The ICAS Lectures


Passage through My College Life:
from ICAS Volunteer to Medical School

Christopher W. Chung

ICAS Summer Symposium
The Korean Diaspora: Challenges facing The Korean-/Asian-American Community
August 1, 2009 Saturday 9:30 AM - 4:30 PM
Montgomery County Community College 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422
Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Christopher W. Chung

Passage through My College Life:
from ICAS Volunteer to Medical School

Christopher W. Chung

Only several years ago I was sitting in on an ICAS Summer Symposium half paying attention to a recent college graduate who was sharing with us her undergraduate experiences. Now that I find myself standing on the other side of the podium I realize how difficult it is to summarize four years of my life into 40 minutes. Much has transpired since I was an ICAS volunteer in my high school days. For much of high school I was hardly looking into the future much less plagued by worries that come along with it. Sure there was a tomorrow, a next week, a next month but there had never been any need to look beyond that. Then suddenly in my senior year I was slapped with the ever pressing reality of having to grow up. My story of choosing to pursue medicine is a story about how a tentative maybe evolved into an unwavering yes. Today I hope to share with you all a few of the major influences that have led me to medical school.

During one of my earliest encounters with Dr. Sang Joo Kim I remember asking why Corean in the Institute for Corean-American Studies or ICAS was spelled with a "C" rather than a "K" and how he sharply replied "Go look it up!" I still distinctly recall the astonishment and the intense sense of irritation I felt at that moment. In my frustration I was certain that I would never strike a chord with this seemingly obnoxious bow-tie wearing old man. Having four years of undergraduate experience behind me, I feel that I now have a better understanding of the implications underlying Dr. Kim's words that day. Knowledge earned is far more useful than knowledge which is simply given away. Dr. Kim's methodology has always been to teach through guidance rather than instruction and in my opinion this largely describes the college experience.

In the vast lecture halls where courses are taught professors will not stop to make sure the class understands the class material. While living on campus, no one will be there to ensure that you finished your homework or you wake up for your first class. In comparison to high school, papers will be longer. Sparknotes will be useless and Wikipedia is not a valid citation source. As for exams, you will need more than a day to prepare for them and occasionally may be given questions on topics that were not addressed during lectures.

Of course none of this is meant to discourage any rising freshmen among the audience. With preparation, time management, and a diligent mindset, the responsibilities that come with being a college student are within anyone's grasp. Confidence is key to managing a successful undergraduate experience.

Before I go on to elaborate on several words of advice for those that have yet to attend college or are currently college students themselves, I would like to address the topic of my talk and share with you my experiences as a member of the ICAS Youth Excellence Program and how as an undergraduate I came to pursue a career in medicine.

I first met Dr. Kim back in December of 2004. I was a senior in high school in the midst of preparing to apply for college. Unfamiliar with the application process I was doing the best I could without knowing exactly what I was doing. My parents being immigrants from South Korea were able to offer little help in this endeavor but fortunately I was able to come in contact with Dr. Kim. Under Dr. Kim's guidance I dismantled my essays and rebuilt them from ground up. I was taught how to construct my resume and to tailor my applications for each school, invaluable skills I would come to use over and over again in my lifetime. Dr. Kim helped me build a list of colleges that would provide a strong education in the Arts and Sciences, giving me the breadth and depth I needed to forge a career path for myself. Although at the time I was exasperated, finding that all the work I had previously put into college apps was in vain, it was clear that the ICAS Youth Excellence Program would help me grow professionally in a way that I would not be able to do on my own. That winter I registered myself as a full-fledged ICAS Volunteer and several months later I matriculated into the University of Pennsylvania.

Coming from a small Quaker high school with a graduating class of only a hundred or so students, the transition from a senior in high school to a freshman in college appeared intimidating and I felt like a fish that had lived in a pond and was suddenly thrown into the ocean. I found myself plunged among thousands of unfamiliar faces. The campus was huge and seemingly impossible to navigate. I had to schedule my classes, but I didn't know where any particular building was - I managed to schedule back to back classes at the opposite ends of campus! It was a beginner's mistake, but for my first semester, I always arrived late to my Calc II class, out of breath and somewhat in a state of confusion for the first five minutes as I struggled to figure out what I had missed.

