein, Class of 2024 Secretary


Tell me a little bit about your life before medical school!

Before medical school, Gem spent 13 years employed as a software developer, working on AI, machine learning and later web development and education technology. On choosing to pursue a career in medicine, Gem shared that, “I decided that I would rather do something that had a positive impact on people’s lives…I wanted to make a change”. He also shared that he has two young kids at home and a wife who works full time, so balancing those responsibilities can be challenging.

Seth grew up in Brandon and completed a four-year degree in Math and Chemistry prior to starting medical school. He mentioned that he deferred his acceptance to medicine for one year to continue to play university volleyball, which he referred to as a ‘much needed gap year’.

Prior to medical school, Charith completed a bachelor’s degree in Biology. He mentioned his love of music and playing instruments. He plays the French horn and guitar and has recently started playing violin. His main motivation for pursuing medicine was to have a career in compassion, and to see “what you can do in your life to reduce [the] suffering of other human beings regardless of where they might be”.


What did you expect when you first started medical school and how have those expectations changed?

All three students agreed that they expected medical school to be challenging. Gem explained that he “once got a piece of advice that for every hour of lecture you have, spend an hour studying. That is good general university advice but is literally impossible in medicine. There are not enough hours in the day to do that with the rest of life’s responsibilities”. He said that he has had to adapt to being more comfortable being less prepared. Seth echoed that sentiment and added that although his undergraduate degree had been extremely busy, it took time to adapt to the balance of medicine, and how to stay sane during COVID.

Charith said he didn’t have too many expectations coming in, but something he was happily surprised by was “how much I like everyone….it felt like high school again, everyone [was] trying to get to know each other”.


What have you learned so far throughout medical school?

In addition to spending countless hours studying anatomy and physiology, and becoming immersed in the nuances of medical vocabulary, there was much to be explored over this past year. Charith mentioned some key lessons he had learned such as study in groups, be yourself, and realize that there is a time to talk and a time to listen, and how important it is to understand that balance. Finally, he shared that “a little bit of clowning around is okay”.

Seth spoke about how he has found “a different sort of joy to learning in medical school”. He mentioned how much he loves engaging with others and shadowing at the hospital, and how refreshing it is that his learning is no longer grade driven.

Gem talked about the connections built within our class saying, “I was surprised at how easy it was to connect with my classmates given how isolated we all are and given how much older I am than a lot of our classmates. There are a lot of really great people in the class and it’s fun to chat and joke around online, or when a tutorial leader doesn’t show up immediately”. The packed schedule of medical school also gave Gem an appreciation for how precious time is. He said he is “trying to make the most of the time I have with my family….being able to put school away for a bit and be present”.


How has your time in medical school changed or pushed you?

Building on the last set of responses, Seth said that medical school has pushed him to be more social.

Seth and Gem both spoke about needing to learn to be more flexible. Gem shared that “by nature I am quite a rigid, methodical thinker and that has been an advantage in some areas and a disadvantage in other areas… Early on I developed strategies that were very specific, like ‘it will be a successful day if I have made notes for every single lecture during the day’….but what I found was that that was getting me into trouble. Not only was it making me fall behind, it was causing a fair bit of anxiety. So I’ve had to learn to be flexible in my approach to studying and preparing for exams, and just the fact that I have external responsibilities means I have to be more flexible.”

Seth agreed and added that “sometimes it feels like by the time you figure out one block, there’s a new block. You have to learn to adapt”.


What do you wish you had known before starting medical school? What advice do you have for those applying to medicine or to those starting in the fall?

Seth laughed and said, “It’s hard to think back to before medical school….”, but says he learned a lot about medical school by talking to older students, and wished he could have learned some of those things earlier on.

Gem said he wished he’d had a better grasp on what a standard week would look like and the general shape of the curriculum. He said sometimes it feels like we are thrown into things, “like we were just expected to know what an OSCE is! People just start talking about OSCEs…”

Charith shared some advice for new students saying, “People are super friendly in general. Be open. Be vulnerable…and don’t ignore Clinical Skills!”


What is one thing you really enjoy about medical school that has surprised you?

The answer was unanimous for this question; all three students said that the highlight so far has been anatomy labs and on-campus skills sessions. Seth noted that “being on campus has been an amazing mood boost during COVID. Socially, it’s been awesome.” Gem admitted that he didn’t expect to like working with the cadavers, but he really enjoyed the hands-on aspects and found it very rewarding. Charith predicts that if we are able to be on campus more often next year, that “we are going to be really happy Med 2’s”.


What is one thing you look forward to learning during your medical education?

Gem answered that he is looking forward to being on campus more often and really looking forward to getting into the hospital and doing clinical work. Charith is looking forward to working with patients, and doing something that leads to a positive outcome for that patient and to save a life

Seth mentioned that he is super excited for participating in Home for The Summer!


Do you have any additional thoughts you want to share?

Each student left me with some final words of wisdom. Seth said that “it takes a while to settle in, and there’s no way of getting around that. But you do settle in.” Gem added that “everything is always changing a lot. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable”. And finally, Charith shared: “I wish I practiced for the OSCE’s more. And whatever happens, you’ll be okay”!


A huge thank you to Charith, Seth and Gem for taking time to share their experiences and advice!



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