A Small Fish in A Big Pond: Navigating Med School as a Rural Student

Feb 4, 2021

Written by Jasmine Elliott

Jasmine is a final year medical student at Monash University. As a rural-origin and rurally placed student she is passionate about improving rural health services, especially in regards to mental health.

Dear 1st year me, 

Congrats! You’ve just turned 17 and about to embark on your dream of studying medicine. Despite the predictions, despite your self-doubt and the obstacles that stood in your way, you’re here! 

It seemed like only yesterday when you sat, impatiently, palms sweating and nerves racing outside the interviews. You watched friends catch up with each other and compare notes from the private interview preparation courses you had barely heard of, let alone been able to afford. The seed of doubt was firmly planted in your mind at that moment, but then it truly started to grow. 

You received the offer, unsure if it was your merit or rural status that granted you a place in your dream university. Now that it’s actually happening, it feels even less real.

And here you are, one face amongst 300. Everyone you talk to seems to be from a private school in Melbourne, or from a similar background somewhere else in Australia. When you moved to Melbourne, you had heard the phrase, “moving from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond,” and in that moment, it almost felt fitting. But what truly resonated with you - all the way to your bones - was being “a fish out of water.” Floundering, not quite sure what to make of the experience. 

What you will experience over the next weeks, months, and years may be 2000km from where you once were, yet the kilometres pale in comparison to the lightyears you feel away from polo shirts and sports shorts, stuffy bus rides and kids getting tattoos in the bathrooms. You might feel like an outsider, a fake amongst those who own beach-houses, live with their family or aren’t looking for a job in order to survive. But then you’ll feel the sense of accomplishment as you make ends meet, as you learn more about yourself, as you pursue work opportunities and finally learn how public transport works. 

I know it feels overwhelming at this point. A new course, a new city, new people and new work. It feels like you want everything to fall into place as quickly as possible. But you’ll learn that everything takes time. You’ll find your first job through the university, and then be equally overwhelmed by all the opportunities that present themselves! You’ll miss buses and trains and hop on the wrong trams, but you’ll realise that this is completely normal. You’ll discover new places instead and get back on track - wishing Google Maps could guide you as well through life as it does the city. You’ll learn to always have a long life milk in the cupboard and a frozen meal in the freezer for those tricky days when shopping doesn’t find a place.

I wish you could see your different experiences as an asset rather than a deficit, and one day you will. - Jasmine Elliott

You will feel lost, you will feel isolated and you will worry that VTAC sent the email to the wrong person, time and time again. I want you to know that although you feel lonely in your journey, there are other like minded people you’ll encounter by following your passions, by getting involved and being yourself. It’s through this that you’ll find yourself the most connected you’ve felt in a long time. I want you to know it’s okay - crucial, even - to stay in touch with your roots during this time of change. I want you to know that getting into medicine wasn’t a mistake, and even if it was, there is no doubt this is where you belong. Just because you belong to a quota of rural students, does not mean you are any less deserving of your place, in fact, it means that your presence in the degree was enough to protect with funding conditions. 

You’ll be scared when you walk into histology, hardly knowing what a cell is and may struggle to understand how peers already know that it’s “all in the wrist” as they swing tendon hammers borrowed from their parents. But then you’ll emerge at the end of your first year having truly fought for your knowledge. 

You’ll find yourself convincing your tutor that, yes, you did grow up in rural Queensland, but no, you can’t speak to all the experiences of rural patients and, no, you’re not quite sure what it’s emotionally like accessing services for type 2 diabetes in rural Australia. But then you’ll also be excited when you see your experiences reflected in the curriculum, or have the opportunity to return to rural areas for placement, getting a taste of the community you’ve yearned to be a part of while in Melbourne. 

I wish you could see your different experiences as an asset rather than a deficit, and one day you will. One day you’ll sit with patients in a rural community and truly understand their anxiety about travelling for medical care. You’ll be able to share these concerns with doctors and advocate for the person, not the patient. You’ll find opportunities to channel your passion into action and work with other medical students to support rural-origin students’ journeys into medicine, and their pathways through the degree. 

You’ll realise that it doesn’t necessarily matter how you made it into medicine, how you fit (or don’t fit) in but what you bring to the experience, and acknowledge what you’re gaining from it. 

You might feel like a small fish in a big pond, but you’re nevertheless a crucial part of the ecosystem.

Thank you for pushing through the uncertainty, and making this big pond your home,

Love, 4th year me 


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