UMF Iași: the chronicles of a complicated year
The pandemic year at UMF Iași was marked by concern, uncertainty and challenges, but also by opportunities and accomplishments. And because everything must be named, it was simply called: resilience.
In the most recent message addressed to the academic community, the rector of UMF Iași, Prof. Univ. Dr. Viorel Scripcariu, stated: „We have shown that we have the ability to adapt to the external environment without losing sight of the safety of our community. I am grateful that you have done everything necessary to ensure that our work is carried out in maximum safety. We looked for opportunities for development, redefining ourselves. I always felt close to you, I felt that we are a community in all its power. The lessons of this period must be learned so that the post-pandemic education can capitalize on the skills, competencies and resources we have developed. The Communication Office of the University is working on a comprehensive review of last year that will help us remember what we forgot, realize what we lost but also what we gained. A year has passed and we are still in a state of alert. We have lost our patience, we want to return to a normal life, which will allow us to spend more time together. The University is a meeting place, and the academic studies are an important stage of life, in which friendships are made and networks of acquaintances are formed. We are anxious, but we cannot let our guard down. The danger has not passed, we must still wear the mask and we must get vaccinated. I strongly believe that vaccination is the best way to prevent and combat SARS-CoV-2, it is the hope to return to a normal social and professional life. I am glad that over 90% of the teachers and 50% of the students have been vaccinated. But it is not enough to do medicine «live». Vaccination is said to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Let’s end this pandemic! Get vaccinated! Protect yourself to protect others!“
The most important measure taken at the beginning of the pandemic by the management of UMF Iași was to go online, a measure announced through a message by the rector of the University, prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu: „Starting Monday, March 23, we are preparing everyone, teachers and students, to carry out our activities online, through the interactive educational platform Microsoft Teams, so that students can continue their training, avoiding a serious disruption of the academic year. It will not be easy, breaking out of our comfort zone is unpleasant, but the situation requires it. During this period, online is safer!”. That’s how it all started, a tiring adventure consuming tremendous physical and mental resources and where unpredictability was one of the great constrains of the UMF Iași community. „It was difficult because we had to act quickly and because our responsibility was huge: we had to find and implement urgent solutions so that students would not risk losing the academic year and at the same time we had to think about enforcing measures of safety. We managed to create stability and provide predictability through speed and efficiency with which we moved the teaching act to the online platform. We were among the first medical universities that managed to completely move the teaching process online. We have thus proved that in crisis situations we are able to adapt, to unite and to perform”, stated prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu, rector of UMF Iași.
Thus, prompt mobilization and effective communication was the strategy adopted by the University during the pandemic. In addition, the constant messages of the rector, addressed to the UMF community since the outbreak of the pandemic, contributed to what vice-rector Radu Iliescu later noted as: „Truly thousands of people worked in unison under pressure, we functioned as a community, which shows our ability to perform. The pandemic made the UMF community not necessarily more gathered together, but it allowed to find itself, to create a sense of belonging amongst the people. When you are interested in what the other person does, it will be good also for you”.
Quarantine also put online the activity of the secretaries, but this constraint had its good side, eliminating bureaucracy. „In the beginning there was a general panic and no one knew how to manage this madness. The secretaries worked from home, we made a designated program for emergencies. But the good part is that the students started sending their requests by e-mail and it seems more normal to me. Before they used to come for any formality, a fee-paying LP or credit exam. Now it is better, we no longer have the continuous line of students in front of the office”, explained Oana Crâșmaru, chief secretary of the Faculty of Medicine. The online registration for the admission exam also made it possible to dissolve the endless queue that often extended to Bolta Rece, a beneficial measure for both the candidates and organizers. „All the files were sent online, we could check them at any time – even from home and we managed the process much more efficiently”, Oana Crâșmaru also pointed out.
