December 20, 2021

Hear the Firsthand Experiences of Caribbean Medical Students

Thinking of going to the Caribbean for medical school?

The demand for more doctors, and the surge of applications during the pandemic for the same amount of available seats, has made getting into medical school increasingly more difficult. Though some can’t imagine ever leaving their country to seek a medical education, many move internationally for this opportunity, whether it is Caribbean or non-Caribbean options.

Caribbean schools have their first two years (term 1-4 or 1-5) on the island that the medical school is based on, and then the last two years (term 5-8 or 6-10) are usually based either in the US, Canada, UK, or sometimes other countries at affiliated hospitals for hands-on clinical education. The more popular Caribbean schools are usually accredited for most or all of the US states, and the first-time pass rate at these schools can vary, but the more popular ones range above 90%!

Though going internationally for medical school is not for everyone, we at the Savvy Pre-Med have made previous articles on whether you should apply internationally and if a Caribbean medical school is a right fit for you.

However, we’ve gone a step further to interview current and former Caribbean students (St. George’s University) and ask questions about their experiences.

Caribbean Medical Student Profiles:

Student 1 just finished their fourth term and will be starting their clinical years next. Though their time on the island is limited due to the pandemic, they have spent time living on Grenada. They have had a public appearance on social media to document their medical school journey.

Student 2 just finished their first term, and though they started medical school in the middle of the pandemic, all of their schooling so far has been in person. They have also documented their journey on social media.

Student 3 finished his sixth term and is currently doing clinical rotations at a hospital in Florida. They have spent most of their time on the island of Grenada. 

All students have been kept anonymous. The questions asked in these interviews have been asked for the firsthand experiences of the current students, and not in comparison to studying in US schools.

Question 1: In your perspective, how is the quality of education at SGU, and what resources are available that have helped better your studying experience? 

Student 1: The schooling has been pretty on track with what I have needed for the USMLE and has prepared me a lot. I can open up a PowerPoint from class and match the content with the USMLE book. I feel prepared, I feel like a medical student, and I don’t notice anything different in my education. From the very beginning, the school has been very optimistic of my potential. They offer academic advising, learning strategists to help students study more efficiently, and mandatory tutoring in the first term, but they also offer supplemental tutoring by students in higher terms that mentor you throughout the process.

Student 2: I went to a large school for college, so coming into SGU’s classes felt normal to me, even though I was told by pre-med students that the classes would feel too large to learn effectively. The resources given such as packets and PowerPoints from lectures are very thorough. It also seems like we are given extra help with small-group and supplemental instruction. I am so fortunate to know some upper terms that have been able to hand their past notes for classes down to me, along with being able to ask them for advice and much-needed help in getting through medical school. I loved how most professors have been very approachable, and I have been able to reach them with any questions that I have.

Student 3: It hasn’t felt like a competitive environment, and there is a student support system among the group. We are all here for the same goal.

Question 2: How has financial aid helped with the costs of medical school for you? How are the costs?

Student 1: This is my first time taking out a loan, and it’s kind of scary, but as a US student going to SGU, you can apply to FAFSA and still get government loans to pay for SGU. For me, it has been pretty easy to get loans.

Student 2: I already knew I would be coming out of medical school with so much debt. On top of unpaid undergrad loans, I was offered loans through FAFSA, and it has covered more than enough of the costs. I wished that the interest rates were better though. 

Student 3: I was offered mainly loans, but I also was able to apply to odd scholarships, like the ones that are found online for being a first-generation college student and a creative writing contest. I’m glad that those cover the costs of living off-campus, and though the school’s tuition and fees aren’t the greatest, living off-campus has been much more affordable than I expected.

Question 3: How has your school-life balance been? If you could give a glimpse of generally what a week looks like, that would be great.

Student 1: Every day, I wake up at 5 am to study for a few hours before a two-hour lecture. Then I have this interactive learning course, which is supplemental for students that have been struggling, where you go through the slides from the lecture and can stop and ask questions anytime. Afterward, I have a break, where I eat lunch, exercise on my cycling bike, and have small-group studying in the evenings for roughly two hours, where an MD goes through cases, analyzes pathology slides, or reviews course materials with a group of eight students. After that, I usually meet with my tutor for an hour, do my post-read, and then do any other supplemental things that I have to do, like watch a video or do practice questions. Then I go to bed at 9 pm so I can wake up at 5 am and start over again. 

Student 2: I wake up an hour before lecture to make something to eat. From 8-10 am, I have lectures and supplemental instruction. Then I make a Quizlet of the new material before going to small-group studying, where I fill out the online flashcards with more information that I missed during the lecture. Afterward, I go back to my dorm to review the flashcards that I made and briefly review for the next day’s material in my classes. I end my day by getting my things ready for tomorrow so I can wake up an hour before lecture. As for my life outside of school, I go with a few friends to the beaches weekly, and after exams, we all go out for drinks and karaoke. 

