I have always been a wanderer. My mother always kept an eye on me as I would drift from the crowd to find a quiet place to play. On family bike trips I would speed past my family until the road came to an end, or sprint ahead on a hiking trail losing myself in the monotonous beauty of oak trees until I was called back by the shouting of my name as they searched for me. As social as I was, I always needed time to be alone, time to be bored. Time long enough for boredom to turn into daydreams, for daydreams to turn into fantasies, and for fantasies to turn into inspiration.
I do not wander to get lost, although it sometimes happens. Two feet guide my steps, the right slightly larger than the left. Two hands balance my stride, one soft holding no expectations, while the other clutches to a small hope for discovery.
At the library a few weeks ago, I asked to share a table with a girl pouring over pages of organic chemistry. Because I cannot help myself (I am my mother’s daughter after all), I asked what she was studying. She told me she was studying for the MCAT exam. I could have guessed from the tired and desperate look in her eyes. A look I haven’t seen on myself for a while, but remember all too well. I sat down and pulled out my books on pathology and Step 1 Exam prep.
I promise it gets much more interesting, I said with a smile.
Thanks, she replied, I need to hear that right now.
We both got to work. Me gleefully doing practice questions on female reproductive pathology; she fidgeting between checking her phone and flipping through anxiety-provoking pages of molecular configurations.
My heart went out for her. It wasn’t that long ago I was on her side of the table. Like all the well-intentioned unsolicited advisers looking to validate our own choices, I so badly wanted to offer some wise words, some comfort I wish I had heard three years ago.
But I also hate it when people interrupt my studying. So I held my tongue and left her in peace.
As a “non-traditional” student, I’ve never seen my path to medical school as linear. I’ve seen it as a trail with a lot of off-roading, splitting, potholes, and dead ends. There is a lot of overgrowth to wade through, but it has never been too thick to lose my footing. It is a trail marked by the advice of those who have gone before me: family, friends, and strangers alike.
When you choose a career in medicine, it comes with an incredible sense of camaraderie. We all go through the same training of classes, of rotations, of human experiences few have access to. There is a sense of shared understanding that crosses generations, and barriers of land or language. Indeed this idea of stability, of there being one way to do it, can be very comforting. You are promised a foolproof recipe: keep your head in the books, put one foot in front of the other, and eventually you will reach the successful end. An end that is well-defined by a specialty, by types of patients, by categories of conditions, and the knowledge of how to treat each scenario.
There is plenty of advice for how to do these parts, how to study, to examine, to think through cases in an ordered way. Yet the advice I have found most helpful has nothing to do with the type of student I should be, but rather the type of person I am. They are lessons guiding my feet to wander off the path promising a safe return. They are they words of comfort etched into the sign at the fork in the road, encouraging the lost traveler to trust their instinct and not to turn around.
Since I left the girl at the library, and another semester of medical school has come to an end, I’ve thought a lot about the advice I would have shared with her.
I would have shared the wise words of mentors, but I also would have shared the parts no one talks about. I would tell her how studying for the MCAT comes with excruciating anxiety, makes you feel dumb as a doorknob, and shatters most of your self-confidence. But its just a hoop to jump through and you can put back together the pieces when you are done. I would have confessed to her that I had to take it twice, and that after studying for nine months I still didn’t do well on it. I would tell her that when people ask why I chose Tulane, I talk about what a good educational experience it is to study in New Orleans, when the truth is it was the only school out of 25 to accept me. I would tell her how complicated emotions can become–how I should be proud of getting into medical school, but somehow the 1 in 25 ratio often feels like a mistake. I would admit how imposter syndrome is real, and sometimes I believe I slipped the interviewers passed my MCAT scores by using my social skills, that any day now someone will find me out and realize I’m not supposed to be here.
While as these things are true, I would also tell her the exam is only part of it, that there are many more wonderful things to look forward to. I would join in the voices of those who told me to pursue my passions. That in so doing, I would find opportunities to build a more compelling resume rather than trying to fill it with the expected list of research, internships, and publications. I would tell her it is possible to sleep 8-hours a night. I would warn against thinking medical school is a four-year hiatus from real life; how it is important to listen to the news, to send birthday cards, to call your grandparents, and to take the extra minute to prepare that perfect cup of coffee. I would tell her the pass/fail grading system is not opportunity to study less, but to explore more—more experiences, more interests, more friends, more ways to feed the soul as much as the mind. I would encourage her to say yes with more excitement than fear, and no with more relief than hesitation.
I would tell her that past this daunting exam, there are many more mile markers, more trail forks, and more indecipherable signs ahead. When she comes to these, it is okay to fold up the map, trust her feet, and wander, trusting that the best is yet to come.
Here is to 2018, a year to wander into something much better!