November 30, 2018

INOCCIDUOUS THOUGHTS | I Taught Doctors About Health

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This past weekend was quite the ride. I visited SUNY Upstate Medical University for a PATCH (a pre-health organization I’m part of) field trip, taught for a program called Splash!, and ran the Syracuse Half-Marathon. And, of course, I spent that weekend avoiding eye contact with an upcoming organic chemistry prelim glaring at me from a few feet away. It was a test of endurance, physical and mental, which has admittedly left me exhausted, but I’m quite proud of myself for accomplishing so much during such a fast-paced weekend.

Of all these small endeavors, there’s one in particular that made a big impact on my confidence and feelings of competence: teaching. Teaching health, specifically. For those who aren’t aware, Cornell Splash! is a program that gathers middle and high school students from around the state (and even further sometimes) and gives them a unique opportunity to take classes taught by Cornell students. Splash! is even more significant for the student-teachers who volunteer to share their passions with the younger generation. The beautiful thing about this program is how synergetic it is: high school students get to visit campus and take at least two classes on unconventional subjects, while Cornell students get to practice teaching and spread their knowledge. I personally love it because I have an excuse to preach about health to people who will actually sit and listen. At Splash! you take all the knowledge and excitement for something that has built up for several years and deposit it into a classroom of eager students.

Last year at Splash!, I taught a book’s worth of ideas about natural health, such as vitamins and supplements, alternative medicine, the sugar industry, research on cancer and Alzheimer’s, to name some. Frankly, that was a novice move; I realized that I would need to cut a lot of content down if I was going to teach the next year. After all, it’s quality over quantity when it comes to teaching. So this year, I decided to teach about types of fat and sugar, how the body processes them, and some associated illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. I had an arsenal of research and evidence to support each topic, and luckily, a lot of what I conveyed to my students was material I learned from my current nutrition class.

So how did it go? I had Christmas jazz playing in the background to set a comfortable mood, each student received a “cheat sheet” guide of all the topics I covered so they wouldn’t have to take notes, and they even got to taste some Stevia. It was a success, I think. I certainly felt great after seeing the wide eyes from a boy who learned that there were 39 grams of sugar in one can of soda. I relished the moment a girl finally understood the difference between a keto diet and low-fat diet. There were many moments of triumph that reaffirmed why I love changing people’s perception on health — in just two hours, no less.

But this article isn’t about what happened when I taught students. It’s about what I learned from teaching adults, namely, doctors. For this year’s Splash! I was asked to run a short, hour-long parent session that consisted of me lecturing about health to some of the parents of these children. Naturally, I was scared out of my mind. But I held myself together the second time around. I could tell during my class that I had a tough crowd: one man had a glowering look of disbelief the entire time; another man had more current research that went against something I said; one woman questioned the validity of one of my recommendations. I’m not a doctor — I don’t know everything. I could only reply that what I was telling them was what I learned and what I currently know, but that didn’t mean it was 100% true, especially since our knowledge of medicine constantly changes. I admitted my lack of expertise and told them to take what they wanted from the presentation. Truly, my one goal was to have each person leave the room learning one new, meaningful thing that they could apply to their lives, whether it was diet, exercise, or disease related. Even though it was a challenge, I am proud of myself for being honest, upfront, open to suggestions, and adaptable to where the conversation went.

It wasn’t until after the session that some of the mothers approached me to say what a wonderful job I did, especially since most of the parents there were doctors. When I heard those words, my stomach dropped. What have I done, I thought. I must have made a complete fool of myself lecturing doctors about a topic they are already proficient in. And while that may have been true, I felt strong, fearless, confident. The fact that I stood up there with nothing but my slides and taught a group of older, wiser, more experienced professionals was nothing short of an accomplishment. I realized that it doesn’t matter how smart you are or what level you’re at. There’s always something to learn. And even if it goes against what you know, there is a certain level of respect that must be shared between a listener and an individual who wants nothing but to spread their joy, to tell their story.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback I got from a kind group of mothers after my parent class was enough to make me feel accomplished. They took pictures and notes the whole time and asked lots of questions, to which I enthusiastically replied. Honestly, even if I didn’t have the doctors convinced, those mothers showed an immense amount of gratitude for the class, which was more than I could ever ask for. More broadly, another takeaway from one of these teaching experiences is that you can’t convince everyone, make them like you, or make them feel the same passion for a subject that you do. It’s an honor to even change one life, let alone two or three. So in the end, I can’t be mad! (Surprisingly, one of the doctors told me he was impressed with the presentation, so that definitely made me feel good.)

So that was one of the highlights of my weekend: teaching doctors stuff they already knew (or maybe not — nutrition classes aren’t required at medical school). I think everyone in their lives should try teaching, even just once. You might surprise yourself! Because where there are teachers, there are people who want to learn. And after spending ninety-percent of our lives sitting in the students’ seats, why wouldn’t we want a change of scenery?