Episode 34: LGBT Life at Pritzker (Part 1/2)

Five current Pritzker students—Akash Parekh, Marina Sharifi, Philippe Tapon, Nathan West, and Ning Zhou—join us to discuss applying to and attending Pritzker as an LGBT student.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com. Or, call (773) 336-2POD and leave us a message.

[Music: “The Area” used with permission from Eliot Lipp. “Shiggidy” used with permission from Greg Spero and GMG.]

Episode 34 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hey everyone, this is Ben, and welcome to Episode 34 of the Pritzker Podcast. This episode is on LGBT life at Pritzker, and we did something a little bit different. We had the opportunity to meet with several students from Pritzker who are LGBT students, and so we decided to interview them all at the same time in the same room using a single microphone. The interview got a little long, so we actually broke this episode up into this one, 34, which is Part 1 of 2, and then the next one, Episode 35, will be the second part. I apologize ahead of time for some of the sound issues; again, we were using one microphone, so the mixing was a little difficult for this episode. This part of the episode talks a little bit about the admissions aspects of LGBT life at Pritzker, and then in the next episode, Episode 35, we’ll talk more, really, about what it’s actually like to be a student–an LGBT student–here at Pritzker. So, enjoy!


BF: Okay, so I am here with, let’s see, five Pritzker students, and Joni. So welcome, all, to the Pritzker Podcast. I’m just going to have you guys introduce yourselves, maybe tell folks where you’re from, what year or position you are at Pritzker, and maybe what you did before coming to medical school. Nathan, you want to start?

Nathan West: Sure. So my name is Nathan. I’m a first-year medical school student. I graduated from Northeastern University in 2007 and my degree was in biochemistry. I did drug discovery at the Broad Institute and Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston three years afterwards. And, yeah, I identify as a gay Mormon and…yeah.

BF: One of the many.

Marina Sharifi: I’m Marina. I finished my second year of medical school and now I’m taking a leave of absence to do a PhD in cancer biology. I did my undergrad at University of California at Berkeley. I got a double degree in molecular biology and German literature and then spent a couple of years doing genetics research on algae before coming here and, yeah, that’s about it for me.

Philippe Tapon: My name is Philippe and I was born in 1968 in San Francisco, so that probably makes me one of the granddaddies at this school at the moment. I graduated from Berkeley in poli sci and in history in 1990, did a Master’s at Cambridge, and then at [a prestigious-sounding French school] in Paris, a [prestigious-sounding degree]. I wrote two novels before I got here. One of them was actually about a gay guy who was dying of AIDS, and this was before protease inhibitors. And the novel was picked up by William Abrahams/Dutton. The second novel also had a medical theme, but not a gay one. I also worked in a bank and did a couple of other things. Now, I’ve just finished my third year at Pritzker. I’m about to enter the fourth year. I’m TAing Anatomy now for the second time. And I identify as gay and I ran the LGBT group when I was a second-year at this school.

Akash Parekh: Hi everyone, my name is Akash. I’m a first-year med student, and I graduated in 2010 from the University of South Florida, so I am in the traditional track I guess. I think that’s pretty much for my introduction. My major is in biology and that’s it.

Ning Zhou: Okay, my name is Ning. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. I went to college at the University of Southern California, which is in downtown Los Angeles. I studied neuroscience. I graduated in 2009 and then I spent one year in China teaching English and traveling through Asia.

BF: Okay, and Joni is here as well, so welcome, Joni.

Joni Krapec: Thank you.

BF: I think the first place that people usually get curious about in terms of asking questions is right at the beginning of their exposure to Pritzker, which is the admissions process. And I think the initial question that most people have is if you classify yourself as an LGBT student, should you disclose that on your application somehow? So how do you guys feel about that? Or what were your experiences when you were applying to Pritzker?

