IFC Alumni Conversations: Sydney Geiger ’18

St. Olaf College alumna Sydney Geiger ’18 is beginning medical school this fall at the University of Minnesota, and hopes to become a bilingual doctor.

As part of the IFC Alumni Conversations series, which highlights alumni whose work aligns with the Institute’s mission, Sydney sat down for a conversation with Student Associate Jessica Horst ’22, and Assistant Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Erik Grell ’05.

In the past, the majority of St. Olaf students participating in the Public Affairs Conversation (PACON) have majored in Political Science, Economics, Philosophy or Religion. What convinced you, as a pre-med Biology major, to sign up for this program? And what have you been up to since graduating in 2018?

I appreciate my St. Olaf education because I truly had a liberal arts experience. While I majored in Biology, I had the opportunity to take classes such as Spanish, African American History, Muslim Women Writers, and PACON. I believe the non-science parts of my education have been and will be equally important in forming the physician I will become.

It is very important to me to be a well-informed citizen. However, when I was spending hours in the lab or with my nose in a Biology textbook, I found it challenging to stay up-to-date on life off the Hill.

I chose to take PACON to make learning about societal issues a more significant part of my daily life.

I valued having a structured environment and the support of professors to sort through the vast amount of information available in today’s world. Further, I was excited to learn from those around me and challenge my own beliefs and values.

After graduating from St. Olaf, I spent a year teaching English at an elementary school in Spain. Outside of school, I enjoyed taking dance classes, engaging with the community, and working on my Spanish. After my year in Spain, I returned home to apply for medical school and work as a patient services coordinator (or medical receptionist) at Hennepin County Medical Center. I used both English and Spanish while checking patients in, scheduling appointments, and connecting patients to necessary resources. This academic year, I am starting medical school at the University of Minnesota.

While PACON is a year-long course focused on developing an interdisciplinary perspective on American public policy, there is also the opportunity for a fully-funded internship component.  What did you do for this internship? 

Sydney with two of the Mujeres que Salvan Vidas volunteers called “navegadoras,” Sonia and Jeannette.

During the Interim of my senior year, I joined a patient navigation project, Mujeres que Salvan Vidas, through the University of Costa Rica School of Public Health. The project was designed to support breast cancer patients in Costa Rican public hospitals. Volunteers provided patients with appointment reminders and helped facilitate doctor-patient communication. I assisted with administrative tasks including planning patient calls, making agendas, and organizing patient files. I also interviewed recently diagnosed patients for program intake in Spanish.

I recognized that we were meeting these patients at a very difficult and overwhelming moment in their lives. I still remember my nervousness as I performed my first interview and the connection I formed with the patient through our mutual vulnerability.

The internship was a special opportunity for me to get hands-on experience working on a team to minimize barriers to care and to learn about the universal healthcare system in Costa Rica. I also gained more confidence interacting with patients in Spanish.

How did your PACON-funded internship experience shape your current career path, and do any other skills you developed in PACON come in handy in your life today? 

Sydney’s last day at the University of Costa Rica of Public Health

The Spring semester and summer before I started PACON, I had spent 6 months studying abroad in Costa Rica performing breast cancer research, improving my Spanish, and living with a host family. Coming home from Costa Rica was challenging for me because I had built such strong bonds in the community and didn’t know when I would have the time or money to return. When I heard about the opportunity to do a fully-funded public affairs internship outside of the US, I was ecstatic. I immediately reached out to the advisor of my study abroad program and he connected me with the School of Public Health.

I cannot put into words how grateful I am to the PACON program for enabling me to return to Costa Rica, to continue improving my Spanish, to learn about public health in a different cultural context, and to spend another month with my host family and friends.

My ultimate goal is to become a bilingual doctor and minimize language barriers in healthcare. I am passionate about providing culturally-competent care and using my career to address health disparities. Patient safety is my biggest priority when thinking about using a second language in the medical field. During my internship, I had the opportunity to build relationships with patients while using Spanish in a safe way. I was given tasks within my skill level and constant support and training to continue to improve.

That experience is invaluable to me on my path to becoming a bilingual doctor.

Also, one of my projects during the internship was to compile a list of common barriers to care that patients in the program were facing. Although I was learning about barriers to healthcare in Costa Rica, many of them are applicable in the United States. A few of the obstacles to care some patients mentioned were not receiving time off from work for appointments, not understanding the care they received, and neglecting their own care in order to care for another family member. What I learned will help me to be more attuned to the needs of my future patients.

Finally, the program volunteers and the School of Public Health staff were very supportive and I will carry the things I learned from them into my career.