However, even such a misstep was exciting. I couldn't help feel an overwhelming sense of freedom and opportunity for exploration. Never before did I encounter such diversity in background and interests in faculty and student body. There were professors who had specialized in all sorts of fields and college students that had come from all across the country. It was a hectic time as all of us first year students were struggling to find our niche all the while adapting to the college lifestyle. By attending a large Arts and Sciences college I was able to experience a vast array of disciplines and become involved in a number of extracurricular activities which I found beneficial for choosing a major and ultimately a career path. I strongly recommend to those who have yet to attend college, even those who may have a predisposition towards a particular profession, to spend their freshman year likewise and experiment with their interests. As junior and senior years come around, the need to finish requirements in order to graduate on time will make it increasingly difficult to explore other topics.

While others may offer tips and words of advice, college is for the most part a path that each individual must carve for him or herself and I only offer snapshots of my story as one case in point. So how did I end up making medical school the next feat? Perhaps it was my mother, the former nurse, or my father, Chemistry major, who intentionally influenced my decision but I doubt this. I was always the type of child that if told to go right would go left out of spite. I needed justification for actions. Unlike the multitude of Wharton Business students that were bent on finding jobs at hedge funds and investment firms the moment they set foot on Penn soil, I fell in a large pool of undergraduates who were as of yet uncertain where college would lead them.

Not having a definite direction, I decided to take a high school like approach by spreading out my first year with English, Math, Science, and Language courses. I also decided to become involved in community service while at Penn, an activity that I had spent much time doing during my high school years. Classes helped me realize my strengths and weaknesses, thanks to that godforsaken(!) bell curve, but my activities outside of the classroom allowed me to realize my passions. There was no mistake that I had a strong inclination towards the sciences and this led me to my majors in Biochemistry and Biology, but it was the events I witnessed while volunteering at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania that truly opened my eyes to the field of medicine.

Due to my other obligations, scheduling conflicts made it such that the only time I could volunteer at the hospital was on Friday evenings in the Emergency Department. It probably comes as no surprise that I was not too happy about this at first. No one wants to work on a Friday night. However, I soon came to discover that Friday night was the only night worth volunteering in the ED. Over the course of one year I witnessed trauma cases ranging from fall victims to patients suffering from gunshot wounds.

I recall the latter instance quite distinctly. I was working in the Emergency Department one evening at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and the activity level increased noticeably. Following the "controlled commotion," I witnessed a team of doctors quickly assembling around a gun shot victim rushing to restore the patient's life. The doctors worked quickly trying to stop the young man's heavy blood loss. It only took a brief moment for a man that I had seen for the first time to pass away. He laid there on the stretcher looking as he had moments ago but at the same time appearing completely different. While lost in contemplation of the realities of a medical profession and the shortcomings of modern medicine, my attention was re-focused when one of the older doctors suddenly slammed his fists in frustration on the counter. His eyes met mine and I could feel his exasperation, if only fleetingly, as the doctor resumed a look of professionalism as the next trauma victim was wheeled in. As I stood in the far corner of the busy trauma room I was overcome with a mixture of shock and inspiration.

What I experienced in the ED was an emotional roller coaster ride. While standing off by the curtains on the side of the operating room, I was able to take in the moments of excitement, joy, sadness, regret, and hope that the doctors and nurses all felt. Among the hospital volunteers there were those that grimaced at the first sight of blood when emergency operations were being performed and those that would stare in marvel. I was one of those who stared, amazed by the doctors' precise movements, quick thinking, and ability to maintain composure. I was intrigued when surgeons would cut into a patient's flesh and pry open the chest cavity, puzzled by the paradox that somehow this seemingly violent act was necessary to save a life.

