A Coach For Character in Med School

A Q&A with Keyma Clark, a personal and career coach who is helping students thrive in medical school and all that comes after it.

The Program and the Wake Forest School of Medicine established a new Center for Personal and Professional Development (CPPD) in summer 2022. The purpose: to promote better systems of healthcare and patient outcomes by supporting students’ personal and professional development as they find their place in the medical profession. The Center pairs a coach with every incoming M.D. student to provide individualized and comprehensive support throughout their time in medical school. Over the long term, the CPPD’s goal is to develop students’ capacities of character and advance a culture of shared purpose, growth, and belonging. We talked to one of the CPPD’s coaches, Keyma Clark, about what he sees, how he supports students’ growth in character, and how he has grown since taking on the role.

Q: What makes the CPPD program distinctive?

Clark: We’re with these students day in and day out, not just during a course. We’re with them from the beginning of this experience to the end.

The largest portion of what we do is focus on how to keep them mentally prepared for the academic rigor. We’re here to figure out the outside noise—what’s going on outside of the educational space that may affect the educational space. It’s a holistic opportunity to get these students from their first day of medical school to Match Day. But during their time here, we want to help them professionally grow and personally grow to become better than they were when they arrived.

We are a supplemental resource. We’re not here to be punitive. We’re here to support them. To say, “You may be struggling, but let’s find out the reason why.”

Q: Why is character an important piece of medicine?

Clark: You have to get these students to understand that your character is on display every day. With your peers, with your patients, and with the public. If you’re about you and not about the patient, or if you’re not about supporting low income families or other populations, then your character needs to develop. 

Q: What’s an example of that?

Clark: We hosted an event called Classism and Racism in Medicine. I had a student who came in who was a minority student, and he asked me why I put an emphasis on representation. I asked him: “You want to go back to serve your community?” He said yes. The community that he grew up near is a melting pot where people of all cultural backgrounds are. The aha moment he had was when I asked him how many doctors he knew who looked like him. He said, “I don’t know one.” 

Now I have his attention. Now this aha moment is: your character has to be that of one that is going to represent a large area, and your character is going to be on display because everyone’s going to look and say: You’re the first person that looks like this who’s going to serve in this capacity in this community. Here’s why I have to develop your character so you understand the things you’re going to face being the first.

Q: How does developing character look different here at the CPPD? 

Clark: There are different levels of character that you may have to improve upon, or different character traits that you may need to be the best physician you can be.

“I tell my students for me to be the first stop. If you’re having a problem, if you don’t know where to start, if you don’t know who to go to, start with me.”

For example, one of the things we talk about is compassion and respect for diversity. When you walk into a patient’s room, your experience is totally different from that patient’s experience. Your community is totally different from that patient’s community. What they’re dealing with may be different. So, I use “respect for diversity” as a way you can now stack your character on top of that [and ask], “Am I compassionate enough in that moment? Am I having respect for diversity at that moment? Am I understanding things like ‘social determinants of health’ at that moment?” Because they can look like you and I, but have a totally different lived experience.

Q: What opportunities do you see for students to be able to develop character while they’re in this high-pressure environment?

Clark: Students have opportunities to go work at the DEAC (Delivering Equal Access to Care) Clinic, a student-led clinic here. They have opportunities to support high school students locally and work with underprivileged students in the summertime. So there are a lot of opportunities that are given for them to look at their character, evaluate it, but also get a chance to walk in other individuals’ shoes. As you progress into the medical school experience, you can start to say, “I don’t have enough humility. I may need to evaluate my humility so I’m a little more humanistic when I’m working with a patient.” Or: “I may not be curious enough about what’s going on in someone’s life or one’s home. As I work with patients, I may need to be a little more curious.”

Q: How do you think you have grown since you’ve started here?

Clark: I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a director, I’ve worked at a community college and in higher education. This was an opportunity to take all of that and combine it together.

I take a lot of my experiences and tailor them to work with my students individually. Every experience is individual. It’s so students can understand that this experience you’re having with me is tailored strictly for you.

That’s helped me grow to understand how to take students who are having a different experience than I have – because I’m first-generation, low-income and a lot of my students are not – and combine [my experience] with their experience to help them figure out opportunities to be successful in medical school.

Q: So in some ways, you’re the first stop for people who are encountering problems that a lot of students have in and outside of med school.

Clark: I tell my students for me to be the first stop. If you’re having a problem, if you don’t know where to start, if you don’t know who to go to, start with me.

Learn more about the Center for Personal and Professional Development here.