NW: So I talked to a few of my advisors who had been either part of the residency admissions process or part of the medical school admissions process, and the advice that I seemed to get most often was that I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about anything about being LGBT if it’s related, but there wasn’t a need to necessarily bring it up for its own sake because sometimes people would wonder why you would feel the need to do that as it’s related to being interested in practicing medicine. Now that I’ve come and I started to experience medical school and we’re taking some courses where we start talking about themes including LGBT themes like health care disparities or scholarship and discovery and projects and how different cultural–including LGBT–experiences play into health care and medical education, I’ve come to appreciate that it can be seen–experienced in the LBGT community and as being LGBT–can be considered something that you can contribute to your class and as something that–especially here at Pritzker where we focus on learning from each other, on each other’s experiences, can be considered something that–an experience that would improve the overall experience of the process we’re going through and exploring these themes.

BF: Anyone else?

NZ: I would say, from my experience, I tried to be honest in my application. And if there were questions that, in the secondaries, they asked, you know how to overcome adversity, then I would bring up this issue, especially when I came out to my parents and it was a difficult process. So for me it wasn’t like I was trying to showcase being gay or anything but it was just, honestly it was one of the most difficult things I had to go through. I hadn’t consulted any of my advisors whether or not I should be out. And I would say for–I was out at some schools and not at other schools because they didn’t ask questions that needed me to reveal that.

AP: I sort of agree with both of them. I mean, I did not put it in my application for the sake of putting it in my application, but if there was ever a question, and like you said, Ning, that if there’s a question then like you said about adversity or something that required me to put it in or at least sort of like the first thing that popped in my mind was,” I’d like to write about this,” I definitely put it in. And I think that for the schools that I did put it in, it was a great topic of conversation, you know? It was something maybe like out of the health care reform bill, out of–just that was actually more comfortable for me to talk about because it was something that I’m going through at the time. And I sort of came out during the application process and got a lot of advice from people that ranged from, “Oh my God, don’t ever mention it. This is medicine, it’s the most conservative field ever. You’re never going to get in,” to “No, definitely, if you feel like you need to put it in, put it in.” I will say, for my application at Pritzker, I did mention it. I didn’t talk about it a lot but I think that it helped for the places that I did put it in.

MS: Yeah, I mean, for me, basically when I was doing the applications, which were a little different since I was applying to MD/PhD programs so they’re much more research-oriented. But I basically, if it came up, it came up. And if not, I didn’t bring it up particularly, but I think most places I went, when I interviewed, we ended up talking about things related to the fact that I’m gay. But it was not a big deal one way or the other, I think.

BF: You didn’t say, “Oh, by the way, also… Just thought you should know.”

MS: Well, I held up a little sign, you know?

BF: I didn’t say that either, like, “Oh, by the way, I’m a heterosexual…”

BF: Akash, you mentioned some reservations that people had expressed to you. Did you guys personally feel some of those reservations about mentioning stuff on your application? Did you find it–think it might have been a risky proposition to do or were you totally comfortable with that?

NW: I think for me it made for a really uncomfortable interview at one of the schools I interviewed at where it actually ended up that some of the work I had done that was in the MSM–men who have sex with men–population that the interviewer, who is a faculty member, knew one of my mentors and disagreed with him, including with how he presented his sexuality in terms of politics. And so it made for a really, really uncomfortable situation.

JK: Sounds like it.

BF: How do you respond to that?

NW: How do I respond to that?

BF: Or how did you, I guess?

NW: So I want to think that I’m charming, so–

MS: You turned up the charm, huh?

NW: I did. And I was very sort of inert but held my case that I had had a great experience and felt like I had learned a lot from this experience and from this volunteering, and I pretty much changed the subject. And I like to think that it was a fair enough interview that I didn’t need to address it with the admission staff. So…yeah. So that’s how I handled it. I could’ve addressed it–if I had actually gotten probably like any more vibe that there was some conflict that was actually not pertaining to my application but towards personal bias on the interviewer’s part, then I would’ve gone to the admissions staff and asked for another interview, so–which I would recommend to anyone.

