Shedding biases and stepping out of your comfort zone

This summer, Gabby Ciancimino, a School of Dental Medicine student from the University of Pennsylvania, joined our 2021 summer cohort of interns at the HMS School. As part of the Bridging the Gaps program with the Perelman School of Medicine, Gabby worked with our staff and students throughout HMS School’s Extended School Year (ESY) program. Learn more about Gabby and her experiences with HMS School below:

Tell us more about yourself!
I am beginning my second year of dental school at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. I am originally from Cape Coral, Florida, and completed undergrad at the University of Florida where I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology and Cell Science. I also minored in Health Disparities in Society and Women/Gender Studies where my passions for serving and advocating for vulnerable populations began.

When you heard that you were going to be joining HMS School for this opportunity, what were you most looking forward to?
I was looking to gain a new perspective about individuals with cerebral palsy. With a desire to provide care to patients with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in the future, I wanted to learn more about how to effectively and sensitively communicate, educate, and befriend the students at HMS. This meant shedding biases and stepping out of my comfort zone so I could soak in every bit of knowledge and reimagine what it takes to navigate life with cerebral palsy.

What was your favorite part about this internship experience?
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to navigate this experience with the older students, aged 15- 21 years old. With a class full of teenagers, there was seriously never a dull moment. Personalities shined through their humor and commentary. Getting to know more about these students was so much fun! I truly felt as though I was walking into a classroom full of my friends every day, and it’s those connections we built that made saying goodbye so difficult.

What is the most unexpected or rewarding lesson learned that you’ll take with you?
The HMS students’ disabilities are their norm, and they feel empowered and prideful to be successfully navigating life with a neurological condition. I think that’s a very advantageous way to see others living with various disabilities or even those living with difficult circumstances. To the disability community, this is their normal. it’s not up to us to decide that their life is any less valuable. We are of the most help and can be the supportive friends to them by understanding their needs and empowering them to reach their goals. In essence, we can be our best versions as healthcare providers if we continually wonder – wonder about a community’s barriers to care, their particular needs and values, and how their life is impacted by their situation. As long as we constantly wonder, we will always grow in our perspectives and understanding of other’s struggles and needs.

How do you envision yourself utilizing your new-found knowledge in your professional career endeavors or future studies?
My summer at HMS only reaffirmed my desires to serve this patient population in my future dental career. There’s no greater joy than finding your niche and discovering opportunities to grow and learn in environments that drive those passions; HMS did just that for me. The staff were extraordinary role models in displaying what it takes to effectively care for students with cerebral palsy, and the students taught me more about patience, communication, and cultural humility than I could have ever imagined. I am so grateful I got to share in the student’s successes and happiness as they persevered towards their goals this summer. In an effort to become the best versions of themselves, I grew closer in becoming the best version of myself. This experience has given me momentum going into my second year of dental school, as my passions were fueled to be the future dentist and friend they all deserve.

Why do you feel that it’s valuable for more people to have experience working with students and young adults with disabilities?
It’s so crucial in truly understanding their situation and their needs. Otherwise, biases and stereotypes will flood someone’s perspective on their capabilities and impede them from discovering their reality. Also, there’s an innate discomfort that comes with working on or with others who have a disability, so without the exposure and growth in understanding, that discomfort may drive people to not properly approach situations or avoid interactions altogether. 

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in joining this internship program with HMS and Bridging the Gaps at UPenn?
This internship will grant you nothing but utter joy and understanding beyond compare. The amount of knowledge you gain is insurmountable and the connections created make leaving so difficult. There’s truly no better environment to learn than in the walls of HMS due to the most extraordinary staff and inspiring students. I encourage anyone with a desire to become a better version of themselves to join this internship program because you leave more empowered and driven to make the world a better place for one of the most vulnerable populations.

Text and headshot provided by: Gabby Ciancimino