Here’s a truth they don’t tell you when you get into medical school: you’ll be congratulated for it at least a hundred times. Your first congratulations will come from your official acceptance. Then you’ll be congratulated by your family, your friends, your doctor, your hairdresser, that chatty lady on the bus, professors during the first week of class, speakers from organizations vying for your money. But the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) will take it just one step further and give you their congratulations in the form of a brand new, brightly coloured, High Sierra backpack.
The backpacks aren’t subtle either; for those who know what they are, it’s an identifier. With every Canadian medical student in the same year having the same backpack, the wearer is visually inducted into a new group: medical student, class of ____.
There’s a sense of unity that comes from sharing an identifier with your class, and a sense of familiarity when you spot someone with the same backpack. In a way, the backpack is also a tribute to the hard work the wearer has put in to get into medical school. “Congratulations from us at CMA. You worked hard to get here, here’s a little something to let everyone else know that too.”
However, the backpack comes with responsibility. New expectations of professionalism and integrity are placed on medical students, even though we have yet to achieve ‘MD’ at the end of our names. The backpacks hold us accountable to the expectations of those who see us wearing it.
Or I could be wrong and it could just be a backpack. I asked some of my peers if they wore their CMA backpacks and how it might tie into their identities as medical students.
I wear the CMA backpack because I find it valuable to be recognizable as a medical student. It allows me to identify and strike up conversations with other medical students at Schulich and throughout Canada. Moreover, I think it’s important for students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine to be recognizable members of the medical community; both to show people striving for medical school that systematic barriers to admission can be overcome and to act as an approachable source of mentorship for students who want advice that can speak to their unique challenges.
Sarah Cassidy Howard, Class of 2022
I wear the backpack sometimes. I wear it when I have longer days because I have more stuff and it’s a really nice big bag that can carry a lot of stuff. On other days, it’s just nice to wear the backpack that I’ve always worn because it’s really nice, I’ve sewn patches in it, and it shows a little bit of my personality. So I feel like that’s nice to have as well—kind of a mix of both.
Bojana Radan, Class of 2021
I actually don’t wear my backpack. The first reason I always tell people is because my current backpack fits really well on my back, and I need to work on my posture. But secondly, I don’t like wearing it because I feel like I’m around medicine and medical school all the time in London, so it’s nice not being identified as solely a medical student outside of this space. Sometimes it’s nice to just walk around the city or go downtown where I don’t have to associate with that. I can just be that learner, be that person as a med student, but without actually showing it to the whole world.
I think it’s a great marketing advertisement for those that created it because it’s a backpack and its essential to students. I definitely think it [represents] that identity of the med school because it’s so hard to get in, so once you do get in—especially if it’s been your number one goal from the start—it’s kind of like wearing a badge of honour. So, I can definitely see that it plays into it, because other students know, and once … someone tells you it’s a med school backpack, you see it everywhere.
Jane Ding, Class of 2022
Initially, I wore my backpack to fit in, and I relied on the bright red backpacks to identify my classmates and find my way around a new school. I think that because of this, my world was narrowed down to Schulich and its students. It took time to realize that I was part of a greater community at Western. I think that as time goes on, I’m a little less comfortable wearing the bright red backpack that may set me apart. As medical students, we are part of the Western community. As doctors, identifying as part of the community we serve will be even more important.
Dan Li, Class of 2021
The first [reason I don’t wear my backpack] is that it’s really conspicuous. The moment you have that on campus, everyone knows who you are. And not just who you are, but roughly how old you are as well, because it shows your year (each year is different). The second reason is that it’s a little impractical. I’m not sure if you’ve weighed the backpack or not; it’s actually five or six pounds. I only usually take my notebook and my laptop with me, pens, my umbrella, and those things added together is like four pounds. So if the bag is heavier than what I carry around, it’s kind of pointless. And other than that, I just don’t like the look.
Katie Marriott, Class of 2021
I do wear the backpack, but I didn’t always. In undergrad I went to UBC and no other program had an identifier, only the meds. I wanted to be a medical student so badly and whenever I saw the backpack, it made me feel jealous and kind of angry. I felt like the students were flaunting it in my face—very negative things, looking back—which was totally on me. I shouldn’t have let it get to me that way. But nevertheless that’s how I felt. So at that time I vowed that if I were to get into medical school I would never wear the backpack. It’s actually quite dramatic I suppose, because of all the negative emotions that I thought that the backpack had given me. So for the first two months of first year, I did not wear it. I also started to notice some things that were a little bit unsettling to me, like when I would introduce myself to someone. They would ask me what I studied, and sometimes I wouldn’t say medicine. Sometimes I would say physiology or sciences, or just beat around the bush. I would sometimes have a bit of a stutter when I did say medicine, and there would be this horrible, awkward pause, “I study…medicine…”, which just made the whole thing quite awkward.” So from talking with some mentors, some [doctors] who had gone through it too, I came to see that the problem wasn’t the backpack, the problem was me now identifying (or not identifying) as a medical student. I had put so many stereotypes on that backpack and on medical school, a lot of them not good ones, and so I’d thought that by rejecting the backpack I could reject those stereotypes. I’ve since started wearing the backpack because I need to accept that this is who I am. This is what I want to study and I’m going to be a doctor. I can’t (and don’t want to) escape it, and I shouldn’t try to hide it anymore.
Wendy Wang, Class of 2022
I do wear my CMA backpack! Entering a new school with new goals in mind, it only makes sense to pair it with a brand new backpack. Functionally, it is large and sturdy, perfectly tailored to carry everything I need throughout the day. More importantly, the backpack symbolizes identity of medical students. The bright red backpacks of the class of 2022 fosters a sense of community, and with that, a sense of belonging. It is a comforting feeling to see a group of red backpacks on campus, knowing that they are my friends and my colleagues. Whereas it creates unity within medicine, the bright red colour of the backpack significantly stand out amongst a crowd. Wearing the backpack, therefore, holds me accountable to professional values, and serves as a visual reminder of the power and privilege I possess as a medical student.
Michele D’Agnillo, Class of 2022
Don’t wear the backpack, primarily because I like this backpack better. It’s smaller, and I like to separate my things, like have a lunch bag and a gym bag. And I like to scatter, like the lunch in the lounge or in the locker room. It’s kind of an aesthetic thing too. The backpack they give you is a little bit of a cheap one – I’m not a big fan of that. It may be subconscious, but it could have something to do with the fact that I may be a bit of a contrarian, I see myself as a black sheep, but I don’t think it consciously factors into the decision. Maybe a little bit.
Author: Nicole Lam
Nicole Lam graduated from Western University with a BMSc in Interdiscplinary Medical Sciences. She likes writing about science, pop culture, and student life. Nicole might be spotted on campus with a black, teal, or red backpack.