My volunteer experience even followed me outside of the hospital. As I strode into Wawa one day looking for my daily dose of caffeine, it wasn't coffee that jolted me awake that morning. I saw standing by the coffee counter a middle-aged man wearing nothing but a smile and a blue and white hospital gown. Not quite sure what the make of the situation, I crept a little closer, joining him in making coffee. I was certain the hospital would never discharge a bare-footed patient in a gown. As I stirred in my cream, I debated whether I had a responsibility to act, or if by getting involved, I would be overstepping boundaries. The idea of simply purchasing my coffee and getting to class on time seemed appealing, but I decided by noticing the man, I had already become involved in the situation. Hoping I was making the right decision, I quietly requested the cashier notify the hospital. I engaged the man in conversation. I tried my best to make appropriate responses to his slurred, incoherent speech. Fortunately, I did not have to keep up the act too long; the hospital staff arrived within five minutes. The patient offered little resistance as the hospital workers guided him away. I was relieved when I saw them leave but the feeling was short-lived. Realizing I would be late to class, I scurried out of the store doing my all too familiar coffee-balancing sprint.

Shaken up by these experiences, I began to develop a serious interest in becoming a doctor of medicine and considered the prospect of dedicating my life to serving sick and needy. In the following years, through my correspondence with Dr. Kim and the ICAS Youth Excellence Program I was able to set foot inside the lab of Dr. David Weiner under the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Penn. The wet bench science and the research projects I participated in under the guidance of Dr. Karuppiah Muthumani allowed me to bring my career into focus.

Even after volunteering at the hospital, my scientific background had made me consider a profession in medical research a viable option. I remember when Dr. Weiner first assigned me to work under Dr. Muthumani. I recall the short but large Indian man with a thick mustache exclaiming that I could call him Mani for short and sharply remarking that it was Mani and not money. I was in luck. Mani's bay was shorthanded at the time so he was willing to take on an undergraduate student.

Mani's teaching methods were unfamiliar to me. He would carry out unfamiliar protocols in front of me only once and expect me to perform them without error. Often times he would have me conduct experiments without any prior demonstration. Through failed experiments and Mani's relentless diatribes I learned to become a proficient contributor to the lab. I began to skillfully obtain data and interpret the results. I was eventually assigned my own projects and with all the time I spent in the lab I even perfected my ability to understand English that had a heavy Indian accent. After two years of work under Mani, I had already been published in several major scientific journals but more important than the publications, I came away with the experience I needed to determine my personal likes and dislikes concerning research.

The investigative aspect of research, the mastery of lab techniques, and the interpretation of data all intrigued me. However, whenever I asked myself if I could envision myself doing this for the rest of my life, especially on those nights where I sat in my bay alone waiting for a Western Blot to finish, the answer was always an unhesitant no. The work was too slow paced and although in theory the research I was doing would reach a far greater population with regards to enhancing healthcare, from my viewpoint in the lab bay, that part seemed inconsequential. Surely the investigation and sense of duty I felt in the hospital were there in the lab, but where was the excitement, the urgency, the human aspect?

I realized I do need the see the human aspect. Maybe my experiences looking after my mother, who is afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, provided the deepest understanding of patient care. At a young age I came to acquire a set of skills to sooth her physical and emotional anguish whenever the unfortunate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis prevented her from performing even simple, basic, daily tasks. I saw, first-hand, the impact a gentle touch, a smile or kind word could have, and I began to sense that patient care was an art in addition to a science. As I witnessed first hand the steady progression of inflammation in my mother's joints and convolution of her hands and fingers, I was overcome with dismay and helplessness - with the knowledge and training I had now, I really couldn't help her. At first I refused to acknowledge that her conditions were worsening but it became undeniable - her bed ridden days became more frequent and the medications prescribed were harsher. There was no guarantee that what I would be able to accomplish for her in my lifetime would ever be enough. However, I found the motivation to act.

I started to consider the scores of people afflicted with debilitating or deadly diseases. I actually felt their pain and consequently, my desire to ease the pain of others was fortified. If there was anything more I could do for my mother or those sick individuals I would do it. More and more I started to believe that pursuing a medical profession was a step in the right direction. The decision became clear and I came to a firm resolution. From that moment I began to focus all my efforts into carving my career path in medicine.

Okay then. I had a path. Now what? The next milestone in my life was acceptance into medical school. Fortunately my undergraduate school had Pre-med specific advisors, and the necessary steps to medical school were laid out much like a cookbook. There were the required courses (most of which I had completed due to my majors), the applications, and of course the infamous Medical College Admissions Test or MCAT for short. It never fails to amuse me how people who are completely unfamiliar with the medical college application process will have heard of the MCATs. Yes, the MCATs are important but it does not deserve as much attention as people tend to give it. But- this is a point I will return to later.

