UW welcomes first incoming class of medical students during pandemic

MADISON, Wis. – As new medical students begin their first year at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, things are already a bit different.

The traditional white coat ceremony, usually a graduation-like celebration following the first week of classes, was virtual this year. On Friday, the ceremony was streamed on the school’s Facebook page to welcome this year’s incoming class of 176 students – the first to start their training during the pandemic.

“The pandemic fuels my desire, absolutely,” student Kevin Franco Valle said. “I see we’re all living through this. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of unknowns, and that is part of my motivation to be in medicine.”

Franco Valle is used to unknowns, becoming the first in his family in the medical field. He’s also familiar with life-changing decisions like the one he made to enroll in medical school.

In search of new opportunity, he and his family came to Sheboygan Wisconsin in 2010 right before he turned 18.

“I was split between two worlds. I grew up in Mexico. That’s all I knew,” Franco Valle said. “I had some knowledge of English, but I had to really speed up my understanding … I did have some difficulties with poverty, trying to pull myself through.”

He worked through college and then became a nurse, being named Top Nurse by Madison Magazine in 2018. He said that working with patients motivated him to pursue a career as a doctor.

“I’ve always been very empathetic, wanted to do things for people,” Franco Valle said.

“The students who are choosing to come and join the profession of medicine now are making a slightly different choice because of everything happening with COVID-19 and because of the need and demand there is for providing patient care across the country,” said Gwen McIntosh, the school’s associate dean.

McIntosh said the students face unique challenges, like less face-to-face instruction and time with fellow students.

“The other challenge is really thinking about how we can be sure that we’re continuing to deliver a high quality curriculum that’s going to train them in exactly the way we want them to be trained, so they’re as fully prepared as any other class prior to them to enter the clinical years,” she said. “We feel confident that all the work that has gone into building the curriculum to be delivered by a virtual format will be successful in meeting that goal.”

Because of the pandemic, she said it’s an interesting and an exciting time to be entering the field.

“It’s prompting a lot of discussion about what it means to be a healthcare provider, for the risks healthcare providers take in committing to providing patient care,” McIntosh said.

Franco Valle knows that within unknowns can lie great opportunity.

“Sometimes you just have to take risks and see what’s out there,” he said. “I feel like a little kid in a candy store. There is so much that can be done, so much I can discover and learn and do. I am thrilled and excited to start.”

Students will train for four years at the school before deciding on a specialty in which to pursue further education. When it comes to his choice, Franco Valle said he’s keeping an open mind.