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Aishwarya Pillai

Fifth-year MD Student

Where did you grow up and where were you living immediately prior to medical school?

I was born in Mumbai, India, and I spent most of my first years of life tagging along and trying to keep up with my older boy cousins. My mom moved to America when I was three, and my ammumma and I followed about 6 months later. We spent one winter in New Jersey, at which point my mom said “never again” and requested a transfer to the warmest place she could think of - South Florida. My dad was able to join us a few months later, and I spent most of my early years chilling at my local library and trying to figure out how my temple was different from that of most of my Jewish peers. As I got older and my friends got cars, we spent a lot of time at our local beach (no vitamin D deficiency here folks).

I stayed in Florida for college, attending the University of Florida. I’ve always wanted to study medicine, but I really like the way engineers think, and I think there is a lot of opportunity for crossover, so I studied chemical engineering while there. During the summer between graduation from undergrad and matriculation into medical school, I taught the MCAT in Boston, and in August of 2016, I came to New Haven.

Can you briefly describe your schedule on a typical weekday?

I am a night owl, which means that I usually work until 2-3 am, so I get up fairly late, around 10 am or so. I usually putz around for an hour, making tea, bothering my cat, responding to emails, etc. I am fully incapable of doing work in my apartment during daylight hours, no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, so I usually head over to the medical school library and settle in there for five or six hours a day. Since I’m on the medical student council, and we’re currently planning Second Look, there’s a good chance I’ll have some form of meeting during the day, so hanging out at the library usually also puts me in a good place to pop over to those whenever they come up.

Because I spend so much time in the library at baseline, and I also am a self-identified extrovert, I work part time in the library two days a week (10/10 would recommend; the medical librarians are awesome). Since health is a thing, and I now know way too much about what happens if I don’t maintain it, I usually talk myself into going to the med school gym in the basement of the main administrative building in the evening. From there, I’ll mosey on home, eat dinner, and continue working in my apartment or a friend’s until the 2 am sleepies hit.

Why did you choose Yale School of Medicine?

I joke a lot that when I entered the Cushing Center – a mini museum displaying an extensive collection of well-preserved brains – during the campus tour on my interview day, I instantly knew YSM was my ideal school. While I did leave New Haven with dreams of one day studying in the Cushing Center surrounded by brains, it was more about what the room represented that stood out to me: YSM was a place that valued their students’ creativity and interests and supported them in pursuing their goals.

I’d learned during college that I was not a person who thrived under duress. Periodic competition was fun. Constant competition was stifling. I didn’t mind hard work, but if undergrad had taught me anything, I knew I’d need to have a solid support system of friends and mentors to rely on in order to thrive in med school. So, when I visited medical schools, I kept an ear open for signs that the environment would be conducive to my learning style. YSM struck me as a place that implicitly trusted its students to follow their passions, collaborate, and self-motivate as needed. I figured if those were the “soft” skills I’d be relying on for the rest of my career, why not start developing them in medical school?

During my interview day, students smiled and waved at us as we walked around. Periodically, our student tour guides would stop to greet a peer or professor. I was taken by the ease with which they all seemed to interact. Overarchingly, the students I spoke with just seemed… content, and I found it incredibly reassuring that it was possible to succeed academically, continue to enjoy extracurriculars, and have friends and fun in medical school.

From an academic standpoint, YSM students had a great match rate, and students went on to complete residencies at some great programs. I appreciated that clinical time would begin during first year through ILCE and that boards were taken after rotation year, since I’m a person who does better with practical applications than with textbooks and lectures alone.

Overall, YSM really seemed to suit my personality perfectly. I like being around people and being able to learn from them. I especially enjoy getting to work with residents and attendings who are as excited to show me how to do things or explain concepts to me as I am to learn them. The lack of grading and ranking allowed me to figure things out at my own pace which frequently differed from that of my peers. Most importantly, my eyes were opened to way more future pathways as a physician than I had ever realized existed, and thanks to YSM, I’ve had access to the resources I need to pursue the one I want.

What neighborhood do you live in/near New Haven?

I live about a 5-minute walk away from the hospital in one of the Tower apartments. I spend most of my days on campus, either in the Cushing-Whitney medical library, Cafe Med, or the hospital because I get easily distracted if I try to work at home (and it motivates me to use the gym since I pass it on my walk to and from my apartment). I lived a little farther away my first year, but found that when it was cold out, I’d use the 12-minute walk as a way to talk myself out of going to campus (my Florida blood would freeze, I’d slip and break a hip, etc.). During my rotation year, I lived in the medical school dorm which was super convenient for early morning and late-night rotations. This year, since I knew I would be spending a lot of time at home, having my own kitchen and bathroom were important to me, and I also wanted to be able to foster kittens. For the sake of my productivity, living close to campus also played a big role in my housing choice.

What is your favorite thing to do in/near New Haven?

I really like to walk around the medical library and the undergraduate campus. The historical section of the medical library feels like something you’d find at Hogwarts or the Beast’s castle, and I have been able to live out my dreams of studying in the Cushing Center many many times.

The undergraduate campus is ridiculously beautiful. As a Floridian, it was incredible to experience seasons for the first time at Yale. During the fall, the trees genuinely looked like they were on fire, which made the backdrop of the cathedral-like buildings even more stunning. In the winter, especially early in the morning, walking through campus can feel like discovering a magical, abandoned castle, iced to perfection by a fresh snowfall (I may or may not have Beauty and the Beast firmly on the brain at this point). And the spring! I didn’t realize how much I could appreciate flowers and color until it all suddenly appeared after the winter. It was like everything burst into bloom overnight!

No matter how many times I walk through campus though, I can’t help but feel the thrill of “I’m here,” and it motivates me to keep working and pursuing my goals.

Do you have any final thoughts or advice for prospective students? To me, the two most important things you should consider when choosing a medical school are your learning style and the environment in which you’ll be immersed.

The Yale system worked well for me because of how I learn, but if you’re someone who is motivated by grades, then you may struggle here but thrive at a more competitive school– and that’s totally okay! It’s important to take some time and determine whether you’re someone who is driven by grades or excels in spite of them, whether you prefer a collaborative environment or a competitive one, whether you prefer structure and being told exactly what to study or whether you prefer the freedom to explore and find what works for you. The people at YSM who seem to really excel are the ones who are self-starters and who value the importance of mentorship.

By the same token, the environment and the people around you will play a huge part in the person you become through medical school. YSM was a place where I felt comfortable being goofy, speaking up when needed, asking for things that I wanted, and also failing, because I knew I had people to help me pick myself back up and try again. I found friends here that I trust with the good and the bad, and who have truly become my family. Most importantly, YSM helped me become the person I’d hoped I’d one day be back in undergrad.

So, as wonderful as I think YSM is, make sure that you also take the time to ensure that it, or any other school you may be considering, is a good fit for you and a place where you will feel comfortable exploring and growing.