SOMA president Kate de Klerk’s call to action began in 4th grade when, via the class council, she organized an effort to bring chocolate milk into the school cafeteria as opposed to “just regular milk.”
“We put together a petition and we got chocolate milk added into the lunch options,” de Klerk, 27, says with a laugh. “That’s where my service started really. I knew that students could make a difference in that small way.”
De Klerk, a fourth-year student at Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (MWU/CCOM), found ways on and off throughout her education to be involved in leadership and advocacy, including stints in the student and alumni councils at Tufts University. But it’s her work with SOMA that has offered her an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the well-being of osteopathic medical students.
As SOMA president, de Klerk, who took office in March, is an advocate for all osteopathic medical students and a liaison between students and the profession at large.
“SOMA is a member-based organization that represents student opinions to the AOA and the profession,” de Klerk says. “I really liked the idea of giving voice to student concerns in that larger space.”
De Klerk has also found value in getting to know other leaders in the profession and learning what’s going on outside the medical school sphere.
“There are so many different organizations and people who are doing important things and trying to support students in ways that we don’t always recognize,” she says.
Legacy of service
With a nuclear physicist father who worked on disarmament and anti-terrorism efforts for the United Nations, and a mother who advocates for the Alzheimer’s patient population, de Klerk always knew she wanted to follow in their footsteps of making the world a better place.
While growing up in the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, de Klerk considered herself a “Third Culture Kid:” a child raised in cultures outside of those of his or her parents. She grew up bilingual, speaking Dutch and English, before learning German as well.
De Klerk initially considered a career in international relief work or international law, but her aspirations took a turn in college, when she became an EMT (emergency medical technician) “just because it seemed exciting” and determined that medicine would be her path to healing and helping others.
LGBTQ advocacy and leadership
When de Klerk was deciding on med schools, one of her priorities was to find an open-minded, inclusive community that would have ample job opportunities for her wife, Kelly de Klerk.
The couple is happy to have landed in Chicago, where de Klerk began serving as a curriculum committee rep for the class council at MWU/CCOM. She pushed for the inclusion of more LGBTQ-focused topics in the curriculum and got some traction there.
“I was fortunate to work with a team of folks at MWU who were putting together an elective course titled “LGBTQI Considerations in the Provision of Health Care” and successfully lobbied the CCOM Curriculum Committee to approve this elective for students,” de Klerk says.
Along with other leaders of the PRIDE club at MWU/CCOM, de Klerk helped to bring a Safe Zone training session to campus, where de Klerk and others learned how to facilitate workshops that help people talk about and better understand diverse gender and sexual identities.
“With a friend and colleague and fellow CCOM student, Kelsey Dullinger, we then hosted the first Safe Zone workshop at CCOM in recent memory,” de Klerk says.
De Klerk also advocated for integrating LGBTQ health topics into the standard curriculum of MWU/CCOM’s clinical medicine department and asked for LGBTQ identities to be worked into mock clinical encounters for first- and second-year students.
“We got limited traction with these items, but I hope that by starting the conversation we’ve created an opening for change, eventually,” de Klerk says.
The SOMA agenda
As SOMA president, De Klerk’s advocacy extends to that of her fellow osteopathic medical students.
The hottest issues for osteopathic medical students these days are reflected in the resolutions that SOMA has recently passed and put forth to the AOA House of Delegates, de Klerk says.
“One of the big issues we’re trying to tackle right now is health insurance and what that landscape looks like. We passed a resolution in SOMA’s fall HOD that called on the AOA to support a Medicare-for-all system. That’s something that I think a majority of physicians and osteopathic medical students support.”
The role of SOMA president involves creating a vision for the year and working with SOMA leadership to identify priorities and set goals. De Klerk was also fortunate to have chaired the strategic planning task force that launched a four-year strategic plan for SOMA in January, which focuses on four pillars: Giving voice to students; personal/professional development; visibility; and governance. For details, see SOMA’s strategic plan for 2018-2021 here.
One of the big concerns facing osteopathic medical students today is the move toward a single GME accreditation system, according to de Klerk.
“Students have so many questions about GME and boards and this and that, and there’s so much misinformation out there,” de Klerk says. “We’re hoping to use whatever channels we can to help answer students’ questions and give clarity, and hopefully some comfort, to students as they move forward in their medical school careers.”
To that end, SOMA leaders have announced a series of Facebook Live events where de Klerk and others can share information with students and answer their pressing questions. The first “Office Hours” was timed to occur right after the recent Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) meeting, where SOMA leaders were given an opportunity to voice student concerns in their report to COCA, and also learn about the ongoing conversations and changes at COCA. This included conversations about accreditation standards revisions relating to professionalism and provisions for graduate medical education for new COMs, de Klerk says.
De Klerk reports that every time she attends high-level meetings like this one, she learns a lot of information that is not readily accessible to the average osteopathic medical student. “It’s really important that this information doesn’t stop with me and makes it out to osteopathic medical students.”