When in Rome

Auburn students aspiring to become physicians learn critical lessons in Italy

Article body

Auburn University junior Alicja Siek recently followed the same advice she would give to any other fellow student.

“Have fun and try new things,” she said of the words of wisdom she often gives fellow classmates. “I’m one of those people who tends to hyperfocus on academics, but I’ve learned that experiences are also very important. I’d tell them to get involved in a club or group on campus, do study abroad if they can and meet new people.”

That’s exactly what Siek and a fellow Auburn student, Kate Bouchillon, did while on a recent Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program trip that they say will ultimately produce dividends toward their ultimate goal of becoming a physician.

“After graduating Auburn, I’ll take a gap year. Then I’ll hopefully go to medical school and become a doctor,” said Siek, who is majoring in organismal biology, pre-med. “I’m particularly interested in child psychiatry and family medicine, but a lot of other specialties interest me as well.”

Bouchillon has a similar goal.

“After graduation, I hope to spend my time interning with Doctors Without Borders in order to gain more intellectual insight into what it means to be a future physician,” said Bouchillon, a senior studying biomedical science with a pre-med concentration. “Then, I hope to go to medical school to pursue a specialty that has strong patient relationships and a consistent intellectual challenge that requires critical thinking and continuous learning.”

Shadowing a profession

Both students recently returned from Italy and were greatly impressed with the Doctors in Italy program, a clinical shadowing opportunity for students who aspire to become healthcare professionals and want to see how medicine is practiced in Europe. Siek said she learned about the program through Auburn’s study abroad website.

“It was listed on the suggested external opportunities page, and it immediately caught my attention,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Italy, and the fact that I could shadow at a hospital there seemed like an amazing opportunity. It was exactly the kind of program that I was looking for.” 

The Auburn Abroad office recommends that all students interested in non-Auburn programs start their planning early and register with its office to take advantage of advising services, pre-departure health and safety orientations and to be enrolled in Auburn University’s International Emergency Travel Insurance.

While Siek and Bouchillon’s trip didn’t carry academic credit, Doctors in Italy does collaborate with Auburn on a separate faculty-led program through which students receive credit for the experience as part of completing a class and traveling with a faculty leader. The College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) runs several medical shadowing programs.

The Auburn COSAM Pre-Health program abroad utilizes “Doctors in Italy” and runs every other year (alternating with a shadowing program in Spain and Morocco) for pre-health students who will be applying to medical school and need a shadowing program. The last such program run by program director Katie Cooper took 25 Auburn students to Rome in summer 2022. She will run it again during summer 2024.

COSAM also offers a program in the History and Development of Medicine in the United Kingdom. For information on that, students should contact Meredith Powell.

In Bouchillon’s case, the Doctors in Italy program was a way for her to step out of her comfort zone and branch out her experiences into the world.

“I knew it was something I wanted to do,” she said. “Italy has such a different approach on medicine, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

During her time in Rome, Bouchillon had the opportunity to shadow a doctor in a different specialty each day. She said she met with residents, doctors, nurses and directors at San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital.

She observed endocrinology geriatric medicine, an emergency room, oncology, blood transfusions and analysis, radiology, hematology, oncology, telemedicine and cardiology. She also experienced an intensive care unit, operating rooms, labor and delivery unit and much more.

The human touch

“I hope to take certain aspects of what I learned in Italy to what I practice here,” Bouchillon said. “One of the many areas of growth I had on this trip is my perspective on individuals battling cancer. Their focus on taking care of the person as a whole, physically and mentally, was eye-opening.

“I remember the director of mammography saying that he was not only committed to curing people, but also crafting a brighter future for them. To him, this included making sure their mental status was intact, nurturing their sense of self-worth and instilling the belief in post-cancer life's possibilities. This encounter gave me a drive in my determination as I concluded my studies and allowed me to embrace more of the beauty in life itself.”

Siek said she learned similar lessons, most notably to be compassionate toward patients. She served in a two-week program in Bologna at the prestigious Policlinicon Sant’Orsola, a hospital ranked on Newsweek’s “World’s Best Hospitals” list. There, she shadowed in the cardiology and ENT departments.

“One medical student told me something along the lines of that Italians focus more on treating the person rather than the condition, and I found that he was right,” she said.

Siek remembers that, on one day while doctors were making their morning rounds and discussing treatments for patients, she observed as a doctor held a patient’s hand the entire time the patient talked to her nurse.

“It was a small gesture, but it showed that the doctor saw the patient as a human being and was trying to offer her comfort,” Siek said.

She also observed the nurses, who would touch elderly patients’ hair in a comforting manner.

“It showed me that being a good doctor is about serving the people around you and that medicine should be more than a business transaction,” Siek said. “I’ll definitely carry that lesson with me as I continue my studies and work at Auburn.”

The Auburn connection

Being a world citizen is nothing new to Siek. Her hometown is Nisko, Poland – although, she has lived in Auburn since the age of 3 after her father took a job in the area.

“I’ve always known about the university,” she said of Auburn. “I love the campus. It’s beautiful. I especially love all the trees and greenery.”

Bouchillon is from Decatur, Alabama.

“My favorite part about Auburn is the Auburn community,” she said. “Growing up, being a part of a community has been a big part of who I am, and the second I stepped on Auburn’s campus, I felt as if I belonged.”

Bouchillon has some advice as well for incoming students.

“Find your drive, your passion and know that you can have multiple passions, but also take the time to appreciate the people around you and the experiences around you,” she said.

Both agree such rewarding experiences are plentiful at Auburn — a place that not only brings together students from Decatur, Alabama, and Nisko, Poland, but helps connect them to a country thousands of miles away in a training ground they’ll never forget.

For information about study, research, internship, medical shadowing and experiential programs abroad, contact the Auburn Abroad office at auab@auburn.edu and check out the  Auburn Abroad program discovery page.

Related Media

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.