AP: I think I was always a little bit afraid that if it did come up in an interview that it would be really, really awkward, but to be honest this is what I told myself when I was writing the essay. I was like, “I’m coming out during this process. When I start this next phase of my life like in med school, I want to go to a school where I feel comfortable. And if they don’t give me an interview because of this or if it’s a really awkward interview, because of this I don’t get in, I don’t care, because I want to be in an environment that is supportive of it, where I feel comfortable, you know, being out.” And so that’s what I sort of told myself when I had these scary thoughts of some 60-year-old conservative male ask me like, you know, ragging on me, asking me uncomfortable questions. And I actually never had an uncomfortable interview when that topic was brought up, so I was pretty happy.

JK: That’s good. And I think just to chime in from the admissions standpoint, I think, like you all have already said, if it’s something that you feel you want to talk about because you’re asked about a difficult and challenging situation in your essay or because it’s something that led you towards medicine or led you to pursue experiences which then led you toward medicine, I think it’s great to talk about it. But I never recommend or suggest–you know, I’ve had applicants say, “Well, I feel like I should disclose this about myself,” and kind of like with what Ben joked around with, we don’t require anyone to disclose their sexual orientation or to feel as though that they should feel the need to. So I think it’s something that if it fits in terms with motivation for medicine or helps to kind of explain or think about the passion that you had for certain activities that you pursued or something along those lines, it’s absolutely appropriate to talk about it, but it’s nothing that you feel like you should have to say because we have a right to know or anything like that. It’s not a requirement by any means.

And I will say, the only applications that I’ve ever read that have caused concern have been applications where it seems clear that the person is still trying to go through the coming-out process themselves, and in the application and in the essays and in the way that they are talking about, they aren’t yet sounding emotionally healthy within their own environment. And so that’s the only time that we might get concerned to say, “Are you ready for this? If this is something that has been a big change in your life recently, obviously medical school is going to be another big change in your life. Are you ready to go?” basically is the way that we kind of think about it. And so certainly, when I read an application I need to know more than the person’s sexual orientation. So if that’s kind of the entire focus and I don’t learn anything else, that’s an area of concern. Or if the person sounds like they themselves aren’t fully invested or fully kind of secure or confident in what it is that they’re saying, that can cause concern. Otherwise, like you all said, if it feels organic or natural to bring it up, do so. If not, you’re under no obligation to, for sure.

PT: I agree with that. And just having gone through the clinical portion of the curriculum, you are placed into situations that would make anyone of any orientation uncomfortable. You’re in front of nudity and people are vulnerable before you and there’s no defense. And what people are looking for, more than a particular orientation, is a sense of self-mastery, that you can persevere and endure despite whatever situations are put in front of you. And if you can demonstrate self-mastery by having overcome sort of homophobia, so much the better for you.

NZ: I might want to just add on to that. I think people who have gone through the coming out process, it’s not an easy process and it really–you challenge a lot of ideas you have about identity, of how people view you. It was a big part of my life and it wasn’t something I wanted to hide, but that I had to fight for my identity and that I was comfortable and proud to be who I am.

BF: From an institutional perspective and from an interviewer’s perspective, I know several other students have mentioned their interview experiences, good and bad. Is there a certain line that interviewers will cross if they are asking about sexual orientation?

JK: Well, what is always kind of the rule of thumb is that technically asking about someone’s sexual orientation in the course of an interview, just like asking somebody’s age or asking whether or not somebody is married or has children, all of those are technically illegal questions to be asked during an interview. However, if the applicant brings it up within their own application, then to a degree, it’s “fairer” game during the interview process. If one of your essays talks a lot about it, then you’re kind of opening it up and disclosing it yourself, and therefore you could be asked questions in a legal way because you’ve already disclosed this information yourself.

I think it’s something that, again, within any component of an application, different aspects of your personality, different aspects of your experience will speak to different interviewers in a different way. I’ve had interviews that talk excessively about college football because I’m a fan, and if I run into a fan, we talk about that a lot. So I would say that if it is something that you disclosed in your application and the interviewer does not bring it up, it may not be because the person is uncomfortable with the topic. It may just be that there’s something else in your application that they got really excited about and that they want to talk more about. But certainly, if you do bring it up in your application then it is fair game to be addressed in an interview as well.

