Alumni Highlight: Abbi Cerezo (Video blog)

Friday, December 15, 2023

Spotlight on a BSVM alum, Abbi Cerezo (’16-’17)! Listen to her interview (from 2021) with former BSVM Recruiter (and BSVM alum), Paula Hastings (BSVM ’18-’19) while Abbi was in her 4th year in medical school. They discuss doubts, gifts, challenges, and invaluable skills they have from their years with BSVM. Watch the full interview (~17 min) or read an edited transcript below:

[Note: PH = Paula Hastings (interviewer); AC = Abbi Cerezo (interviewee)]

PH: Hello and welcome to BSVM Buzz, my name is Paula Hastings. I’m the recruiter for BSVM as well as an alum from 2018-2019 and I’m joined today by Abbi – welcome Abbi!

AC: Hello!

PH: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Abbi.

AC: Sure – so again my name is Abbi, my alma mater is Stonehill College, which is a small liberal arts program in Southern Massachusetts, and I’m a BSVM alum from the 2016-2017 year. I served in the Baltimore house and my position was in St Martin’s, one of their inpatient units [at the Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital] and I did patient advocacy there, which was really, really fun. Currently, I’m a fourth year medical student at GW Medical School in DC.

PH: How wonderful! Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today Abbi.

AC: Yeah, happy to be here!

PH: We have a couple of questions here. The first one we’ll start with, you know some people are thinking about a year of service but don’t know how to deal with the doubt that sometimes comes into that decision. Throughout your year of service, how often did you doubt whether or not you made the right decision and how did you ever overcome this doubt?

AC: Yeah that’s a good question. So at first, I didn’t really doubt my decision. When I got to Baltimore, I thought the people that I was with were really gung-ho and energetic and everyone was pretty much sharing the same excitement that I had to start. And of course, when we met our Site Leader and all of the nuns, it was a really exciting time. But I think as the year went on and as the days got longer, and it became cold, it got dark really quickly – you start getting into a routine where you’re kind of in a lull. That’s where I was like – oh like I don’t know if this was the right choice. I saw my friends [from college] in corporate positions and things like that, and they were really just doing things that people in their 20s do – I was like, I don’t know if this was the right choice for me.

And so, at first I was really silent about it because I was like, oh my gosh I’m the only one feeling this way. But then I started talking to one of my roommates, and it sounded like she was feeling the same thing, and then we brought it up in one of our reflections later that week, and it seemed like everyone kind of had this doubt either from the beginning or started creeping into our minds. And I think that was the first step that I was like, okay, so it’s not just me and it’s part of the normal process. Especially when you really start getting deep into the community, you start really feeling the hurt and the pain and the suffering and it just starts to become a lot. And I think sharing those sentiments with my community, going through it reflecting upon it, and then just remembering that when you go into work, how important your work is. Not only are you touching the patients and the families that you work with but also how they impact you as well. And so even though it was really tough, I think the growth both personally, emotionally, and spiritually was just so rewarding when I look back at it. That even though I had doubts, they were kind of like those little walls or boundaries that kind of test you to make sure that you’re really learning what you’re doing, and you’re getting something out of the experience. And I think that those little hints of doubt were just other ways of God telling you that you can have doubt but also have faith that you chose a path and this is the right path for you. And I think just with reflecting and talking about it and really just diving into the community itself was just helpful in erasing that doubt and allowing me to go through the year.

PH: Yeah, that was very well said. I think I had a similar experience around the same time of year too – like November / December – when it gets dark so early and you’re more in a routine of what you’re actually doing, you’re not in as much the learning phase, but then it kind of sinks in, like, what am I doing? And I know for me, that hit around our first retreat – that moment of extreme doubt, like, what am I doing here? For me, what helped was opening up to community as well; that bravery that being vulnerable takes too, and it has a huge payoff – making you closer with your community and diving into to the service more, but it does take a lot of bravery to open that vulnerable space in the first place.

AC: Right. And it’s like that vulnerability that allows you to care for each other. We always think about, what do I need right now, but then you also learn like through the communal feeling, you kind of learn how to care for each other and speak each other’s language, and all of that, and it’s just such a transformation throughout the year. And I think it really starts happening at Thanksgiving time because people don’t go home, and you really have to rely on each other, which was hard, but a really unique experience that not many people go through.

PH: Yeah. I think it very well prepared me for what this year [2021] has become too; I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving this year either, and you know, my volunteer year Thanksgiving was the first year that that didn’t happen. So it’s prepared me in a lot of ways for what this year has become with simple living and having to lean into being flexible and doing things for the common good that are really hard. It takes, again, a lot of bravery too to not do some of the things that we are used to doing and having to tell family members, I’m sorry I can’t come home – this is just not what is right for our public good right now.
Thank you for sharing about your doubt.

The next thing I want to ask is about how you came to this decision of BSVM and choosing that as your service year, and how did you talk to your friends and family about the decision to serve for a year after school? Did you encounter any resistance and how did you address concerns over why you weren’t getting ‘a real job?’

