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Thomas Wayne Koenig

Tom Koenig: Up to the Match

Tom Koenig, dean of students.

For most of us, March is a month of transition—changing our winter clothes for summer ones, cleaning out closets. But for Thomas Koenig, the month signals much more than just the arrival of spring. For him, March means Match Day.

Koenig is the new associate dean for student affairs at the School of Medicine. This will be his first Match Day, the time when medical students find out what residency program they’re headed for. “It’s a traditional moment in many medical students’ lives,” says Koenig. “It’s very much part of medical training history and very much part of Hopkins.”

It’s also a whole lot of work. This year, under Koenig’s direction, dozens of students were interviewed and transcripts analyzed. Hours were invested into writing each dean’s letter in order to portray the excellence of students to the residency programs of their choice. In all, more than120 letters were completed and sent out in November.

“There was a sigh of relief that we’d gotten it done,” says Koenig. To celebrate, he organized a small office gathering, complete with fine cheeses and champagne, to thank his support staff. Now, all that’s left is waiting to see if everyone matches and the final scramble to pair up students who don’t.

Fortunately for Koenig, he has not been alone in the Match Day undertaking. Last summer, when he took over for Frank Herlong, dean for 15 years, the Office of Student Affairs added two assistant deans: Redonda Miller, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, and Michael Barone, an assistant professor in Pediatrics. (In February, Crystal Simpson, assistant professor in Geriatric Medicine, was named assistant dean in charge of diversity, a post formerly held by Roland Smoot.)

“The Match was on the minds of the fourth-year students when we came into office in July,” recalls Barone. “We stepped onto a treadmill going about 100 miles an hour. But I think that with Tom at the helm we were able to do a fabulous job for the students.”

By all accounts, Koenig’s down-to-earth, Midwestern personality came in handy. “I’m open and friendly by nature, perhaps,” says Koenig. “But I realize I have to be that way for everybody. If the students are to have faith in my role as an advocate, they have to know we’ll be unbiased to all.”

It’s that kind of support that can help make or break a student’s year. Many face a variety of challenges, and not all play out in the halls of academia. Disappointment over a grade, family and financial problems, depression and anxiety are not uncommon. With a background in psychiatry, it’s no wonder Koenig seems like a natural for the job. But you won’t find the traditional psychiatrist’s couch in his office.

“I’m very cautious about not wearing any kind of clinical hat in the office, because I don’t want students to come in and think they’re being analyzed,” says Koenig.

It was Hopkins students, in fact, who were first to appreciate Koenig’s skills as a counselor. When news broke that Herlong was returning full time to work as a liver-disease specialist, some were concerned about who would be writing their match letters. They decided to act.

“The original support for Tom Koenig started on the Internet,” explains Derek Papp, chair of the Medical Student Society. “A bunch of fourth-year students started e-mailing the list of nominees and suggested nominating Dr. Koenig, because he was a great teacher and had the students’ interest in mind.”

Aside from his match-making responsibilities, Koenig works on several projects as associate dean. He is on a committee to help revise the School curriculum. The most recent attempt, known as the “Curriculum for a Second Century of Johns Hopkins Medicine,” took place nearly 20 years ago. Now, a group of faculty and students is looking at ways to update the curriculum so that it reflects some of the dramatic changes that have taken place in medicine since then.

One goal is to allow students to have areas of concentration—but not majors, a concept that has been rejected. Koenig’s own experience helped shape his opinion about whether undergraduates should have to declare majors. Twenty years ago, when he arrived in Baltimore to study medicine, he was going to be an infectious disease doctor. He chose psychiatry instead. “We don’t want to pigeonhole students too early.”

But exactly how does a 41-year-old know how a new curriculum will resonate with students? It’s simpler than you think, says Koenig. “We talk to them. We’re as accessible as possible.”

Students are encouraged to stop by and visit the office. They can also e-mail Koenig, Miller, Barone and now Simpson to see them outside of their posted office hours. Or, they can check out the new online forum that allows students to post questions for the deans to answer.

To further strengthen the student experience, Koenig is also proposing changes to the School of Medicine’s advisory system. “There’s a certain amount of chemistry that helps facilitate the relationship between student and advisor, and that’s always been unpredictable,” David Nichols, vice dean for education, says of the current advisory system.

Koenig hopes to create a more close-knit atmosphere by grouping students into “colleges.” Several faculty members would be associated with each college, allowing students to consult a panel of advisors instead of one or two. The plan, Koenig stresses, is still in its infancy.

Meanwhile, Koenig will be busy this March 17 with Match Day celebrations. The occasion will be a far cry from the intimate gathering he staged last fall. Several hundred—students, faculty, families and friends—will fill Turner Concourse. Following remarks by faculty and student leaders, the traditional white envelopes will be distributed and opened promptly at noon. For Koenig, as for the students, the waiting will be over.

—Sarah Richards

Match Day!
When: Thursday, March 17, at noon.
Where: Turner Concourse
What: Following an invitation-only brunch organized by the Alumni Association and remarks by faculty and student leaders, medical students will discover what residency program they matched with. Envelopes bearing the news will be distributed and opened promptly at noon.



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