I learned many skills in PACON that impact my life outside of the health field as well. We live in a divided society and many people are unable to see eye-to-eye or engage in a productive dialogue. Dedicating two semesters to understanding where my beliefs and values come from and really pushing myself to understand the perspective of those who disagree with me has been very helpful.

I believe it is important to test your beliefs and ensure that they are well supported. In most cases, this activity only strengthened my beliefs, but it also gave me much more empathy and has allowed me to more effectively engage in tough conversations.

Today, while people may not vote for who I vote for or believe what I believe, I feel that I can understand how they arrived at that way of thinking. In understanding their values, I am better able to engage with them and potentially share my views in a way they also can appreciate.

Do you have a sense for how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected your career path and your upcoming years in medical school?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was working at a hospital. This was a very tough time for everyone, and I had the opportunity to observe how the hospital responded to the challenges of providing healthcare during a global pandemic. I also had the opportunity to help coordinate the first telehealth visits provided by one of the clinics. It was very cool to see how the hospital responded and worked to find a safe alternative for patient care. It was also interesting to see what things didn’t work and to play a role in improving the process.

A large part of those first few months of the pandemic was becoming comfortable with uncertainty and accepting that things could change at any moment.

As I prepare to start medical school, I continue to lean into the uncertainty. Most of our education will be virtual, but a few essential classes will be held in person in smaller, socially-distanced groups. I have also been making friends through organized virtual events.

This situation is definitely not what I imagined, but I appreciate the effort the University of Minnesota staff has put in to make learning during a pandemic possible. Also, I acknowledge my privilege that I am still living rather comfortably during this time.

The pandemic has made the health disparities in the US more apparent. I hope that many more people have come to understand that where you live, the job you work, and the resources you have access to impact your health. Covid-19 has only strengthened my dedication to addressing social determinants of health. Most of what needs to be done for patients doesn’t take place at the clinic.

You mentioned that during your internship in Costa Rica you learned more about what it’s like in a country that has universal healthcare. What are your thoughts on the potential implementation of universal healthcare in the United States, especially in the midst of a global pandemic? And how did PACON help you arrive at your current viewpoint? 

In Costa Rica, I met people living with chronic illnesses who were able to seek the healthcare they needed without the added stress of accumulating medical debt. I was glad they lived where they did because that is not the case for many families in the US.

I know one concern with a universal healthcare system is wait times. In Costa Rica, the people I knew with critical medical conditions were able to get quality healthcare in a timely fashion. However, I also knew someone with back pain who had been waiting over a year for an appointment. I will note that in these cases, people in Costa Rica have the option to seek healthcare through the private sector if they can afford it.

What I observed living in Costa Rica differs greatly from what I see in the US. During my time working at the front desk of a US hospital, I felt patients’ pain as a copay was added onto their pile of debt. I personally have received outrageously expensive bills for medical treatments that took 10 seconds or less for a doctor to perform.

Also, during the pandemic when many Americans have lost their jobs, it has become increasingly problematic that our health insurance is often tied to our employment.

Our healthcare system needs reform, but I will not pretend to have all of the knowledge necessary to propose the solution at this time. I have so much more to learn, but I look forward to continuing to have these important conversations with colleagues and advocating to make healthcare more accessible in the US.

While I appreciate the healthcare system in Costa Rica, I recognize that like all systems, it has its flaws. I know that what works in Costa Rica will not necessarily work in the US. Our healthcare situation in the US is very complex, and I feel that the few weeks we spent on the topic in PACON were barely enough to scratch the surface.

Much of what I learned in PACON was how hard it is to discover the “truth,” and I believe that is an important lesson. But the few weeks we spent comparing and contrasting our healthcare system with systems in other countries was a great first step. The most important thing I learned through PACON was how to identify our beliefs and values which drive our stance on an issue.

Although healthcare is largely treated as a privilege in our current system, I see healthcare access as a right. I firmly believe that every American has the right to quality and affordable care.

As a future physician dedicated to health equity, I plan to work in an environment like a safety net hospital or federally qualified health center so that I never need to turn away a patient because they cannot afford care. But I believe that giving someone the healthcare they deserve is the bare minimum, and I look forward to learning ways I can better advocate for and care for my patients. Part of that involves further developing my view on our healthcare system and advocating for a plan that best serves all Americans.

Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute for Freedom and Community encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues among students, faculty, and the general public. To that end, the Institute sponsors a range of programming opportunities, in addition to a fall and spring lecture series, to further cultivate civil discourse within the context of the liberal arts.

Please visit the Institute’s website to learn more about its mission, subscribe to the Institute’s YouTube channel, and sign up for its quarterly newsletter.