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Changing paths from premed

I looked up through the glass dividing my workbench from the guy across from me. We exchanged a glance and shook our heads, silently acknowledging the desperation, woe and mild consternation that permeated Orgo lab. Everyone in the room was busily mixing, inverting flasks, separating fluids and heating and cooling substances.

I dreaded Orgo lab, but it wasn’t because I was particularly bad at it. My lab TA complimented me on my ability to get through things (since Orgo lab notoriously takes longer than the three hours scheduled), and my results were always accurate enough to create satisfactory lab write-ups. But every Wednesday I would get grimmer and grimmer as lab time approached, dragging my feet as I walked down the hill to Frick. I still don’t know what exactly made lab seem so arduous. Perhaps it was the length. Maybe it was the fact that we had to follow a set of instructions that appeared straightforward until the moment the lab TA was no longer helping us. I was frustrated as I struggled to understand exactly what I was doing and why, and whether it would ever really matter. But the most frustrating part was that I didn’t know when any of these questions would be answered. I told myself that after a few more lectures, or a few more chapters in the textbook, clarification would come.

Even with my frustrations, there were parts of lab I enjoyed — they just weren’t related to organic chemistry. Professor Henry Gingrich, seeing me in a pair of cowboy boots one day, told me “don’t hurt anyone with those” and proceeded to tell me all about his wife’s boot collection. He remembered this conversation and in later weeks went on to ask me how many pairs of boots I owned, and showed me pictures on his iPhone of the Jimmy Choo Uggs his wife had just bought. There was also Carl, the lab hero, who knew everything, and was always willing to help and explain with a warm smile. It really wasn’t all bad.

But it wasn’t good either, and that was a problem for me.

Most people take Orgo because of some requirement. Either they’re chemical engineers, or they’re premed, or they’re chemistry majors.  I was no exception. The previous spring, in an attempt to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I decided, “Hey, being a doctor would be kind of great.” I could help people on a daily basis. I would be solving a new puzzle with each case. I was in chemistry at the time, which is one of the requirements, and liked it and was doing well. I had liked biology in high school. So that became the plan, and sophomore fall I signed up for classes that would start to fulfill my premed requirements: organic chemistry and molecular biology.

MOL wasn’t any better than Orgo, really. It wasn’t the labs, this time, but the weekly homework questions that I struggled with most. The lab-related questions involved time-consuming graphs and tables whose result didn’t seem to justify the effort. The lecture-related questions were ambiguously phrased and often required looking up obscure scientific articles or struggling through complex math problems. I tried working with other people, and although it helped to have multiple brains searching for solutions, I often felt like I was a step or two behind my partners. The misery of knowing that I would be spending at least five hours feeling frustrated and, honestly, dumb, was new to me, and I hated it. Again I searched for a silver lining, because this was an integral part of the plan. So I reminded myself that overall the material was interesting, and my fellow classmates and professors were helpful and could always make me smile.

I was conflicted. The classes were hard, but I thought I could handle them. There was a lot of work, but it was reasonable.  The information was new, and that piqued my interest. However, I found myself disenchanted and reluctant to fully commit. I wasn’t captivated by stories of SN2 back-attacks (if you’ve taken Orgo you know what I’m talking about). I found descriptions of genetic randomness in MOL overly mathy and boring. I realized I wasn’t feeling absorbed and enticed by the material, and that bothered me. If I was going to be premed — a doctor someday — then I should feel passionate about this stuff, right? Or was being a doctor something different?  But then, wasn’t med school just more of the same?

At this realization, I panicked, because it meant the loss of a plan. A good plan, a safe plan, a plan that had excited me. What would I do instead, having wasted, or so it seemed, all this time, effort and energy?

I didn’t know what I should do. I just knew that I was unhappy and that I wanted things to feel different. At some level I recognized that perhaps I had picked a path that wasn’t quite right for me, but I didn’t want to have to return again to a point of uncertainty. I also didn’t want to give up. That wasn’t me. I knew that all good things take some struggles and challenges — it just felt like I had too many. I spent a weekend discussing it all with my mom, and we came to the conclusion that I should go a different direction in the spring, not necessarily giving up the idea of premed, but putting it on hold. I decided to explore classes that excited and engaged me.

I knew to look for these classes in comparative literature. I was already pursuing the major, but now I can devote my full energy to it, without guilt. When people ask me my major, I don’t say “premed,” or “premed and … ” I tell them comp lit and smile at the ones who ask me what exactly that means.  I love languages. I love literature. I get to read and read and read this semester, and that makes me happy. I can’t say I’m proud of giving up or of probably not returning to the premed track. But I am pleased with where I’m headed, even if I’m not quite sure yet where I’m going.

That is definitely another question. My uncle asked me over spring break what I was planning on majoring in and I told him comp lit. “That’s great!” he responded. “But, not to be too pushy or anything, but what are you planning on doing with it? What kind of job can you get?” I think a lot of people worry about that and sometimes, I do too. But I could teach. I could go to grad school. I could pursue a job in publishing or writing.  I don’t even know what the possibilities are, really. I’ve also decided that if it makes me feel joyful and fulfilled, then it’s worth a little ambiguity in the future. I’ve learned that even when you have a plan, it doesn’t always work out, but something else will. Because life isn’t a science, it’s a story.

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