“This is what you trained for:” A conversation with Class of 2020 President Varun Menon on moving forward in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak
by Emma Mattson
We spoke with VUSM Class of 2020 President Varun Menon (VMS4) about the experience of being a medical student during the COVID-19 outbreak. Here are the words of reflection and encouragement he shared during this crisis.
What reactions and responses have you heard from your class in light of the recent COVID-19 updates?
It’s a frustrating time, as you can imagine. Certainly, at the beginning, we did not not know how severe this was going to be. I don’t think we really understood—because none of us have lived through anything like this—what measures really needed to be taken to protect the public health. At the beginning, we still had a nonchalant attitude, honestly, as a society and certainly a class.
Initially, many of us thought that we were being a little too hasty in cancelling what are (I think) irreplaceable events on our journey, including Match Day and our celebration of the Match as a school with the faculty. I’ll tell you, we waited our entire four years for this. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our families, for our friends, for everybody who loves us and supports us. This is it. This is that moment, and it’s been taken away from us.
In the last week, that sense of disappointment hasn’t gone away, but it certainly has been overshadowed by what we realize is an imperative to act and to contribute in what is potentially going to be a once-in-a-century event.
The University announced today that commencement would be postponed until May 2021. What are your thoughts on this change?
This is what the moment demands. This is what we need to do to step up. It won’t be the same trying to do it next year. To be honest, I don’t know how many people will be able to come back during that time because of residency. It’s going to be tough for everybody, but it’s going to be extremely difficult for us.
With that being said, I think our class needs to have the trappings of that entire process happen formally at some point, and I think that should happen in May of next year. Graduation is something that has to be done in person. That’s the whole point of it. It has to be something that you march onto the stage, you have as many members of the class there as possible. The hooding is a physical process. The taking of the oath—we can do it virtually, but it really should be taken together in front of people. It is a physical, in-person thing that needs to happen.
Our personal desire to enjoy and celebrate this very unique and irreplaceable time in our lives and our careers—that desire has been replaced by a sense of duty and setting aside our own personal wishes for the good of society and our patients. And all of the things that we were going to take in that oath at graduation, those are the kinds of principles that we are thinking about right now as we prepare for potentially a new role in this pandemic.
What does that role look like for your class right now?
It’s being called to the duty of exemplifying the principles of science and public health to those around us, to younger medical students, to our patients, and then to society at large. We cancelled our Match Day and celebrations. We’re trying to set the example, “Hey, look at us, this is our celebration. This is the last celebration we have before we enter this very demanding profession, this very demanding training period. But we realize that we must put this aside for the better of society.” That is the best way we can contribute in our current role.
What words of encouragement would you offer to your fellow medical students in the midst of this crisis?
I would tell them: this is what you trained for. You think your career is going to go a certain way; you think that life is going to go a certain way; you think history might go a certain way. But at some point, there are these inflection points, and it’s turning out that this probably is going to be one. It is unreal to me, certainly, and I’m sure to many, many others, how quickly that has become apparent.
If anything, treat this moment with respect and dignity. Understand that a crisis could be coming, but also understand that this is an extraordinary opportunity for us to learn and to contribute in a meaningful way. This will have an incredible impact on shaping the rest of our careers and how we respond to crises, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s war, whether it’s economic depression. Whatever it is in our future careers that we might confront, this experience will be that formative experience for us and our generation.
In the future there will be a time to celebrate. There will be a time for us to honor our class and to honor our faculty and our administration and all those who were part of making us who we are today. But it’s time to put those things on hold, because those things can always come again. It may not be the same, but we can always make them work again. What we cannot replace is the critical time that is necessary to ensure we minimize the damage and the loss of life from this crisis.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.