First years should resist the urge to stick inflexibly to a chosen “track”
I am no longer pre-med.
I’ve uttered this sentence countless times this summer to concerned peers, relatives and family friends. The first few times, it was less of a declaration and more of a mumble. I felt ashamed that I had “failed”—although I now realize I should not view a change of plans as a failure. My lack of a concrete future was terrifying after years of organic chemistry, studying for the MCAT, medical school, and residency had once seemed so certain. I had wanted to be a doctor since I was 15 years old. I still remember the day my sophomore year when my chemistry teacher suggested medical school, and I grabbed onto the idea wholeheartedly.
But after a year of undergraduate study, I was forced to accept that being pre-med was not right for me. This decision was difficult. From day one of my first year, I had immersed myself in the pre-med community at the University and never considered that I should explore other options.
Many students make the same mistake of committing themselves to a course of study before they’ve given themselves time to change and grow. This early and unyielding decision makes a change of heart more challenging to deal with.
The quickest way to get to know someone is to ask generic questions. During your first few weeks at school the most popular one you will hear is, “So, what’s your major?” It can feel uncomfortable not to have a definitive answer, and it is perhaps for this reason that first years will rush to define themselves academically or grasp onto a pre-professional label. Having a “major” can also facilitate finding a friend group. Other students may align themselves with the pre-med, pre-comm, or pre-law track not out of societal pressure to do so, but out of a confident self-image and devotion to a particular subject. I understand feeling 100 percent certain about where your life is headed. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you that in eight years I would have my MD, no question. To have a strong sense of self can be a healthy and positive thing. But even if you know that chemistry, history, commerce, law or something else is your truest passion in life, let yourself explore other avenues.
When I began college and found myself enjoying (and excelling in) my elective classes, whereas my pre-med classes were a struggle academically and did not interest me as much as I had hoped, I was scared. I had always been interested in other disciplines, but never had I dedicated myself to them in the way I had to biology and chemistry. Of course, no one knows herself completely at 18 years old, but I thought that I did. I felt betrayed by my own inclinations and by unexpected interests that began to lead me away from the pre-med path. I resented having to study complicated orbital diagrams which seemed inapplicable to a future in medicine while I had an article on the practical applicability of universal health care to read for a religious studies class, which seemed much more tempting.
Second semester I steadfastly refused to drop pre-med, against the suggestions of my science GPA and my advisor. When I saw humanities classes on Lou’s List that enticed me, I signed up for science classes instead. The history and politics classes I did take second semester were my favorites, but even then, I didn’t want to admit defeat in my contest with the pre-med curriculum.
It wasn’t until after finals and a long session of soul-searching that I realized many of my aspirations could be better accomplished through means other than medical school. The original goals that I had brought with me to the University were not irreconcilable with a more humanities-focused course of study. The study and practice of medicine is an admirable pursuit, but it is not for me.
Some students may feel an obligation to their parents or their friends to remain on a particular academic path. I am lucky to have parents who are unconditionally supportive of my goals. My pressure to remain pre-med was much more self-imposed and internal. Both situations can be difficult to handle. It’s important to remember that this is your college experience. Find your passions and pursue them eagerly. Don’t worry too much about economic security or academic loyalty—do what is right for you and the rest will hopefully sort itself out.
I wrote this column primarily to offer my first-year friends this advice: be flexible. Know that your expectations of yourself, your plans, your dreams and your interests might change. It is fine to anticipate the future and to prepare for a particular outcome, but don’t let it crush you if everything does not turn out the way you imagined.
In college, you will be exposed to courses of study that you never considered in high school. You will meet intelligent, articulate, interesting people with viewpoints that differ from yours. They will make you think and often you will reconsider your own convictions. You will try things you have never tried and discover careers that seem custom-made for you—in fields you had overlooked. Remain open to the possibility that you will change your mind—and that you yourself will change. And view that possibility as a source of excitement, not a source of shame.