BF: Many of you have talked about discussing things with pre-med advisors and talking with other confidants during this process. Were there other resources that you guys sought out to try to figure out how to approach this issue when you’re applying or try to figure out what different communities would be like at different medical schools? How did you guys approach that, if at all?

PT: AMSA runs a list, I think–is it AMSA? I believe it is–runs a list of LGBT-friendly hosts at different schools. And I actually got a hold of this list and was able to find different LGBT students at the different schools that I was interviewing at. And they certainly provided me with the skinny on the particular school that I was interested in.

BF: Other than that, no one really cared too much?

AP: I think I dealt with it. I mean, I asked a few people, but I think you should–I always caution people against asking too many people for advice when it comes to this or when it comes to choosing the school, whatever it is that’s really, like, is important. I think this was a very personal choice, and like everyone said, don’t bring it up for the sake of bringing it up. If you feel like it relates to your passion for medicine, if it fits, then you should bring it up. And that’s sort of the rule that I went of off and that’s something that I figured out myself regardless of a pre-med advisor or asking anyone else what they would do. I also when I interviewed, before I’d go for an interview, I’d always call the school up and get in touch with their LGBT group and just talk to the people in charge of the group. And that always–I don’t know, it gave me a better sense of the community and how open the school was in terms of LGBT.

NW: Yeah. And I’d say, people I asked for advice were medical students who were above me, that had any vantage point. At the time I was applying, I didn’t know too much about the logistics. I didn’t know if it was risky to put it in my application. But they were kind of reassuring that, like, so many people look at your application that you can feel pretty confident or comfortable putting it to the application, and also that, like, one interviewer doesn’t necessarily reflect the school at large. And so if you do have a bad experience with a particular interviewer, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a bad experience at the school. So for me that was helpful to know. And then I think, like Akash, I did look to see if schools had like an LGBT group or what the resources were in the city. I think Chicago’s a great city for an LGBT life. And so it was something that I also paid attention to.

JK: And I think that’s a really important point, because I think so many campuses, just nationwide, it tends to be that university campuses are some of the most liberal and accepting places that you can come across. And so I think it’s important to know what resources are available on that campus, but also then the surrounding community and what the culture is in the surrounding community so you don’t feel as though if you take a mile’s step in any direction from the campus, you might come across a great deal of homophobia or very unwelcoming situations. When I’ve worked with applicants, I’ve had people ask prior to an interview, “During my interview day, or prior to my interview day, could you put me in touch with members of your student body that I could talk with about this?”

We do have the option on our student-hosting website for any special requests from applicants. And often times people would like to stay with someone else who is non-traditional or someone else who is LGBT or someone who is balancing kids while being in medical school or all of the above, or whatever, and so we give students that opportunity as they are applying for a student host prior to their interview day. I’ve also had students bring it up during the interview itself and kind of disclose their status during their interview and say, “Is there anybody that I could find while I am on campus today?” And then we’ve had students who are much more comfortable after they’ve already gained acceptance and they don’t come out to us until they’ve been accepted at the medical school, and then they ask a lot of questions. Any or all of those is, I think, a really fine time. It is, again, whatever the student feels most comfortable with. But I think looking to see not only the resources on the campus but the surrounding community, I think, are really important for applicants to consider.

PT: I quite agree. Two big selling points for this school for me was the proximity of the university to the medical school, something that not all medical schools have, because sometimes the medical campus is divorced from the community and you can spend four years in medical school and never run into a history major. That provided a lot of people for me to meet as well. And the second thing was the city of Chicago, with the pride numbering, I think, half a million this year. It’s a lot of people in the city at large. And the place is very friendly with its $25-million community center and a lot of other things. Those two were very big selling points for me with those cities without those resources.


BF: So again, that was the first part of the episode, Episode 34, and hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for Episode 35, which will be out in maybe a week and a half or two weeks, and again that talks more about what it’s like to be an LGBT student at Pritzker. So, take care and talk to you soon.