AC: Right! I was really torn because in college, I was really involved in the service immersion activities in school, so I went to multiple trips with our campus ministry, and I just really loved it. I loved the work and I loved the feeling afterwards. And so, I talked to alum about doing a year of service because it just seemed like something that was calling me. But on the other hand, as I said before, I’m in medical school now, so that period of time where you graduate college and you apply is really important too. And so I was around PhDs because I majored in biochemistry, and they were all like, no you should get a lab job, or my career counselor was like, you should scribe for a hospital or do something medical. And they just they seemed really awful options to me. I really couldn’t see myself doing that for a full year and enjoying my life! So I reflected upon it, I talked with one of my campus ministers, and it just seemed like the right fit for me. So I feel like I was sold, but then everyone else around me was giving me a lot of resistance in terms of signing that final packet and saying, yes I’m doing this. I think the school at first – like you know, they have all those metrics of how many graduates six months out are in a job, and of course I wasn’t in that percentage, I was in like an ‘other’ intermediate job.

And I don’t know, people were like, ‘you’re not going to get into medical school doing that; it just doesn’t seem like something that would bolster your CV.’ And so obviously that gave me a little bit of doubt, I was like oh my god, my goal is to become a doctor. But honestly, just listen to yourself. I knew this is what I wanted to do, and what other people were saying just was not ringing home with me. And I mean, looking back now, I think it’s the reason why I got into medical school. When I interviewed and I explained what I was doing that year, people were astonished. They had never heard of such a program. It’s such a unique experience to give a year of your life; to immerse yourself in a community that you may not have ties to, and really just grow personally I think is just such a unique experience. Especially if you’re going into the healthcare field, you’re going to work for people, so you better develop yourself as a person before you care for others, because you can’t do that well if you don’t know yourself. So I thought, why the heck not! And it was just the best opportunity after college for me.

PH: That’s a great story. I think you might have been the first Stonehill alum, but we’ve had quite a few after you! So you paved the way for maybe some of that resistance that they showed, because now they’re great advocates there. What you said about thinking about this experience – listening to yourself – but also, it does look great on a resume. It’s not the reason to do it, but it also does look great on resumes and it gives you a lot to talk about in interviews and essays and things. I’m personally applying to graduate school right now and it’s given me a lot to talk about too, and given me a lot of experience. You actually have that experience with people, and you don’t always get those long-term relationships during college. You’re able to grow professionally with a lot of jobs, but this way you’re able to grow in your spiritual life, in your personal life, in your communication skills with community, and there’s just so many other skills that you gain through a year of service. And resilience too is a big thing, because there’s gonna be hardships that you run into and BSVM really gives you the skills to confront those hardships in a healthy way.

AC: Right. And I think another benefit that I’m just seeing now because I’m applying into residency is that I didn’t realize that the stuff that I learned in Baltimore, and interests that came about from it, were really stepping stones into everything that I did afterwards. And so now when I talk about my story to programs when I become a doctor in May, it all stems back from that one decision that I made when I was a senior. And so, it is really beautiful to see how that changed and how I grew from it and now every little thing kind of bounced from it. I think when you make such a groundbreaking decision, it’s always the right one and everything else comes from it.

PH: Well that feeds into my next question: what unexpected skills did you acquire during your service year that you think make you a better student and then a health care worker now?

AC: Yeah – I think one skill that people may not think is a skill is just listening. You know in college, you constantly have to do essays, presentations, you’re always talking and talking and talking. What Andres would do (who was our BSVM Site Leader at that time) – whenever we reflected, he would always bring it back to the central thing of – how are we learning a ‘me’ situation to a ‘we’ situation. And I think that in itself is just such a skill that you don’t realize that you learn. Something like listening — I spent hours on the hospital wards just sitting down and listening to patients, listening to their fears, their anxieties, what they’re excited about, what their life is about, who they are when they’re not a patient there, and that I just took with me to medical school. And I think it was great because I excelled in patient care because I was able to really create relationships with people because it was something that I was used to. And, yeah I don’t know, it’s this skill that no one thinks about, but being a good listener – not just for the people around you but also your teammates, the people that you work with – listening to how someone’s struggling today, let me help them out, and just little things like that, I think just make the day and the experience that you bring to the table such a better thing.

PH: Yeah, our BSVM Director Shannon calls it, ‘the compassion boot camp’, and a lot of that is through those listening skills, being able to be a compassionate presence is something that takes work and you had a whole year of practice of it before diving into med school. And I also love that, because she also calls that being a journey ‘from me to we’, which is such an important mind-shift, because we live in a society that is very me-centric, but making every decision, thinking about how does this affect the communities that I am part of? So, it is a very transformative year. Thank you for sharing all of that.

Do you have any final thoughts or final pieces of advice for people who may be discerning service year right now?

AC: Yeah I just want to reiterate that if you feel like it’s the right thing for you, and you’ve really thought of all the options that you have, then even if you are getting resistance from people – even people you feel close like your family – I think you just have to take that leap of faith. I know we talk about a little step, but it’s kind of a leap out of your comfort zone, and you really won’t know what is going to happen until you enter through that door. And so, have some faith and just do it. Because I think everyone who I’ve talked to who has taken a year for personal growth or development, whether that be through BSVM or another service opportunity like it, it’s such a transformative experience that even though it’s hard when you’re going through it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re not going to regret the year. You’re going to learn so much and you’re going to come out a different person and definitely a better person than you were when you first stepped in. So, wishing everybody the best of luck since it’s a really weird year. I know all of these decisions are very difficult right now but just have faith that you’ll choose the right thing in the end.

PH: Well said, well said. Thank you so much Abbi!

AC: Of course!