When David S. Warner, MD, was traveling to interviews for residency programs back in 1980, he, like many medical students, was financially strapped and in debt. “I took my sleeping bag,” he says. “I slept in a city park in Richmond, Virginia, behind airline ticket counters, and in a night I’ll never forget, between runways at the Miami airport,” he recalls. “So many bugs!”
That’s why Warner, now a distinguished professor of anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine, is such an enthusiastic supporter of Help Our Students Travel (HOST) programs. Provided by many medical schools, HOST programs match fourth-year students with alumni at teaching hospitals across the country who offer them free places to stay while interviewing, and other supports such as home-cooked meals, tours for spouses, and helpful professional insights.
Given those advantages, HOST’s popularity is no surprise. At least half of the 50 largest medical schools in the United States provide some form of the program, a few for nearly 20 years. And as financial pressures on students grow, it’s also no surprise that schools are working to expand their efforts. At the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine, for example, the number of students who were offered a place to stay increased tenfold in the past 10 years.
HOST programs also have become more important as the residency application process has grown more demanding. Warner, who now opens his North Carolina home to HOST students, says he applied to and interviewed with just six programs when he graduated from University of Wisconsin (UW) at Madison Medical School in 1980. Today, the average medical student applies to approximately 36 programs and interviews with 12, according to a recent study. (New AAMC data show there’s a point of diminishing returns when applying to residencies as well, so more applications don’t always translate into better odds of matching.)
“I don’t know if I would have been able to go to all these interviews if it hadn’t been for the HOST program.”
Cheikh Njie, MD
UCSF School of Medicine graduate
But the HOST programs can be especially important for students applying to competitive specialties. For example, Matt Sloan, MD, a recent graduate from the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, interviewed at 22 residency programs. To pay for all those road trips, he had to take out a special loan.
Staying with alumni for several of those interviews was “fantastic,” says Sloan, who matched for a residency in urology at the University of Chicago. “Most even volunteered to pick me up from the airport.”
Students gain more than cost savings
Many medical students scramble to pay for the residency interview process, which includes transportation, hotels, meals, cabs, clothes, and application fees. Cheikh Njie, MD, a new graduate of University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), School of Medicine, interviewed with 16 programs, staying with alumni in three cities. He estimates he saved about $700. “Honestly, I don’t know if I would have been able to go to all these interviews if it hadn’t been for the HOST program,” he says. For the remainder of his interviews, he either stayed with friends or at cheap hotels.
But there are other benefits. Residency interviews can be exhausting, says Odette Kassar, MD, a recent graduate from the UVA School of Medicine who went to 18 interviews and stayed with alumni in four places. “After all those visits, hotels started to feel old and cold,” she says. “And my host families were so gracious. Some had little kids and dogs—it was an exponentially warmer experience than another hotel.”
After years of stark dorms and sometimes crowded apartments, students enjoy staying in a comfortable home, at times in dream locations. “We live on Beacon Hill in Boston,” says John T. Dammin, MD, who graduated from UVA School of Medicine in 1974. “So we’re essentially walking distance or a short subway ride to all the major Harvard hospitals.”
And students appreciate the additional information they can get from alumni, especially those working at the hospitals where the students are interviewing. While hosts may not be plugged into every specialty, they can still provide firsthand observations about an institution’s mission, culture, hours, and teaching style. “It gave me insights about the residency programs that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Njie says.
“It gave me insights about the residency programs that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Cheikh Njie, MD
UCSF School of Medicine graduate
Students also get to see a bigger career range. “Some of the alumni I stayed with were doing nonclinical work,” says Kassar, “and one is working with health care technology. I got exposure to a level of career diversity I hadn’t seen before.”
Yeggy got something in return, too. She works with a residency program at Legacy Health, which works with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), and hearing her houseguest’s reaction to meeting residents was helpful. “Initially, she hadn’t ranked OHSU high on her list, but she was so taken by the camaraderie of our residents, she changed her perception,” Yeggy says. “It was good for me to know what our community’s residents look like from the other side.”
And Warner, who opens his home to students from both UW and the Carver College of Medicine, where he did his residency, says he and his wife love spending time with bright young students and their spouses, and savor the blast of nostalgia it brings. “Iowa City meant a lot to us—not just because of school, but because it’s where we started our family. And we still have many friends there.”
Hosts and students don't necessarily develop deep relationships, but some connections do continue. “We do get Christmas cards,” says Warner. “And it’s always good to hear from them about where they match.”
Great for schools, too
Medical schools seem to be intensifying their HOST efforts. University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, for example, reported a 12% jump in the number of hosts this year. And UVA, which launched its program in 2007 with just eight student visits, now has around 500 alumni hosts and accommodated 87 students last year.
Still, programs face limits. Geographic representation and willingness of alumni are among the constraints. So is the amount of time school staff can devote to the effort, which involves handling dozens of requests during the hectic interview season. It’s demanding, says Katie McKibben, manager of medicine alumni and student engagement at the University of Iowa Health Care. “I think of myself as kind of a travel agent.”
This year, McKibben found hosts for 90 of the 111 students who requested accommodation through the HOST program. Now, she’s begun reaching out to a broader universe of alumni. “We want to be more inclusive to make sure we can help more students,” especially in cities that seem devoid of alumni.
“It was good for me to know what our community’s residents look like from the other side.”
Julie Yeggy, MD
But nurturing HOST programs is important to McKibben and others, not just because the efforts help students in the short-term, but because they usher young doctors into broader networks that provide learning opportunities and professional growth.
Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine (OUWB), which graduated its first class of medical students in 2015, also sees its nascent HOST program as a way to forge bonds between students’ family and friends, whom they ask to host. “We’re trying to expand the idea,” says Emily Keller-Colver, alumni and parent program coordinator at OUWB. “We’ve found host families for students attending conferences, for instance, and even a month-long home for a student doing an away rotation.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, hosting students can reignite alumni’s commitment in a way that is far more meaningful than one more newsletter or fundraising request.
“Our HOST program is a way to connect alumni more powerfully with the school and its mission,” says Katie Maloney, senior director of alumni relations at UCSF School of Medicine, who runs the still-fledgling HOST program. Now in its third year, the program provided accommodations for 44 students. Despite its national reputation, “many of our alumni stay in California and we don’t have lots of alumni events around the country,” she says. “Reaching out this way connects them back to UCSF.”