Student 3: I usually wake up early so I can review before coming into the hospital. I am on the surgical rotations currently, so I come in extra early. I usually come in at the hospital close to 6 am to check on patients and write progress notes. Then I attend rounds as a team by 8 am, where we present the progress of the patients. From 9 am to 5 pm, I attend operating rooms and complete admissions notes. By 5 pm, I’m signed out of the hospital, and I head back home to write what I have learned during the day. Then I unwind and go to bed at 8 pm. I think clinical rotations give me more time to relax and unwind in comparison to my preclinical years, and I am more of a hands-on learner so I’m thriving in my rotations better.

Question 4: What would you say have been the most impactful differences in comparison to home in the US and living in the Caribbean for medical school?

Student 1: I was only there for a short time because of the pandemic, but going to school in Grenada feels like an American school with the same on-campus resources, and every student is in the same boat as you. A lot of my classmates are from the US. Pretty much, it is the same thing that you would see on an American campus.

Student 2: I think SGU is very much like home, but outside of the campus really does feel like another world, and it did take me some time to adjust to the atmosphere, which is more laid back than the city life. I was reminded that I was no longer in the US when I stepped off campus for groceries, but having friends to go out and run errands with made the entire experience more comforting. 

Student 3: I loved island life, and I think the tropical environment of Grenada made me want to do my rotations here in Florida. But the culture shock was real! Not being able to find everything that you are used to in the States and having to practically pay twice for things shipped into the island were not fun experiences. Coming to a Caribbean medical school and knowing that you will be thousands of miles away from everything that you know, it’s crucial to be open to new things.

Question 5: What advice would you give to someone in the process of applying and who is considering attending a Caribbean school?

Student 1: I always say that I don’t like to advise on this important decision since it is an individually-based decision. Picking a medical school is a very personal decision, and you have to be happy with that decision; some students who go to SGU initially think the school is not the right fit for them and want to move back to the United States. Be prepared and open-minded, knowing that your life will be very different for a little while and that the transition will come with several changes. 

Student 2: I thought that going to a Caribbean school was a terrible idea from what I had read on Reddit and SDN, and I wasted years of applying and getting denied from MD schools in the US. I would say take any advice with a grain of salt and ask people who have gone through the entire process, rather than people who have biased opinions about where your education was located. I want to go for a more competitive field, not to the level of plastic surgery or derm but high up there, and was told that I wouldn’t be able to match for residency if I went internationally for school. Then I met and shadowed a few Caribbean MDs who are now in extremely competitive or specialized routes in medicine, and it made me reconsider where the negative online advice was coming from. So I'd say do your research and see if this route is right for you.

Student 3: Ask yourself if you can live far from everything that you know and how that might affect your performance in classes. If you are like me, who had a rough time being away from family and even had issues occur back at home where you were unreachable, it will not be easy. I would research to see if the schools that you are applying to have the resources that you need and if they can accommodate you. I’d say don’t be afraid of change, but be aware that there will be a lot of it all at once and make sure to prepare for that initial flux.

Question 6: What are some things that have helped you succeed in medical school? Any tips and tricks?

Student 1: I think one of the main things that has helped me is having a good support system with my classmates. It doesn’t matter whether you get a low or high score on a test; they will treat you the same. You will still find people who can be judgmental, but having that support system has helped me through rougher times. You have friends that will tell you positive affirmations, since everyone is going through the same process as you. Going through medical school without that support can be difficult, but it’s important to have that constant, positive mindset and be proud of yourself no matter what throughout the entire process.

Student 2: Hands down, the online resources that line up with the classes that I am taking have been so helpful. Also having study groups outside of the supplemental instruction has been extremely helpful for my education and mental health. Pre-studying before lectures and using online formats to study like Anki or Quizlet have helped me study at odd times. Though medical school seems like you will be studying day and night, taking small breaks can make a huge difference.

Student 3: Reach out to your friends in medical school and your family when you need someone. This is a shared experience that your classmates are dealing with as well, and your family understands the longing for you to be back home. This is not something that you achieve alone, and taking each achievement one step at a time, whether thick or thin, will help you in the long run.

No doubt, there’s a big difference in environment when moving to an entirely different country. It seems like all these students had to adjust to that, but at some point, they enjoyed their time on the island and the experiences along the way.

The campuses in the Caribbean islands tend to mimic schools found in the US, but according to these students, the environments might even be more supportive than the US in terms of students’ wellness, camaraderie, and resources.

About the Author:

Atalia Cohen is a non-traditional pre-med student who graduated with her Bachelor's of Science from Humboldt State University in General Biology and Zoology. She has spent countless hours in the veterinary field, but has changed her career route to become a Pain Specialist after her own personal experience of the field. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her three dogs and is in the process of applying to medical school.

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