Taking up space: what a medical student and an aspiring advocate share

Vivian Gu is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at the University of British Columbia

 


Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Held every year, it’s a gathering of more than 9000 government officials and representatives from advocacy groups and NGOs worldwide. They come together in throes, dressed in everything from stiff suits to colourful swaths of cultural garb, and for two weeks, assemble to advocate for women and the challenges they face back home. By the end, a collection of recommendations is aggregated to shape the global agenda on gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide for the year to come.

The energy is magnetic. It’s hard to describe the buzz, the collective hope and passion that emanates from each conversation and connection from within the crowd. There is a unique energy and joy in talking to a soul who feels just as – if not more – strongly about the causes you champion and the aspirations you share. It’s like the excitement of discovering, while traveling, that the person you have just met halfway across the world is from the same town you grew up in. It’s simultaneously both invigorating and petrifying to be a part of this crowd. If you’ve ever experienced the distinct terror of sitting in on rounds for the very first time as a medical student, you’ll know what I felt. To be at once floored with awe by the people around you – physicians whose wealth of knowledge and accomplishments you couldn’t possibly dream of ever achieving – yet terrified that you don’t belong, that somehow they’ll find out how little you know and have to contribute, a knife’s edge away from getting kicked out of medical school and promptly replaced by a much smarter, much more deserving, medical student. I’ve heard this referred to as the Imposter Syndrome, though I’ve taken to calling it a Regular Day in the Life of a Clerk. Whatever it’s called, prevalence amongst medical students is high and as far as I know, there is no known cure.

I felt this acutely as I queued to attend the General Assembly. The Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, and a panel of intergovernmental officials, were going to be taking questions and hearing from representatives worldwide. It was the chance to get the issue you were advocating for heard on a global stage. The line was long, and certainly not all 9000 of us were going to get an audience with him. As I stood there chatting politely with other advocates, I could not shake the weight and awareness of the space I took up. I thought about the women all of us were meant to represent, who would never see the lushly carpeted green of the main hall. I thought about how my spot in line would be better off going to someone far more accomplished and talented than I, who could actually do something to make a difference. After all, I was just a medical student. What could I do to empower women and promote gender equality worldwide?

Later, as I reflected on this moment, I realized I had felt that before. Of bathing in the knowledge that simply being in the room and being privy to the going-ons around me was a great privilege. It was during clerkship. I was spending the day with an oncologist, and our next patient was a young woman in her 40’s. She had come in for a follow up visit regarding news from her latest CT scans. The prognosis was not good. I watched as the doctor softly, gently, broke the news. I watched as she caught her grief, cradling it in the space between their embrace. How she told her to cherish that upcoming Christmas, because it was going to be the One that Counts. As I left that encounter, I couldn’t help but think to myself how privileged I was to silently step into a stranger’s life, and bear witness to such a moment.

Since then, I’ve learned to embrace the space I occupy. As a medical student and a woman, societal norms advise us to shrink, to make ourselves smaller and not draw attention. But whether we feel we deserve it or not, we have a seat at the proverbial table. And it is up to us how we choose to participate. Whether it is as a medical student or a women’s rights advocate, it matters less what we know or have accomplished. What matters is that we engage. That we strive to learn a little more, do a little better, push a little harder. We can influence the room. So pull up a chair and sit tall, because we’re not going anywhere.

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