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First-Generation College Student Celebration Q&A with Gabe Conley

Date: Monday, November 2, 2020

Gabriel Conley, portraitWhat inspired you to become a doctor?

I became seriously interested in becoming a physician when I was 16 or 17 years old, which was before I had ever spent time with patients or as a member of a healthcare team.

Growing up, I had long envisioned a career in healthcare and this likely has much to do with my mother’s career in human resources at our town’s critical access hospital. Her job resulted in me spending untold hours in the hospital as a kid, where I visited her at work and often ate lunch with her while in elementary school.

I loved the energy of the place, the people hustling and bustling, the smells, oddly enough, and the seriousness of it all. As a kid, the net result was that my vision of “work” in the future usually incorporated a health center of some kind.

My early motivations were undoubtedly due in some part to the romanticization of physicians and health care that often occurs on television and in the media. The very notion of being trusted and called upon to find solutions for people facing ailments, naturally sounded captivating for me at an impressionable age.

However, this type of extrinsic motivation is often not enough to sustain the arduous and extensive journey that is medical training, and it certainly wasn’t enough to sustain mine. As a freshman in college in 2012, these motivations and intentions were proven too shallow to hold up against what amounted to be a flood of difficulty I faced during my first year in the pre-medical curriculum.

I recognized shortly afterward that I didn’t have a true sense of how doctors spend their days, and I didn’t know any physicians personally that could serve as mentors or role models. This lack of experience in health care was keeping me from “visualizing” my academic goals. By working with real patients in a health care setting, I hoped I could gain clarity on “why medicine?” and connect with mentors.

I became a certified nursing assistant and spent the summer taking care of patients in the inpatient ward of the same hospital where my mother worked. I learned from doctors and nurses what health care is all about. That summer, I realized the physician’s role as being attentive to the entire gamut of human experience—everything from the joy of life to the suffering of disease and to the sorrow of death—framed by the societal issues and family dynamics that are unique to everyone.

The more time I spent with patients on the wards, the more stories I heard, and the more relationships I made gave me motivation to perform well in college and to excel in the classes that had proven too difficult just months beforehand. That summer laid the foundation for a life devoted to the accumulation of knowledge. I became more efficient in studying, and the more I learned, the more joy I derived from making sense of the world. I remained a certified nursing assistant in the years that followed––I had the intrinsic motivation that I needed, and I never looked back.

Today—as I pursue my MD and MBA—my focus is to become as versatile of a physician as possible for the best interests of myself, my future patients, and the future organizations I’ll be affiliated with. By receiving training in business administration, I will be optimally positioned capitalize on opportunities to innovate my practice for optimal efficiency, pioneer new solutions for age-old problems, and have a part in implementing positive change in our healthcare and insurance markets. Being a doctor will always be a part of my identity, however, and I plan to serve patients in that role for the entirety of my career. 

How has being a first-generation college student shaped your college experience?

In order to succeed in their academic pursuits, first-generation college graduates must exhaustively invest time on their own to learn proper study habits, tips, and the secrets of the trade with regards to the “hidden curriculum” of college.

My status as a prospective first-generation college graduate became crystallized during that freshman year of college in 2012. Many of my high school classmates and their families had similar educational backgrounds, so I wasn’t aware of the “first-generation” status itself as being educationally limiting before I attended college.

The status didn’t seem notable to me until I realized, over time, that most of my classmates and new friends were at times drawing upon the experiences of their parents as they faced the various academic stumbling blocks that face us all in higher education. These insights range from general concerns (such as recommended study techniques for specific exam types, suggestions to attend office hours for professors and teaching assistants, encouragement to join specific or legacy student organizations) to more specific advice (like the very best practices to increase one’s chances of matriculating into medical school).

Pre-medical students are typically informed early in the curriculum that high grades are a must for successful matriculation into medical school. I was one year into my college career and the results had demonstrated clearly that I was average among my peers—not good enough for medical school, I was beginning to think.

I experienced painful feelings of failure that year with substantially greater frequency than I did any feelings of grand accomplishment. These growing pains ultimately laid the foundation for me to become the MD and MBA student that I am today.

