As Justin Timberlake’s upbeat anthem "Can't Stop the Feeling" boomed from the speakers, Jennifer Higdon approached the stage.
She was about to learn her future – in front of 600 people.
This highly anticipated rite of passage, known as “Match Day,” is a national event where fourth year medical students across the country learn where they have been accepted for residency training in their chosen specialty. After multiple applications and interviews, students and programs rank their preferences and the National Resident Matching Program’s mathematical algorithm determines the matches.
As families, friends and classmates watched inside Seawell’s Catering in Columbia on March 17, 82 students walked to the stage one by one and opened the envelopes that finally revealed where they would live, learn and work for the next three to seven years. Each had chosen a custom song to accompany the big moment.
“All I can say is that it’s a whirlwind of emotions,” says Higdon. “This is a day you've been looking forward to since starting medical school.”
She will pursue a career in obstetrics-gynecology – an underrepresented field in South Carolina – at Palmetto Health in Columbia. She says the position will allow her to “give back to the local community which has been so dear to my heart over the last 10 years.”
Higdon also had a cool side job that day – she took over the university’s official Snapchat account to chronicle the experience from her own perspective.
Because Match Day fell on St. Patrick’s Day this year, the class used “Luck o’ the Match” as their event and social media theme.
“As a University of South Carolina alumna, I was very happy to share information about our school on such an important day for medical students across the country,” says Higdon.
“Might I add it sure is a good time to be a Gamecock!”
Match Day provided a double dose of nervous excitement for Lakesha Williams.
“I felt like I was having an arrhythmia as I walked to the stage,” she jokes. “But it was a relief knowing I was in a room full of future doctors if I needed one.”
When Williams unfolded her letter she was elated to see that she would train to become a family medicine physician at Cambridge Hospital near Boston, her top choice.
“I had to blink my eyes to make sure I actually saw what I was seeing.”
But the anticipatory pins and needles weren’t over for Williams quite yet – for several months she had been planning to propose to her girlfriend Whitney Gibbs, a Ph.D. candidate at the Medical University of South Carolina, immediately after the ceremony.
“It was only fitting,” says Williams. “We met on Match.com and she always referred to Match Day as the day we'd find out where we would start our lives together.”
The couple had to live apart while Gibbs completed her doctoral project in Arizona, but Williams says her girlfriend was her primary support system throughout the challenges of medical school.
“I could not have done it without her.”
As a slideshow on the large screen cycled through photos of the couple, and their special song played in the background, Williams dropped to one knee and offered a ring to her now fiancée.
After completing her residency, Williams sees herself providing health care to patients and families in an urban or underserved community.
“I want to build meaningful relationships and foster trust,“ she says. “That’s why I chose family medicine.”
Future general surgeon Christopher Braxton learned he will be heading to New Orleans to train at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine.
Braxton is one of the first eight UofSC medical students who chose to complete clinical rotations in Florence as part of a regional campus arrangement with Francis Marion University.
The program, founded in 2015 to help address the shortage of health care professionals in rural and underserved areas of the state, allows future physicians to train at the new downtown Luther F. Carter Center for Health Sciences Complex, McLeod Regional Medical Center and Carolinas Hospital System.
Along with the patient care preparation they receive, UofSC medical students who make the move to Florence also immerse themselves in the community by connecting with local civic leaders and developing public service projects.
For Braxton, a tour of the facilities had sealed the deal.
“I decided to train in Florence after seeing the energy and passion the faculty had while visiting the clinical training sites,” he says. “They were so eager to teach, and the program offered numerous hands-on opportunities.”
He says the physicians he was able to work with now serve as his role models, and the experience has put small town medicine on his radar.
Braxton was part of a couples match, where spouses and partners are able to match within the same city or health system as a team. His fiancée Katie Bolling landed a residency in emergency medicine, one of the most popular and competitive specialties for medical students.
Higdon, Williams, Braxton, Bolling and their classmates will officially become doctors when they graduate in Columbia on May 5.