PEORIA — Undeterred by the threat of COVID-19, three graduates from Dunlap High School’s class of 2016 started medical school at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in mid August.


David Qi and his friend Nick Xie, both 22, began classes at the Peoria campus, while Janet Pang, who is also 22, started classes at the Chicago campus.


Rather than making them re-think their plans to become doctors, COVID-19 galvanized the decision.


"I figured that’s part of why I want to be a doctor, being able to impact society in such a way where I’m saving lives," said Qi.


Pang said that while it was scary to think about the fact that some physicians have lost their lives during the pandemic, it didn’t change her mind.


"At the end of the day I think helping people is what we wanted to do, and helping people does, I think, come at a cost, especially during a global pandemic like this," she said.


Xie said COVID didn’t even make him pause.


"This is the kind of thing I’m excited about," he said. "I’m considering emergency medicine, and this is the kind of situation you have to be ready for as an emergency medicine doctor because you are on the front line," he said.


Things are quite a bit different for this year’s M1 class. Starting medical school is a big deal, typically celebrated with a white coat ceremony, where students recite the Hippocratic Oath and receive the white coat they will wear throughout their training. But the tradition has been put on hold for the time being because of the pandemic.


"Unfortunately for us that wasn’t really able to happen. We will still have a white coat ceremony at some point, but I think that does take away from the entire feeling of ‘we finally got accepted after years of hard work,’ " said Pang. "But as far as classes are going, I think UICOM is doing a good job in trying to make most of it be as normal as possible."


All lectures and discussions are being held online, a situation made easier by the fact that technology was already being used extensively in the educational process at UIC. Most lectures were already being delivered online so students could learn the material before gathering in small groups to apply what they learn, said Dr. Jessica Hanks, associate dean for academic affairs.


"We underwent a curriculum transformation across the U of I system about three and a half years ago," she said. "We really looked at changing the way we deliver medical education in general. Technology was one of the means we wanted to introduce to the curriculum."


Combined with the fact that a lot was learned with remote learning was implemented during the statewide shutdown in March, the new learning plan is going smoothly. And because students don’t have to be on campus to complete their coursework, it’s allowed for greater flexibility — some out-of-state students have yet to move to Peoria. For Pang and Xie, a longtime couple, remote learning has allowed them some extra time together even though they are studying at different campuses. Xie spent his second week of classes in Chicago, doing his coursework while sitting in Pang’s apartment.


"We do have different professors, but overall the special thing about UICOM is that our curriculum on all three campuses is essentially the same. It’s pretty nice having the resources of all three campuses. You can choose whichever professor you like the best and listen to that lecture," said Xie.


While the flexibility of remote learning is nice, there have been some downsides. Students can’t shadow doctors to learn about their specialties, and it’s not great for student bonding. Community is important because students support each other through the arduous journey of medical school.


"It can seem a little overwhelming at times. The pace of class is not something I’ve experienced before, and not what I think my classmates have experienced before — it’s like college at two to three times the speed," said Pang.


Qi agreed.


"They say it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant, and it definitely could be that way until we figure out how to study to digest all the material," he said.


After Christmas students may be able to return to in-person learning, but the final decision depends on COVID-19, said Hanks.


"We are planning for them to come to campus in the spring, but we need to have a pulse on where things are on the pandemic," she said.


At that point students will begin learning hands-on skills, like how to examine a patient. In the meantime, they are learning how to better communicate online through Zoom, a skill that is likely to become increasingly important with the growth of telemedicine, said Hanks.


"During the pandemic telehealth has come into more prominence and will likely stay in prominence after the pandemic, so it’s one of the things we are talking about with them as far as communication and working on those skills," she said.


While Pang has found remote learning to be difficult in some ways, she believes it was the right choice for administrators to make.


"As we’ve seen from other universities that have gone back to school, there’s also repercussions to putting a lot of students together in smaller spaces. Remote learning may be unpleasant for social life, for building a social system, and shadowing in the hospital, but I think it was very necessary."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.