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Around a year ago, during Launch week of medical school, we were asked to write down a goal that we hoped to achieve within a year, and fill up the corresponding columns asking “what, so what, now what.” I immediately wrote down, “improve at public speaking.”

Public speaking has been a weakness of mine, as it has hindered me from pursuing many opportunities that although I was passionate about, I did not take on because they seemed very frightening. I have many research interests specifically regarding health care issues within the Arab American community. I know that I want to participate in conferences and conventions, present research findings, and engage in community outreach and educational events, but I also know that I am more nervous to stand in front of an audience than I am excited to present. However, I decided that with the start of medical school, it was time to further develop myself rather than hold myself back.

Within a few weeks of the school year, I submitted a research abstract about a project that I had worked on over the summer (topic: autism in the Arab world and the U.S.) to the Pediatrics Research Symposium. In my mind, I thought I was going to be giving a poster presentation and that I would at most have to talk to three people at a time. A few days later, I received an email congratulating me that my abstract was selected for an oral presentation. My heart was instantly racing. Instead of feeling excited, proud or happy, I felt extremely nervous. After a day of thinking, I replied to the email stating that I appreciated the opportunity but would prefer to opt out for a poster presentation instead. 

A few hours later, I received an email from my research mentor who basically asked, “are you crazy?” He said that this was a very rare opportunity/privilege for a student to be asked to give an oral presentation and that I should not turn it down. I recalled the goal that I had set for myself earlier on in Launch week and sent an email asking if I could revert to giving an oral presentation. The answer was yes.

Raising autism awareness at a Dearborn community event

But now I had to prepare for the presentation. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I also was very passionate about my research project, and felt very knowledgeable and comfortable discussing it with my mirror. Even though I could give a great presentation in front of my reflection, I knew that did not at all mean I could do the same in front of a live audience. When presenting in public, my heart races, my breathing becomes labored, and my voice shakes. So I had an idea!

I decided to run around the house for three minutes to reproduce the physical changes that I feel when my name gets called up to give a presentation. Afterward, I stopped and tried to give my talk. At first my voice was shaking, just as it does when I am in front of an audience. I kept practicing the same scenario. I became much better at managing my breathing and speaking in a way that even when my heart was fully racing and I was out of breath, I was still able to speak fluently without letting my voice shake.

When the presentation day came, my name was called and my heart was racing, but much less than it did during my practice. I actually felt at ease giving the presentation and then, about a minute into it, I had the best epiphany: for once, I was more excited to be standing in front of an audience than nervous. I had set a goal for myself on day one of medical school, and since then, have made big strides towards achieving it.

Marwa is a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. She is passionate about diversity, culture, and health disparities. She also loves tweeting about her medical school experiences (Twitter @MarwaAyyash).