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Meet Austin Witt

Fourth-year medical student Austin Witt of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, has wanted to be a physician for as long as he can remember. However, he took a brief detour before finally landing at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine.

As an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, his research advisor talked him out of a career in medicine and encouraged him to apply for research graduate programs. Austin followed the advice and was accepted into a funded position in biochemistry and biophysics at another university. That is where he quickly learned that laboratory research was not for him.

Undeterred and unafraid to change courses, Austin dropped out of that program and returned to his original dream of pursuing medicine. That decision brought him to Quillen, where he has thrived academically and through several leadership roles, including an appointment as Quillen’s student representative to the Association of American Medical College’s Organization of Student Representatives.

Through that role, Austin was elected to two terms as a National Delegate on Student Affairs, a position that afforded him many opportunities to provide insight and advocate for issues affecting medical students across the country.

As Austin completes his final year of medical school and finally realizes his lifelong dream, he looks back on the people who helped him to this point and forward to where he hopes to be after earning his medical degree.

You are a first-generation college and medical student. In what ways did that serve as motivation for you?

My parents were always very up-front with me about our family history and where we came from. My mom grew up in government housing with food stamps. My dad had to help provide for his mother and siblings when my grandfather was laid up in bed for years after being disabled from a work accident with the TVA. We were never destitute, but my parents were constantly working to make ends meet and sacrificed much of their own time to provide us with opportunities they never had growing up. They made it clear from an early age that they were doing everything they could for my sister and me to have a better life than they did. They were never afforded the opportunity to pursue college or other avenues of self-development because they had responsibilities to their family. Knowing my family history, I never take my opportunity for higher education for granted.

Why did you choose Quillen College of Medicine?

I chose Quillen primarily because of their commitment to primary care and community medicine, which was always my career aspiration as a doctor. I was already heavily interested when I first came to interview but the down-home feel and welcoming nature of everyone at Quillen made it an easy choice. I knew I would not find the support I saw at Quillen in any other school.

Did your study habits change when you began medical school?

Studying in medical school is vastly different from any other academic experience I have had. Nowhere else is such complex material forced on you in such a rapid manner. Cramming like you did as an undergrad won’t cut it in medical school. One of the wisest things I was told during our orientation came from our dean of students, Dr. Tom Kwasigroch. He told us to figure out what learning strategies work best for us as individuals and stick to that, but if it ever seems to stop working, do not be afraid to change course and try something new. Some courses require totally different approaches. Being able to step out of your routine and try new learning practices is a critical skill to develop.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I have a 2-year-old Australian Shepherd that loves to hike and swim; he keeps me very busy. I love being on the move and staying active. I love to participate in biking, hiking, kayaking, boating, swimming, running and sports. I’ve recently picked up cocktail-making as a hobby because experimenting with new flavors and ingredients is so fun. I love to mix up something tasty in the evening while I unwind and do some pleasure reading with my favorite jazz playlist playing in the background.

What are your goals after medical school?

This time next year I hope to be finding my groove as an intern in the Family Medicine program I will eventually match into next spring. I am looking for a program that focuses on underserved care in all settings and clinical teaching. The intern year is difficult for everyone regardless of specialty, but I am looking forward to beginning my career as a physician with great expectation.

In five years, I hope to be done with residency and a potential fellowship and beginning my practice as an academic family physician. Ideally, I would be back in my young adult home of Knoxville, working in the inner city with underserved populations, immigrants and refugees while teaching medical students and residents about the nuances of primary care in under-resourced and marginalized groups of people.

What advice do you have for undergraduates who are considering applying to medical school?

I tell all undergrads pursuing medical school to find clinical mentors as soon as possible, especially if they are an under-represented minority student, which includes first generation students, women, and ethnic and racial minorities, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Finding someone who believes in you and is willing to leverage their position as a physician for your benefit is invaluable in the application process. Mentorship and sponsorship will open doors for you that the current forces in academic medicine keep closed for those without. Most physicians love to mentor and sponsor students because chances are they had someone who ”went out on a limb” for them at one point or another, so never be afraid to ask for a mentor relationship.

Beyond that I would say don’t let anyone discourage you from following your heart.

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