„We wanted to be a voice that mattered to the community of foreign students at UMF Iasi”
The „obsessive” words of 2020 are not a surprise to anyone: pandemic, covid, quarantine, but no matter how common they seem to us now and how much we have adapted to them, they have drawn a historical line like other great calamities have done over time. Everyone will use them differently in the story they will tell to their grandchildren. For example, for Amata Gautam, now a surgical resident in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, the pandemic „stole” his plans for the sixth year, a special year for medical students. He wanted to explore Romania as a tourist, to meet more with his friends, to welcome his parents from Switzerland here in Iași and to enjoy, with them, the graduation ceremony. Instead, he woke up overnight, locked in the house, sometimes sleepy, in front of the computer, sometimes stressed that he had to face the exams online, away from colleagues, his family and from normal life. „In the sixth year, everything is usually very fast, but Covid slowed it down. It wasn’t the greatest academic year I’ve had, but I had to learn to wait and be patient.“ Amata was also the president of the European Medical Students’ Association Iasi (EMSA Iasi), and he tried to continue in 2020 the efforts started by his older colleague, Stavroula Papaeleftheriou, who handed him the baton, to make the association a focal point for foreign students at UMF Iasi. „We wanted to be a voice that mattered to the community of foreign students at UMF Iasi.” His efforts were successful and even if Amata graduated from university and is following his residency at home in Switzerland, he was very pleased to hear that UMF Iași, starting from this year, has students representatives in the Senate from the English and French teaching sections. One of them is Camil Bourhila, president of AMSFI (Medical Association of Francophone Students in Iasi). „Since the beginning of the pandemic, in March last year, it has been a real shock for our student community, which is very active in normal times. On March 7, 2020, a few days before the first restrictions, we have organizied our last big event, the AMSFI Charity Gala for the PARADA Foundation! It was an extraordinary event promoted in over 69 countries through an article on lepetitjournal.com. All our values have been questioned after this event.“ But Camil sees the full half of the glass: „It is true that adaptation was difficult during the closing period, because we were far from our families and we had to do all our courses online. Medical studies cannot be performed online; we have to practice, to come in contact with the patient so we can learn. But this situation has forced us to adapt and evolve very quickly, especially in terms of our perspective on the problems. This year, 2021, was also a wonderful time for the foreign students community, with the introduction of international students in the university Senate. This project, initiated by the president of the Senate, prof. univ. dr. Ioana Grigoraș, has made possible to fully integrate the international students in the management structures of the university and to have them actively involved in the development of their university”.
For Camil and the over 1200 students studying in the French section, 2020 was also the year of UMF Iași partnership with UNESS International – a subsidiary of the Francophone Digital University of Health and Sport in France, for access to the French digital educational platform, which allows intensive training of French-speaking students for ECNi – the French residency exam. „This partnership marked the peak of several years of waiting for the French-speaking student community in Romania, and our university was the first university in Central and Eastern Europe to sign this contract. I am proud and honored to have been able to actively participate through AMSFI in this cooperation between UNESS and our university. This success was possible thanks to a very attentive and available UMF management team, which takes into account the opinion and needs of the student community“, points out Camil.
The partnership with UNESS International means much more than the access of UMF students to the French digital training platform. The arrival of the pandemic and the forced transition of the teaching/learning process online, changed things at the decision-making level, and the tool proposed by UNESS reflected a new social approach. „It’s called externalities, events that occur without anticipating them, thus we entered a club of universities, faculties in France. And now it is seen as an engine to change the way we teach and learn, a model of content. We have the vision to change the way we teach/learn in parallel with an approach taken by a country like France, which is reforming its health system. They started from the same stage as us, realizing that the way in which they teach medicine, the way they did the evaluations, was bad – in the sense that it does not produce what people want from the health system”, explains prof. univ. dr. Radu Iliescu, pro-rector responsible for institutional strategy, academic evaluation and relations with student organizations, trade unions, NGOs and the local community.
In fact, the curricular reform is one of the wishes of the current management of the University. „If you asked me a year ago, I would have probably answered that it is not possible, that it is science fiction to move online the entire academic activity so quickly. But considering that one of our important projects for the future is the curricular reform, which has a certain number of online activities, it was also an exercise for us, not only a necessity“, underlined the rector of UMF Iași, prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu, in an interview given to news.umfiasi.ro in July 2020.
Another major change by the University leadership was the replacement of multiple choice exams, a measure well received by most students. „We have the opportunity to show the complex understanding of the information taught, while the multiple choice exam was limiting and was not always the most effective method of assessment,” explains Theodor Pantelimonescu, a sixth-year medical student. He also noted a positive aspect, „represented by the way we communicate via the Internet, which allowed us to hold conferences and courses with specialists from various parts of the world, or allowed my colleagues who have recently become parents to be with their newborns while participating to these online events”.
Social responsibility of the University
Social responsibility was another important component of the University’s strategy to combat the pandemic. This was reflected in the opening of the laboratory of Molecular Biology for the detection of SARS-CoV2, within the Research and Experimental Medicine Center CEMEX, but also in the provaccination campaign carried out throughout the year. The CEMEX laboratory was inaugurated on April 3, 2020. „We brought two Real-Time PCR devices, purchased an automatic viral nucleic acid extractor which ensures the accuracy of detection and efficiency of sample processing, 20,000 Real-Time PCR tests, DNA / RNA extraction kits and state-of-the-art protection equipment. The total amount for these acquisitions, as well as for consumable items and protective equipment needed in the laboratory is over 1,000,000 lei “, explained prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu, rector of UMF Iași at the opening of the laboratory, on April 3, 2020. „Only one other laboratory with such a level of biological safety exists in the country, at «Matei Balș». The highly specialized laboratory is BSL3 standard (Biosafety Level 3), which ensures not only the optimal protection of the personnel involved, but also the quality of the diagnoses.“, He explained, in an interview given to News UMF Iași prof. univ. dr. Bogdan Tamba, director of the Center for Research and Experimental Medicine (CEMEX). But in addition to the infrastructure and the intense effort to prepare and authorize a laboratory of this level, there was also another essential component: a top team, consisting of researchers and volunteer students.