The summer I dedicated to studying for the MCATs was probably, thus far, the most miserable summer I have experienced to date and I would not wish it upon any one. Weekday mornings were spent working in the immunology lab, weekday afternoons were spent either studying or attending MCAT prep classes, and weekends were spent taking practice exams. For the test, I had to recall the Biology, Physics, General Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry that I had learned as an undergrad as well as sharpen my Verbal Reasoning and Short Essay Writing abilities. Like the SAT II's a firm grounding in these aforementioned subjects was needed, but like the SAT I's the questions and answers were never straightforward. To make things worse the MCAT takes about five and a half hours to complete so it is also testing an individual's endurance and ability to work under stress and while fatigued.

I will not lie; the MCAT sucks. But it did not suck enough to deter me from my goal of becoming a physician. To those of you who are considering a career in medicine in the future, know that with sincere motivation and a diligent work ethic it is unquestionably within your grasp to successfully pass this test.

After the MCAT came the American Medical College Application Service, better known as the AMCAS, which is the medical school equivalent of the Common App. Listing course grades and describing extracurriculars was straightforward enough, but frustratingly, the essay section has no prompt. I remember spending hours upon hours staring at the blinking line on Microsoft Word, coming up with ideas only to trash them a few hours later. An idea that seemed good enough eventually came, an essay was pounded out, recommendation letters were submitted, and secondary applications were completed. A few months later, interview invitations began to arrive one by one. The process in many ways resembled what I had to go through when applying to college and I came to use many of the skills I had honed under the ICAS Youth Excellence Program. I kept in contact with Dr. Kim who aided me in forming update packets that would enhance my application and express my continued interest in this school or that. During the beginning half this summer, I made the decision to attend the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

For a moment I would like to speak to the Pre-med students or high school students that are contemplating medical school, if there are any out there. So what are medical college admissions committees looking for? Each school has its own intricate process of choosing who they will let in, although at times the outcomes may appear no different than those that would result from choosing names out of a hat. From personal experience and discussions with my peers, Pre-med advisors, and individuals who are or were formerly on such admissions committees, I would say that decent grades, good MCAT scores, and extracurriculars are necessary for schools to open their doors but from that point on you must talk your way in. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Personal Statement essay and the interview because these, not numbers are what will determine whether or not you are indeed a worthwhile candidate in the eyes of the admissions committee. Returning to my question "what are medical college admissions committees looking for"? They are looking to see what you are looking for. Four years of medical school, followed by residencies and fellowships is no small commitment. The admissions committee wants students with unwavering dedication, ones that are focused and have no doubt in their mind that a future in a medical profession is for them for these are the students who will stick with the arduous journey that lies ahead of them.

If you so choose to attend medical school, be certain it is for the right reasons. If you are chasing the dollar there are far better options out there. Specialize in finance or become a dentist. Medical students must live on hopes, dreams, and either loans or their parents' income. Furthermore, even if you do become a practicing physician, with today's rules and regulations, medicine is not the money making business it once was. If you are pursuing medicine for the respect and authority that comes with donning the white coat, then think again. No vanity is worth these difficulties and hurdles.

In any case, it detracts from the profession and the applicant if he was to wake up ten years later and realize he was in the wrong field. Admissions committees are well aware of this. Also, do not bother lying, unless you are particularly good at it, for the committee members have been trained extensively to see through dishonesty.

To all the high school and college students who are here today, I wish you all the best of luck in discovering your true passions and I wish to offer a few words of advice. Take heed not to sit idly and let these four years of your life pass you by. Do not shirk your responsibilities and take college lightly. College may or may not be the final step in your academic careers but it definitely marks the beginning of the rest of your life. Be assertive. Take advantage of the diversity you will come across. Be open-minded and try something new. Seek involvement in student activities and be able to communicate and network with others. Forge relationships with your professors, counselors, and upperclassmen for they will share with you a body of wisdom gained through experience. And all this can aid you in your endeavors. Time management, early planning, and diligence are all critical skills you should aim to master in order for success. But most importantly, in light of all that I have said, do not forget to take care of yourselves. Make sure to eat well and get enough sleep. When you have the time, try to exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Oh, and don't spend too much time on Facebook.

