I regularly meet with prospective genetic counseling students striving for admittance into a training program. I’m often asked about my day-to-day schedule and the details of both the hardest and best parts of my job. Additionally, prospective students inquire how to make their resume stand out from other applicants.
As the field of genetic counseling becomes widely recognized, we are attracting more interested students. Unfortunately, the number of seats in programs around the country is not increasing at the same pace. This creates an extremely competitive application process requiring students to craft world-class resumes. Most often I’m asked about acquiring advocacy experience, an essential resume component.
Many applicants choose to check the advocacy box by gaining experience with crisis lines or local non-profits. Other prospective students want to gain experience working with the rare disease community to better understand the patient population they will one day serve. Unfortunately, these opportunities are limited, and can be restricted by location, awareness, and experience.
In early 2021, the United Multiple Sulfate Deficiency Foundation (UMSDF) based in Ocean Springs, MS, launched a Professional Ambassador program to increase awareness and provide crucial professional opportunities in the rare disease space. As a genetic counselor and patient research coordinator with UMSDF, the creation of the Professional Ambassador program sparked an idea to grow opportunities for prospective genetic counseling students. Could we create a program for students that would help the UMSDF build awareness of Multiple Sulfatase Deficiency (MSD) while providing an opportunity to gain valuable experience?
We created the Student Ambassador program to connect students with the rare disease community. This program allows students to develop patient advocacy skills while additionally growing a motivated group of students to spread awareness about MSD and other rare genetic conditions. As the first year of student ambassadors ends, I am reflecting upon what went well and our opportunities for improvement as we move forward with our second cohort.
UMSDF’s Student Ambassador program is entirely virtual, removing the physical barriers of volunteering while expanding the presence of the UMSDF beyond the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. We initially opened applications to pre-health and healthcare students, asking them to contribute 5 hours per month to the program. In June 2021, we welcomed 20 new Student Ambassadors (2 medical students, 4 pharmacy students, 1 biotech employee, 2 current genetic counseling students, and 11 prospective genetic counseling students). As we worked with these students, it became evident that this experience could be beneficial to a broader array of students. Thus, we plan to open the program to students in communication, marketing, and other fields.
Recognizing the importance of clearly defined goals and expectations, we launched our Student Ambassador program with an orientation in July. Students were assigned a “family group” and staff lead to facilitate monthly one-on-one meetings aimed at leveraging each student’s unique strengths, interests, and opportunities. Projects driven by Student Ambassadors included evaluating Newborn Screening programs and their requirements, presenting in their communities, interviewing MSD families, creating needed patient resources, and so much more.
For our pre-genetic counseling students, we additionally coordinated a resume review, personal statement review, and mock interviews with current genetic counselors. Of our nine pre-genetic counseling students who applied this cycle, seven will be starting genetic counseling training program this Fall.
One of our former ambassadors and a current genetic counseling student provided commentary on the program: “I could say that being a Student Ambassador fulfills my "community engagement" requirement for school, but honestly, I feel like this program has enhanced my experience as a graduate student. I've been able to learn more and see direct applications to topics we've discussed in class, like newborn screening, gene therapy, and psychosocial concerns.” – Phebe Lemert, MCW c/o 2023
We are incredibly proud of our Student Ambassadors and what they have accomplished this year. UMSDF actively sought Student Ambassador feedback aiming to incorporate suggestions into our plans for future cohorts. We will continue to refine this program to ensure it is meaningful for all participants. We hope in the future that more non-profits will utilize this model to both provide unique opportunities to passionate students and further their cause.