Earlier this year the American Medical Student Association recognized AMSA at VCU for its advocacy efforts and promoting AMSA’s mission of inspiring future physicians.
Named the 2017 Paul R. Wright Chapter Successawardee, this is AMSA at VCU’s first national award. The student organization was honored in the large domestic medical chapter category.
“We’ve always had a large emphasis on advocacy because we strongly believe that it is a physician’s social responsibility to take a stand and fight for our communities,” says the Class of 2019’s Avanthi Jayaweera, president of the AMSA Chapter at VCU. “Our main goal with AMSA is to give students opportunities to use their political voice to make effective changes in their communities.”
The award celebrates the chapter’s commitment to improving member solidarity by increasing awareness, recruitment and involvement in their chapters. AMSA evaluated nominees on the quality and creativity of their programs and their growth throughout the year.
“Congratulations to AMSA at VCU for its outstanding student leadership and for bringing home this exceptional award to our medical school,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., Dean of Medicine.
AMSA at VCU hosts an annual legislative advocacy day where medical students meet with their legislators while the General Assembly is in session. Students have advocated on behalf of Medicaid expansion, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a repeal of a ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs and efforts to save the Affordable Care Act.
“The positions that AMSA takes on public health issues are determined by our students and that is what sets us apart from other organizations,” Jayaweera says. “We, the students, get to decide what position we want to take to support our patients and then act on it.”
In addition to lobby day, chapter activities include workshops, rallies and public health campaigns to give students exposure to different forms of activism. “I couldn’t be more proud of our leadership team for their hard work and enthusiasm to host these events over the past year. It can be tough as medical students because of our other responsibilities but everyone was always ready to charge in matters of social injustice and inequality,” Jayaweera says.
With plans to work with low-income and underserved populations locally and internationally, Jayaweera is active with the medical school’s International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program. As a result of her demonstrated commitment to community service, she was awarded the Harry and Zackia Shaia Scholarship.
“I couldn’t be more pleased to see our students win this award, especially in a field which included schools and cities with historic activism,” says Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, AMSA at VCU advisor and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. “It is remarkable for Richmond and VCU. It speaks to what our AMSA chapter means, what it does and how it has grown in the last few years, thanks to our student leadership.”
‘I have never in my life encountered a professor who believes in his students so deeply’
Students weren’t the only ones who took home an award at AMSA’s national conference. Ryan received the 2017 National Golden Apple Award for Teaching Excellence, which highlights a medical school professor who deserves international notoriety due to his or her improvements or advancements in medical education.
“I have never in my life encountered a professor who believes in his students so deeply that a single conversation with him was powerful enough to convince me that I can achieve anything,” Jayaweera wrote in Ryan’s nomination. What’s most inspiring about Dr. Ryan, she continued, is that he practices what he preaches.
“He always encourages students to get more involved in health policy and when students are out there fighting for equality in medicine, he is out there with us … It is my sincere hope that I will one day be able to positively affect those around me in the way that he does.”
Ryan credits the success of the student chapter for his award. “It’s really an awesome example of how much they did as a chapter because I don’t think I end up on the radar at all without the advocacy and programming that they have been doing. It’s all driven by them and they ran with it.”
He also recalled an influential professor in his undergraduate years at the College of William & Mary who helped shape his approach with students. The professor always ate dinner in the student cafeteria from 5 to 7 p.m. and welcomed anyone to join him and discuss ideas, debate and share perspectives.
“I love that model,” Ryan says. “Students are adults who have opinions and experiences — in some cases, impressive experiences. You can be a professional and respected teacher and still be friendly and have fun talking with people. In the Department of Family Medicine, we genuinely have an open-door policy and we make sure our students know that on the front end.”
Like his former professor, Ryan says he also seeks opportunities to connect with students informally through shared meals, student service trips, outreach programs and organizations like AMSA.
“Medicine is so hierarchal in how we teach it,” Ryan says. “You run a lot of risks of losing something. In a hospital, if a student is afraid to speak up, you may miss a clinical finding. It’s not long before these students are my colleagues and peers. Pushing them into a hierarchy seems wrong when you could find ways to connect and help them learn at the same time.”
By Polly Roberts