Hi! My name is Amber Vinluan and I was one of the peer advisors for the Office of Study Abroad for 2020-2021. I studied abroad during the Fall of my Junior year (Fall ‘19) in Sydney, Australia. As an undergraduate, I double-majored in Neuroscience and Sociology on the premed track and have always wanted to go to Medical School after graduation. In terms of extracurriculars, I was involved in a variety of organizations, including the Phi Sigma Pi National Honors Fraternity, Phi Delta Epsilon Medical Fraternity, and Alpha Phi Omega National Community Service Fraternity. I was also the Medical School Liaison of the Minority Association of Premedical Students and the President/Co-Founder of the Tulane University Filipino Students Association. Outside of academics, I enjoyed working in my research lab downtown, facilitating social justice workshops as a Community Engagement Advocate, and volunteering in the COVID lab and Emergency Department at the University Medical Center in New Orleans.
Abroad as a Premed
Going abroad as a premed is more possible than you would expect! What helped me the most was talking with my premed advisors as early as possible (during freshman year if you can!) about going abroad and how I can get all my premed prerequisites done before graduation, and more importantly, before studying for and taking the MCAT. Because the four sections on the MCAT are chemistry/physics, CARS, biochemistry/biology, and sociology/psychology, I definitely recommend taking these classes before taking the MCAT. With that said, during Junior year when students typically go abroad, this is the year when premed students usually take biochemistry and physics. For me, I took physics I in the summer following my sophomore year, went abroad in the fall, and took physics II and biochemistry in the spring with the intention of taking the MCAT in the end of spring (May 2020). Although COVID threw a wrench in my MCAT plans (I ended up taking it in late July), I believe this path, if COVID did not happen, was sufficient in staying on track with my premed course and taking the MCAT with time to apply for direct matriculation into Medical School after graduation (no gap year). Since my MCAT was pushed back several times, I ended up deciding to take a gap year and use my Senior year to make my application even stronger, however, I think if I applied as I originally planned, I would still be satisfied with my application and happy I went abroad!
In terms of how my abroad experience added to my interests in medicine, one of the great things that the University of Sydney allowed me to do was take part in an internship program that counted as a class for credit. For my internship, I worked in a pathology lab where I learned how to use various cell imaging programs including CellProfiler and HistoCat++. I also learned different cell staining techniques using samples from Sri Lankan patients with chronic kidney disease. It was great! A few of my other premed friends have said they have done clinical shadowing, volunteer work, and research abroad so there are definitely plenty of options to weave medicine into your abroad experience!
In most of my appointments as a peer advisor, the most common things that I suggested to students were to reach out to department heads for a pre-approved class list at the university of interest and tell the premed advisors ASAP if you are considering abroad to plan out when to complete premed courses in the US (medical schools prefer you take pre med classes in the US, so unfortunately it is highly recommended you do not take classes like biochemistry, physics, etc. abroad). I also talked to several students about how I got back into the pre-med grind after returning from abroad. Since I went to Sydney in the Fall, I had to get right into MCAT studying in the following January. Although it was a huge change from my nice abroad experience to vigorous studying all day and all night, I told students that it’s helpful to make a study plan before you start and no matter what, stick to it. As I mentioned before, originally my MCAT was scheduled in May, but with COVID it was moved to July. Knowing that I am a procrastinator and needed a strict study schedule to force me to study everyday, I signed up for a Princeton Review course that started in the end of January and ended in mid-April. Some of my friends used Kaplan, NextStep, Jack Westin, Anki decks, and so forth, and I recommend researching all the different MCAT studying strategies to find which is best for you. With that, I still definitely believe it’s possible to do well on the MCAT following abroad, just be prepared to switch back into the premed mindset right away.
Since Australia is essentially on the other side of the world, the academic schedule is very different. While our academic years start in the Fall and end in the Spring, the academic year in Australia starts in the Spring and ends in the Fall! With that, I had to get to Australia for Semester 2, which started at the end of July. This made it difficult to find a summer position because a lot of employers wanted summer interns to work until at least August. Luckly, I was able to find a position that allowed me to leave in July, so definitely take this into consideration when deciding if you would like to go abroad in Australia. It is also worth mentioning that this position did not connect to medicine, so I had to make up for the lost time by doing more volunteering and finding different clinical opportunities during the school year (UMC volunteering and shadowing made it easy to get these experiences in one place!)