The provaccination campaign at UMF Iași was supported by the messages of prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu, who urged the entire academic community to be vaccinated: „I am a supporter of the anti-COVID vaccination. I am glad that in such a short time the vaccine has been launched on the market and I believe that we need to get vaccinated because it is the only way we can confine and even overcome this pandemic that has changed the course of our lives. In order to achieve this, it is important that at least 70% of the population will be vaccinated and will develop the possibility of self-defense against this virus,“ said the rector on January 8. „I was vaccinated against COVID. I was vaccinated not only for the safety of myself and my loved ones, but also because I am a doctor and a teacher. As I said before, I strongly believe that vaccination is the best way to prevent and combat SARS-CoV-2, it is the hope to return to a normal social and professional life. I consider that I did the right thing“, added prof. univ. Dr. Viorel Scripcariu.
Admission and residency competitions
The admission and residency competitions were two other fiery tests for the University, passed with brio. For example, for the admission competition held on July 26, 2020, 110 amphitheaters and competition halls were prepared, both from UMF Iași and from the other universities from Iași, with a capacity of over 2700 seats. About 600 teachers and assistants were involved in the admission process. „This year’s admission was, for us, at the same time, a cause for concern due to the pandemic conditions, but also one of pride, because we had the highest competition in the country for general medicine, namely 4.22 canditates / place . Through an unprecedented collective effort and mobilization, the admission contest took place in conditions of maximum safety and without problems for all those involved: candidates, teachers and administrative staff“, underlined prof. univ. Dr. Viorel Scripcariu.
In November, the mobilization for residency exam was identical: „Given the current epidemiological context, we made sure that this competition, extremely important for our graduates, took place in optimal conditions of comfort and safety. I am referring both to the hygienic-sanitary measures for the protection of the candidates and the staff involved in the organization, and to the allocation of a number of 67 amphitheaters and competition halls to ensure the physical distance. I would like to thank the rectors from UAIC, TUIASI and USAMV who helped us this time too with the provision of the necessary spaces for the residency competition“, says prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu, rector of UMF Iași.
Psychological support group
Special attention was also paid to mental health because the effects of the pandemic can have extremely serious consequences. Thus, the decision was immediately made to create a Psychological Support Group for the entire academic community of UMF Iasi, a virtual platform where students, teachers and residents can schedule psychological counseling by phone. „It is a pressing change for everyone, not only for the medical staff who fight in the first line, but also for the students. Because we all have to work in an unknown field, because the fight is on the emotional level as well, and some are not able to manage this anxiety alone. But the emotionally overwhelmed need to know that they are not alone, so we have created a support group of 15 psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, who are at their disposal and can help them with answers and advice during this extremely difficult time.”, explained prof. univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu, rector of UMF Iași.
„This project was initiated by the desire of several people in our institution to provide much-needed psychological support during this time. In addition to us, psychologists from the Department of Student Counseling and Guidance for Students (SCOP), have shown the availability of a number of specialists from other departments, who can help those who feel the need to discuss the difficulties they are facing in these times of crisis. It is important for every member of our academic community, from students in the first place to teachers, administrative staff, medical staff, to know that they can find specialized people to support them in this times. It is natural to feel worried, scared, but the role of this project is to provide the necessary support so that each of us can function within optimal limits and adapted to this context in which we find ourselves“, said Ioana Monica Ciolan, psychologist at UMF Iași.
„2020 will remain in your memory the year of graduation, but also the year of the pandemic”
September last year marked not only the beginning of the academic year, but also the end of this chapter for the 1634 graduates of UMF Iasi. The pandemic „stole” the traditional festive course in June, but the University’s management did not want to deprive them of one of the most beautiful days – the graduation, and they rescheduled it in September. Even though it came late and with restrictions imposed by the epidemiological situation, the Graduation Ceremony, which took place over four days, was vibrant and bright, an emotional end to an atypical promotion. „2020 will remain in your memory the year of graduation, but also the year of the pandemic. Overnight, during this year we had to radically change our lives and adapt. But I think that these special circumstances are full of meanings and they probably made you aware more than ever of the significance of the path you have chosen”, encouraged, in her speech, prof. univ. dr. Ioana Grigoraș, president of the Senate and the soul dean of medical students.
