Moving to Ann Arbor from New Orleans, I started medical school at UM with few friends in town. On my first day I was also surprised to learn that most medical students at UM don’t attend science lectures and although this has proved quite convenient, I struggled to find to connect with my classmates through our classes. Although there are a plethora of opportunities at UMMS to connect with other students through student organizations and other activities, I felt like these opportunities might lead to silos within the community (more on this later). I initially addressed the issue by inviting other students, somewhat randomly, to join me in conversations over lunch or coffee and found some success in these efforts. I wasn’t satisfied solving the problem simply for myself, however, and began thinking about how to help my classmates connect.
It was at this junction when I fortuitously met Andrew, a medical student from Harvard University (a school which many people from the University of Michigan affectionately refer to as “The University of Michigan of the East”). Andrew described a program that recently started at Harvard Medical School called Lunch Love. The program randomly connected medical students at Harvard for lunch every two weeks. This sounded like the perfect solution to the problem of disconnection I felt.
I sent out the idea to my class, and within two weeks about 100 of my classmates joined. To us, Lunch Love sounded too much like a dating app, so instead we changed the project’s name to smallworld. We sent out new, random connections every two weeks, and in our first year distributed over 600 connections! Through these conversations I learned that my classmates were more than just students. I met returned Peace Corps volunteers, concert violinists and CEOs. I personally felt more connected to my class, and it extended well beyond those that I connected with through smallworld: I felt like I could start a conversation with any of my 170 classmates. My classmates felt similarly:
“I’ve met with several people I hadn’t yet talked to or connected with. This has given me a great opportunity to get to know more of my classmates, especially ones who are in a different social circle. I’ve really enjoyed [smallworld]!”
“I got to connect with fellow classmates and learn more about them in a more organic way than a traditional orientation-esque ice breaker. I also was able to exchange advice about school, research and extracurricular activities.”
“I’ve been able to chat at length with classmates instead of just in passing. Also, I’ve been paired with some great people that otherwise I wouldn’t have socialized with. It’s been a great experience!”
It turned out that the problem we were solving — strengthening communities by breaking down silos — was not unique to the University of Michigan Medical School. When communities form, there is a natural tendency, called homophily in Sociology, for individuals to connect more easily to others that they’re similar to. smallworld disrupts homophily through random connections. Since we started, smallworld has worked in over 30 different communities ranging from student and faculty groups to health clinics, organizations, and even conferences.
The medical knowledge that I gain at the University of Michigan Medical School will certainly be important to my future as a physician, but it is the community of passionate and insightful peers, staff, and faculty that has most contributed to my development as a lifelong student.
Elliott is an MD-PhD student in his third year of the program at the University of Michigan Medical School. When not studying or working on smallworld, he can be found writing/performing music his band The QTs.