While our students come from diverse backgrounds and are pursuing degrees in different fields, the one thing that they all have in common is that they end up here at Salus. We wanted to feature a few of our student ambassadors about their experience transitioning into graduate school because everyone’s got a unique Salus story.

This is the second chapter of a four-part series, featuring:

Renee ThiringerRenee Thiringer
  • Second-year Occupational Therapy student
  • From New Jersey
  • Undergrad at Stockton University in Galloway, NJ 

Umar MahmoodUmar Mahmood
  • Second-year Optometry student
  • From Maryland
  • Undergrad at Syracuse 

Jennifer BenoitJenn Benoit
  • Second-year Optometry student
  • From Connecticut
  • Undergrad in Florida at the University of West Florida in Pensacola

Q: Did you expect it to be harder and how did that compare to reality during your first semester here?

Renee: I was prepared for it to be pretty hard, I feel like that’s what everybody tells you and you come to orientation and it’s like here we go, get ready. I think it is very hard in the beginning and then you find your groove. Once you get through that first exam and you know what to expect, and then you get through your first semester, and then you feel like you know what you’re doing, then you feel like you can get through the rest of it.

Umar: For me, it was similar but a little different. I also had an idea of how difficult it would be from people talking to us about it. Before I started grad school, I was two years removed from undergrad, and a week before I started school here, I got married and I never lived with my wife before either, so we were starting that adventure together and grad school together and then one thing I regret from my first semester entirely, was taking it…I wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been toward my studying. Maybe it was from the welcoming vibe that comes from orientation and everyone is giving you cookies and ice cream and it’s so nice and balloons and you think “I got this, we’re good” and you see you don’t have an exam for two weeks and you can take an easy pace on studying and that’s absolutely wrong. That one week that I didn’t study every single day, the first week of my first semester, it like ruined the rest of the semester for me.

The next 14 weeks, I was behind. I was playing catch up for 14 weeks, and it was just piling more and more. It wasn’t just old material either, a lot of it is brand new stuff for me and on top of that, balancing your personal life, which for me was my wife, and that’s not really something you can sacrifice at all. You have to give 50 there and 50 there, so falling behind was my biggest regret and I tell my mentees I have now, number one thing is that you might think you’re relaxed right now because there’s no quizzes and tests but if you’re relaxed, you’re not doing enough. If I had that when I started then maybe it would have been a little smoother, but as she was saying earlier, that groove was made. The second the semester hit, I went in frightened and scared, and I hit the ground running, and I’ve been running since then.

Jenn: I have almost the exact story, including getting married immediately before school and never having lived with my husband either. People ask how grad school changes marriage, I have no idea. So that’s been an adventure. As I said, I was scared going in, but I kind of did the same thing because I had heard how hard it was going to be, but in my mind I was like maybe not, maybe I can somehow do it better, which is totally wrong. I definitely also regret falling behind, I think what happened was I would say “okay I have a week before my next exam” and I have this random four-hour gap, I deserve to take a break, because I’ve been working on this and that, but if I had just taken that time and was more aggressive with my studies, then that 4 hours would have been there somewhere but it would have been closer to the exam, so instead of feeling stressed about the exam, you should front-load your work, instead of taking your rest early and cramming. Number one: you are going to remember things better and number two: you won’t be stressed for the test. Instead of finishing studying for an 8am test at 7am, you can finish the night before or even the day before if that could happen, and have a day where you can just breathe.

Umar: It is like the old cliché saying that each semester is its own marathon. Taking that week long break…if I compiled a whole bunch of two hour breaks, and had them all at once for that first week. Instead of spreading it out and having time to go to dinner or having time throughout the semester. After falling behind it was non-stop working. All of the breaks that I could have had, I burned them all up in the first week.

Renee: It never hurts to do things early, especially then you leave yourself room later on, so that when things come up and somebody is like ‘hey let’s go to dinner,’ you might actually have that hour, if you had used it earlier just to do nothing, you might feel like doing that at the time, but then every time someone asks you to do something last minute, you have to say no because you jam packed your schedule up for the exam or assignment and didn’t leave myself any extra room for things to go wrong or for fun things. 

Umar: And if you do go, then there goes your grade.

Jenn: I have sacrificed a couple grades because I wasn’t willing to compromise my new marriage for an A-, so I took the B+ and granted, that’s not that big of a deal, but in my mind, I wanted the A, but it all comes down to choices that I made a few weeks before.

Umar: Shout-out to spouses for understanding.

Q: Are your spouses in similar fields that they understand?

Jenn: No, my husband is a carpenter, he does not like school at all. He went to trade school, started working full time at 16, he loves it and he doesn’t understand how I want to do this again, but he’s like, go for it. He is actually really smart too, so sometimes I’ll teach him some things. I have taught him a couple skills that he has picked up before me, so then I’m like “okay we’re done with that.”