„I have friends who graduated from Yale and Harvard on „TV”: their names were called and they saw their photos on TV. But we had a real graduation ceremony and it was extraordinary, because this festive moment is the most important in our lives“, pointed out Amata Gautam, graduate of the Faculty of Medicine.
Zoom in on culture
Zoom and YouTube replaced the elegant University Hall, which traditionally hosted the „Grigore T. Popa” conferences and the meetings of the „V. Voiculescu“ Literature and Arts Club. „We continued the series of cultural events in the virtual space, where there is another type of interaction with the public. However, community members were able to enjoy the presence of special guests, some even from the United States, such as the well-known cardiologist surgeon Martin S. Martin or Cristian Apetrei, a specialist in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology“, explained prof. Univ . dr. Viorel Scripcariu, rector of UMF Iași.
„I would like to know how teachers and students perceived – when changing the classroom with the office, the office or the bedroom – when the „Grigore T. Popa“ Conference series moved to a screen. I liked to see some colleagues who, after the end of each event, asked who will be the next guest. I felt their interest and even the pleasure of participating with their whole being in the monthly lectures, launches or screenings. I still remember the long line of people who were happily waiting to exchange a few words with the guests or have their book signed. I saw colleagues from other universities and even students in the university hall. I wanted, every time, to bring, in front of dozens or hundreds of participants, real people, who would address them naturally, without stilted and offer them some minutes otherwise, moments when any administrative-clinical concern would be suspended from the horizon of thought and give them the opportunity to reflect on the inner universe. The online format opened interesting bridges with people I would have liked to invite but who were either far away or unable to travel to Iasi. In a world that is moving away from human values, in a time when we are more and more alone, when sadness envelops us and we have faces hidden behind the masks, we need a humanistic platform on which to live and to take off, whole to the body, but especially to the mind.“, confessed Dr. Richard Constantinescu, author and iatroistoriographer, holder of the History of Medicine Discipline, custodian of the UMF Iași Museum and coordinator of the Literature and Arts Club „V. Voiculescu“.
The festive course was preceded by intense preparations for the start of the new academic year, which would take place in a hybrid system. The decision was explained by the rector in a message addressed to the students: „I agree to do the courses online. You can read the recommended materials in the bibliography yourself, but not practical online activities. Because if the didactic activity were carried out only through computer programs, you can no longer develop your clinical sense, practical thinking, making a diagnosis, reasoning to reach a diagnosis, formulating therapeutic principles- these things can not be done using only the computer“.
UMF Iași Days, anniversary in pandemic times
The days of UMF Iași, celebrated every year in December, revolved around the past – the celebration of 141 years of medical higher education, the present – covered, in a time of pandemic, in a strong word, “resilience” and the future – by inaugurating one of the most modern simulation centers in Romania. The event took place on Friday, December 11, in the „Alexandru Tzaicu” Hall of the Simulation Center „Prof. Dr. Cristian Dragomir”. The festivity was attended, together with the management of UMF Iași, by the traditional guests of the University – representatives of the other universities from Iași, as well as officials of Iași. In his speech, prof. Univ. dr. Viorel Scripcariu also underlined the total involvement of the entire academic community of UMF Iași in facing the challenges of an extremely serious health crisis. „It was a difficult year, but here we survived and I can say that we came out victorious in this fight, because we knew how to be supportive, empathetic and resilient. Resilience is a term used in the last period of time. It is defined as the ability of human beings to adapt in a positive way to unfavorable situations. Exactly what we are going through in these moments“.
The end of 2020 would bring the University an extraordinary „gift” for the entire academic community: the accreditation of the World Federation of Medical Education, meaning the worldwide recognition of diplomas. The process started in 2019, when the University asked the Independent Agency for Accreditation and Rating (IAAR) in Kazakhstan, WFME-enabled, to initiate the accreditation process. After the preparation of the Self-Assessment Report, the next stage was the actual evaluation of the University, based on indicators: the mission and objectives of the University, educational programs, students evaluation, management, educational resources, academic body, study program evaluation, governance and administration, as well as innovation and continuous renewal. „For the final report, the international experts of IAAR visited virtually, between November 4-7 2020, the education and research bases, had meetings with the members of the University management, as well as with students, resident doctors and teachers. The decision to accredit for a period of 5 years, to certify the adequacy of medical education programs and the competence of the Iași medical school in providing medical education, was communicated to the management of UMF Iași on December 25, 2020“, explained prof. Univ. Dr. Viorel Scripcariu.