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Supporting International Medical Graduates in Minnesota

Dr. Svatava Merkle
Dr. Ayse Irem Sonmez

By Dr. Svatava Merkle, Dr. Ayse Irem Sonmez, Dr. Tolulope Odebunmi, and Dr. Mats Steffi Jennifer Masilamani

We are a group of four International Medical Graduates (IMGs) training at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine: Dr. Svatava Merkle, a PGY-3 from the Czech Republic specializing in pediatrics; Dr. Ayse Irem Sonmez, a PGY-3 from Turkey specializing in psychiatry; Dr. Toulope Odebunmi, a PGY-4 from Nigeria also specializing in psychiatry; and Dr. Mats Steffi Jennifer Masilamani, a PGY-4 from India specializing in pediatric cardiology.

The University of Minnesota is a well-known medical institution in the American Midwest with numerous residencies, fellowships, and other opportunities. Over the years, the institution has been home to many IMGs and other international healthcare professionals. Until recently, there was no official group for IMGs to build connections outside of work and foster belonging.

For many medical professionals, who come from different parts of the world where lively social gatherings are a daily routine, the culture in Minnesota can feel quite distant and hard to break into. It is not uncommon for people in the Midwest to spend their entire life in this area. Therefore, one can only imagine how hard it is to make new friends here when one looks different, acts different, and has an accent.

Although it takes time, most people eventually make friends with locals and pick up a few Minnesota winter activities such as ice fishing, snowshoeing, and ice skating on the more than 10,000 frozen lakes in Minnesota. Yet, some issues that IMGs struggle with are still very unfamiliar to the locals, such as visa-related problems or planning a trip back home to visit their family. This created a need for people who share similar experiences to come together and support each other.

With this in mind, Dr. Masilamani and Dr. Odebunmi founded the IMG Social Group in 2019 under the University of Minnesota Graduate Medical Education (GME) department to help IMGs find a community; they have published a letter about the creation of the group in Academic Medicine. Since then, the GME department together with the IMG Social Group has been hosting a yearly IMG orientation event to ensure that incoming foreign graduates experience a smooth integration into American culture and healthcare.

We started as a university-based IMG group; however, we intend to extend our reach to other residency programs in the state of Minnesota, including Hennepin Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic.

The group did not end with Dr. Masilamani and Dr. Odebunmi. In 2021, its leadership was passed on to Dr. Sonmez and Dr. Merkle. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, there are more opportunities than ever before to support IMGs. The class of incoming IMGs from the 2022 Match were recently welcomed with an in-person IMG orientation at the University of Minnesota separate from the all-residents’ GME office orientation. Furthermore, residents were given protected free time away from their clinical duties to attend the IMG orientation in addition to the general GME orientation. We have received helpful feedback after previous IMG orientation events encouraging us to conduct more sessions about navigating the intricacies of visa processes led by current IMG resident/fellows and faculty, providing education about resources at the University of Minnesota in general, and to offer tips about a very crucial aspect of adapting to life in Minnesota: coping with the negative mental health effects of long winters. As mentioned previously, with our intention to expand to the entirety of Minnesota, this year’s orientation was also attended by the Hennepin Healthcare GME representative.

IMG Orientation 2021

We are very interested in connecting with similar organizations in other states to brainstorm ideas for making this community better and bigger. If you are curious about learning more about our group, want to collaborate, or would like guidance on starting a similar group at your health system please contact us through our webpage.

As some of the founders and leaders of the group would say: “We strongly believe that we are better together in figuring out the intricacies of being an IMG graduate and working in the American healthcare. Because as much as it is fun, it can also be challenging at times, and one should leverage other people’s experiences.”