With extraordinary support from my family, my now-wife, and my mentors, I discovered the relative advantage of being a first-generation college student, which is that we are more capable of continually looking at the world through the lens of the “perpetual student.” I came to recognize that first-generation students are perhaps better positioned to examine the world’s systems and industries, with their “established processes,” with a level of sustained curiosity that more likely lead to transformative innovation and improvements.

What made you want to attend Carver College of Medicine?

In my experience in growing up in rural, northwest Iowa, the physicians that attended the University of Iowa for medical school were always intensely respected. They were viewed as the most highly competent doctors because of the training.

Naturally, I grew up thinking of the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine as among the best medical schools in the world. Now that I’ve been here for close to four years, I can honestly say that I think this is true.

It’s the people that make any organization special and this is true to the core of the Carver College of Medicine. I know as a matter of fact that we have some of the very best faculty and other professionals tasked with delivering our medical curriculum.

Additionally, my classmates and colleagues in medicine never fail to inspire me with their widely varied extra-medical talents and skillsets. Whether it is through their music, writing, or other arts, or by their commitment to advocating for what they know to be right, or devotion to teaching or excellence in research, I am routinely humbled by my medical school classmates. I might well be the least impressive of the bunch.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Iowa City? 

Beyond spending time with friends, I think first about any of the scores of coffee shops in the Iowa City area that I love to frequent on studying weekends or when I need to focus my energies on something creative.

After that, I think about the area’s delightful local cuisine and the joys of tailgating on Hawkeye Football Saturdays. Finally, I think about the writing geniuses that frequently visit, in non-pandemic times, and give lectures in our community because of its world-famous literary history.

Iowa City’s annual events, such as Taste of Iowa City or the Downtown Block Party, help to make the city feel even more special. Iowa City is the most culturally diverse and imaginative city in Iowa, and it leaves a positive and lasting impression on everyone that calls it their home. It has most positively left its ever-lasting impression on me.

Do you have any advice for future medical students, especially other first-generation students?

In medicine, you will find that many of your classmates and colleagues were raised by parents with highly academic backgrounds, or that a significant percentage of their parents are physicians themselves.

When compared with first-generation college students, there is little doubt that these classmates’ upbringings can lend some level of early “advantage” for them with regards to utilizing the best practices associated with the medical curriculum, or in generally navigating the world of academics. And that’s really okay. In the long run, I know that there is substantial value associated with discovering these insights without that specific help. For first-generation students to realize this value, I believe their only requirement is take pride in being resourceful and unafraid of asking for help or guidance along the way.  

Every individual whose work or background seems fascinating to you represents a potential wealth of good advice that may be internalized to whatever degree is necessary. This can be thought of as “networking.” Utilizing their perspectives most effectively may require you to be vulnerable at times, and it will certainly require you to be willing to engage in continuous trial and error on your quest to reach your most ambitious goals, or to achieve optimal “performance,” whatever that means to you. Log their insights and compare them to the insights gleaned from others who’ve inspired you.

As first-generation students, this is never to imply that our parents and loved ones cannot provide us with the support that we need to excel in higher education––in fact, it’s quite the opposite. My parents constantly made my brothers and me feel that we could do anything we possibly wanted in our lives, and we believed them. Their support has always served me as a firm foundation of encouragement, and I would not be in this position without it. In my case, whatever “insights” that were never gleaned from them, with regards to the “how” of achieving success in scholastic pursuits, have been more than made up for in terms of other “life lessons” that are the result of their different educational backgrounds.

In life, that which makes us different from “normal” is what often contributes the most to our unique strengths and skillsets. Challenges and obstacles, once overcome, often become significant sources of strength and value for us. My “first-generation” status has become a meaningful source of strength and value for me.

I have leveraged my position as a life-long learner, and I have sustained a general curiosity about the world that will continue to foster my spirited intention of bringing an innovator’s approach to the practice of medicine and to the delivery of health care itself. This has been my route, but the pathways for first-generation students in medicine seem universally different from each other. At their core, these journeys share only in their unrestrained pursuit of the accumulation of knowledge, and in our unrelenting inclination to continue asking, “Why?” or “Why not?”