Speaking with teenagers about health topics such as sex education can be uncomfortable for almost anyone. Nicole Torchia, BHS’16, can attest. She led these conversations with Boston public high school students as a member of Northeastern’s chapter of the Peer Health Exchange, an organization whose mission is to empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions.
Torchia acknowledges that the conversations took her out of her comfort zone. But they also enabled her to discover a passion for patient education.
This fall, Torchia will enter the physician assistant graduate program at Yale as one of its youngest students. But she’s hardly intimidated, instead crediting Northeastern’s experiential learning opportunities in clinical work and public health with preparing her for the program’s rigorous curriculum.
Here, she discusses her experiences at Northeastern and how they prepared her for a future as a clinician.
What was your most significant learning experience at Northeastern?
My most significant learning experience at Northeastern came from a student organization I’ve been in for the past four years, Peer Health Exchange. It’s a national nonprofit that trains college volunteers to implement a health curriculum in public high schools that lack funding for health education. Not only did standing in front of a group of teenagers each week take me out of my comfort zone and teach me valuable public speaking skills, but it also helped me discover what I want to do in my career. Having conversations with underserved teens about health topics like sex helped me discover that I have a passion for patient education and public health, both of which I can tie into my future career as a clinician.
Where did you work on co-op and what were those experiences like?
I completed my first co-op at Massachusetts Eye and Ear as a newborn hearing screener in the Massachusetts General Hospital nurseries as well as a nerve-monitoring technician in the operating room. I screened each baby before being discharged from the hospital and counseled families when their newborns didn’t pass the hearing test.
In the operating room, I worked closely with surgeons by monitoring facial nerve and recurrent laryngeal nerve function during surgeries of the ear, parotid gland, and thyroid. I got to sit in on surgeries and notify surgeons when they were getting close to a nerve in order to prevent facial or vocal cord paralysis. I learned a lot about the dynamics of an operating room while being a patient’s extra eyes and ears during surgery, which was a really neat experience.
For my second co-op, I worked as a medical assistant at New England Hematology/Oncology Associates. This was a completely different experience in that I saw the same patients multiple times throughout the week, so I really got to know them and follow their cases. I learned a lot about being compassionate and patient while interacting closely with medical oncologists and nurse practitioners.
How did Northeastern prepare you for success in such a prestigious graduate program?
My co-op experiences were a critical part of preparing me for Yale. In order to apply, most programs require more than 1,000 clinical hours. Now with more than 2,000 hours I will be entering my program as one of the youngest, if not the youngest, student because my co-ops have given me more than enough hours and experience without needing to take a gap year. Co-op has also given me the opportunity to work in various clinical settings, both inpatient and outpatient, and having valuable experience in clinical settings is key.
My curriculum in the health sciences, with its strong focus on public health, has also prepared me because Yale’s PA program has a strong emphasis on working with underserved populations. My courses have given me a background in health disparities, understanding community needs, and population-level changes that impact more than individuals.
What is your advice for next year’s incoming class?
Continually network, pursue opportunities beyond your co-ops, and maintain your connections. A lot of opportunities can come from talking to people who do what you are interested in. By doing this, I had an opportunity to assist a surgeon with thyroid cancer research and an opportunity to do a quality assurance project through the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Doing your job well and being willing to help in capacities beyond your job description go a long way. I think this really stood out when I applied to graduate schools and gave me a lot of talking points in interviews.
What is your ultimate goal after you graduate from Yale?
My ultimate goal upon graduating is to figure out what field I’d like to work in, although I’m leaning toward a career in oncology. I’m hoping that my mentors and experiences at Yale will help me find a good fit. I plan on pursuing my master’s in Public Health in the future so that I can work beyond clinical settings and tie in ways to meet the needs of larger, diverse populations.