Umar: My wife is actually a recruiter for optometrists, occupational therapists, dentists, audiologists, so she isn’t one herself, but she is pretty familiar with quite a bit of it. She attends the AOA conference for recruiting so familiar but not exactly. 

Q: It seems like something that’s hard to manage is the school-life balance here, especially when you have families, because not all students are coming straight out of undergrad. Especially when you’re starting a bunch of new things. Especially like grad school and new marriage, how do you manage that? Especially because none of you are really from this area, I assume you moved closer, so it’s a bunch of new stuff at one time, how did you manage that?

Umar: I feel like you can have a game plan, but this is life. There is no real game plan for it. You don’t know what’s going to happen or what arguments you’re going to have. You can be planning to handle a situation for a whole year before it happens and when it comes, you feel completely different and you don’t want to act the same way, so you just stay positive and empathetic of the other person, whether it’s your significant other, whether it’s your friends, whether it’s your family, you feel like you’re in an ice box when you’re in school, no matter what the program is. If you’re really focused, nothing else in the world matters, but it does. Life is moving on, while you are in your little cubicle, your parents are getting older, your friends are achieving things, and all these things are happening and you have to, it’s your responsibility as a son, as a daughter, as a friend, as anyone, to always be thinking about others. Obviously not as much as you were when you were living with them and were around them all the time, but they were there for you when you needed them and you can never forget that.

Keeping that mentality for your spouse, knowing that this is also tough for them because you’re newly married and you’re spending 60-80 hours a week away from them and then on the weekends you aren’t spending time with them either. And they were waiting their whole life to get married and this is what it is for now. It’s an investment for them as well. You just have to be really empathetic and same thing with your friends. Your third order is your friends because they want to spend time with you but they have to understand that you’re married and you have school and them so you have to think about everybody.

Renee: Even as someone who came in fresh out of undergrad and relatively unattached, that balance, I have parents back home and grandparents getting older, and friends and there’s still a lot to manage, and there’s a lot of self-exploration that needs to happen. Even though you know what you want to do, you still might not know how best you’re going to go about that and what is it that you are going to do in this program and what’s a priority to you and what are you going to go after. So I think it’s important to take that time to have other priorities and figure out what it is that you can do to best get everything that you need to out of grad school for yourself and for the profession.

Jenn: I totally agree with both of them, especially I connect with what Umar said about having empathy for the other people. I think how I’ve managed is I’ve had to take a step back and see what does my spouse need? He mostly needs time with me. I love to sleep in and he’s a carpenter so he gets up at 5 a.m. so I have, in that way, to kind of give back to him for supporting me, I have changed my routine. So I basically get up with him, maybe 30 minutes after, but I’m pretty much up with him now. I get to the school much earlier now and I do things way ahead of time, and I sort of hate it but it has so many good ramifications and that has really helped. He knows that I care for him because I have gone through this effort and its working with us and now I have more time in the evenings to see him, whereas before I was stuck studying. For friends and other family members, I have written them down because I realize I can go weeks without talking to someone I’ve known for 25 years and that is crazy. I don’t necessarily check people off my list, but I like to keep them in the forefront of my mind.

Umar: What we said earlier about self-exploration, regarding relationships, school, or the program, I think that something really important to remember is that when we step into this school, regardless of the program, two years, three years, four years, no matter how long you’re here for, we are here to get a degree and become a doctor. But a lot of us, whether we are in our 20s or 30s, are in here and it’s a time that’s unlike any other. Going into the work force, you’re going to be working 9-5 when you’re coming here, whether it’s every day of the week or a few days of the week, but it’s a pretty set schedule. The self-exploration and growth…what’s really important is not just toward your profession, you have to build your character, how you want to be as a professional, what type of doctor or professional you want to be whether its someone business oriented, not just your specialty but your character development is extremely important during these few years because from here on, you’re probably not going back to school and you’re going to start a routine and if anything, routines are what build your character because you don’t know anything else at that point, you’re comfortable with one thing and it’s really hard to break out of that comfort zone once you get there.

Right now there’s no routine, every four months you get a brand new schedule, you get brand new classes, it’s the same people, but it’s really what you want to do with it. My first semester was really rough but I got a restart button in January I came back and I got to be a completely different person and then I got to choose in the summer if I wanted to continue being that way or change up again and in the real world you don’t get that. You mess up one time and you don’t get a second chance. So now is your chance to make the mistakes that help you build your character and then learn from those mistakes and come out a better human being and not just a better doctor or a better professional. I feel like that’s something that should always be in the back of your mind when you’re in graduate school.