I certainly had my fair share of procrastination, last minute cramming, and all-nighters. Witnessing college students who show up to exams with disheveled hair and bloodshot eyes is not an uncommon sight. There have been a few episodes when I survived an entire week eating nothing but Pop Tarts and cereal bars due to a combination of poor planning and laziness. However, these situations can easily be avoided and for your sakes, I hope that you all do as I say and not as I did. And of course, I did have a few sobering moments when I saw a classmate being wheeled into the Emergency Room during my regular Friday night volunteer shift.

Finally, for those of you who will be living on campus, never again will you have this degree of intimacy and convenience where you can walk down the hall to review problem sets with peers or watch TV with friends. You will find that you never really know someone's personality until you live with them or find yourselves studying Physical Chemistry with them at four in the morning. Under such close contact with others you may find quirks your friends have that irritate you and likewise your friends may find some aspects about you that bother them as well but letting each other know in a constructive manner, allows for growth. You will find that you will be able to make meaningful friendships during your undergrad years but whether you choose to do so will be left up to you.

And although the tone of this talk may have thus far made college seem like all work and no fun, it's OK to let loose once in a while. If you have a hobby you enjoy, keep it up. I remember my next door neighbor during sophomore and junior years had every hobby from building remote control helicopters to tightrope walking whereas I only played tennis...sometimes. Go out to parties and visit clubs but don't drink yourself into oblivion. You'll miss a lot if you do. I myself joined a social fraternity and although we had our share of community service and brotherhood events, by senior year I had also become a fairly competent beer pong player.

Joining a fraternity was actually one of Dr. Kim's suggestions way back during my senior year in high school. I remember one of the first Lambda Chi Alpha events I attended. After stepping into the fraternity house, the Chapter President Joe Cristanti greeted me and tossed me a can of beer. I momentarily hesitated in bewilderment but then continued to crack open that can of Natty Light. At the time, I could only imagine what Dr. Kim was thinking when he advised me to rush for a frat but after the rush process, the rituals, and late night events I found I had made some of my closest college friendships. Just this summer I made several visits to Penn's frat house and I even met with a fellow fraternity alum who resides in California. College is, after all, academic and social.

There was another piece of advice that Dr. Kim gave me before attending Penn. He reminded me to demonstrate academic integrity. Cheating is difficult and the risks associated with it are without a doubt not worth the trouble. It can jeopardize your college career and tarnish your academic credibility for the rest of your life. Plagiarism, taking credit for work that is not yours, is judged harshly. Furthermore, you will be inhibiting your professional growth and cultivating a habit that will surely doom you in the future. During times of academic stress, calm yourself and keep in mind that in the greater scheme of things, a grade or two will not alter your final options. Go to your professors and use them as resources. Most will welcome students who have a sincere desire to understand the course material and improve themselves.

You will likely create some of your most treasured memories during your college careers so think carefully about which schools are the right fit for you or how your current college experience is in relationship to what you would like it to be. This chapter of your life will largely be what you make of it.

No two college experiences are alike and mine is just one of many. The most important thing is to discover a career path that is true to yourself and distinctly your own. College will be one of the most exciting years of your life but it is also a time for careful reflection. While I found much of this long process of finding my interests and pursuing them to be troublesome, only because of the struggle, was I able to find my real passion and carve a career path that I knew I would not regret. If I were to relive my undergraduate experience, I would make the decision to go into medicine a hundred times over. I hope that the high school and college students here will similarly come across their own passions and strong career convictions.

Every time I see the letter "C" in ICAS rather than a "K" I am reminded of that talk I had with Dr. Kim four years ago. I doubt that Dr. Kim cared if I ever found out why a "C" was chosen rather than a "K". He only cared that I made an effort to look for it on my own, that I realized that nothing worth having ever comes free. So to those of you today that are new to ICAS or have yet to determine where the C comes from, don't bother asking me because you'll know my answer. Go look it up!

This page last updated 8/5/2009 jdb

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