Nick Cozzarelli, a second-year student at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, has been as acutely stung by the COVID-19 era as just about anyone.
He not only came down with the virus during the spring semester, so did family members – some of whom passed away. Amid these tragedies were the normal challenges of a rigorous medical education – along with the added difficulties brought about by virtual learning, dictated by the spread of the pandemic.
That’s part of what made him eager to be one of the school’s new crop of Peer Mentors, who help the incoming first-year students become acclimated to the challenges of medical school.
“I knew from my progress in the curriculum that I was able to help them academically,” said Cozzarelli. “However, the dilemmas I faced confirmed to me that I was able to help support new students when they faced adversity both in and out of the classroom.
The Peer Mentor program is in its second year. This year’s program includes 24 second-year students who are nominated by faculty or staff, and are selected through a rigorous application process. They also undergo training in a variety of topics as well as ongoing supervision by leadership. The mentoring program is part of Student Affairs & Wellbeing, and is just one of many programs developed to support the success and wellbeing of the students.
Each pair of mentors is assigned 10 new students. They meet up at least once a month, and are there to answer pressing questions from the first-year students. There are social events, as well, to help forge connections.
Of course, this year looks a little different, due to the pandemic. The “games nights” have been all online, and most of the conversations have been by phone or online. Some few in-person events have been in open spaces, at appropriate social distances.
“It’s hard enough to get started in your first year of medical education – but with the pandemic, it’s even more difficult,” said Lindsey Dedow, Psy.D., director of advising and career development, Office of Student Affairs and Wellbeing at the School. “But this is a way for the students with recent ‘virtual’ experience to relay how best to meet the new challenges head-on.”
The Peer Mentors themselves are embracing the challenge, no matter the circumstance. Cozzarelli said he always wanted to do as much as he could for the school, located right in his hometown of Nutley.
“I always wanted to give back – to grow the school, and help out however I can,” he said. “But once I went through all these recent events, it gave me the opportunity to learn about myself and how I dealt with adversity so that I can be there for somebody else in their time of need.”