Hey guys! It’s Friday at 4pm as I begin typing this blog post. The weather today in Los Angeles was absolutely treacherous! I made the fatal mistake of wearing Ugg boots in the rain… The sad lumps of gray wool are now sitting in front of the fan, drying.
Schoolwork definitely started ramping up this week. Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so I took the day off to study (and, of course, appreciate the justice that MLK brought for African-Americans and the precedent he set for our nation). At noon, I headed out to Westwood to have coffee with a friend, Edgar, who is currently a PhD student in engineering at UCLA. He knew of my current career path dilemma and told me of his own story as a young immigrant from Peru. While in Peru, Edgar had no aspirations of pursuing engineering, as he didn’t feel confident enough in his math and science abilities. Upon coming to the U.S. for high school and finding great mentors in his teachers, Edgar realized that he genuinely enjoyed math and science, once given the opportunity to learn. He was accepted to UC Berkeley School of Engineering (which is crazy difficult to get into), and received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree there. Now, he is at UCLA for his PhD and aspires to become a university professor one day. I guess the lesson I learned from Edgar’s story is that you never really know where life will take you. A career in engineering was not something Edgar even imagined he would pursue, until the opportunity presented itself when he moved to the U.S. It’s foolish to think that you can plan out the next 12 years of your life and expect everything to go according to plan. Impermanence is the only permanence; uncertainty is the only certainty. And now, as I abolish my entire life’s game plan of going the med school/residency/fellowship/doctorhood route, I’m faced with this vast ocean ahead of me. There are so many options, so many things I can envision myself doing. Dancing. Writing. Psychology. Acting. Teaching. Physical therapy. The list goes on! I have full confidence in my ability to learn and master whatever my heart desires. That’s the thing though. What does my heart want?
On Tuesday, we had a guest speaker, Dr. Leland Powell, an oncologist, come in and talk about “Death and Dying”. After the lecture, I ran into Dr. Powell on the way down the stairwell. So eager was I to talk to him that I walked him all the way to his car, which was parked off campus near the hospital. On the way to his car, I asked him questions about the doctor’s lifestyle, growing rates of burnout and suicide among physicians, how he maintains work-life balance, how he emotionally distances himself from his profession, his family, and what he thinks of my whole career path dilemma. This is what he told me.
He was not officially “premed” until his senior year of college. He doesn’t plan his life out in chunks greater than four years at a time. He went to Johns Hopkins medical school and earned his PhD in biochemistry. He is a self-proclaimed “science geek”, as is his wife, a pathologist. His wife also dances as a hobby. He has three children– two girls and a boy. None were science geeks growing up, and all have chosen career paths lightyears away from the field of medicine. And that, according to Dr. Powell, was completely okay. I told him I was interested in medicine because I wanted to make a profound difference in the life on an individual. His reply: “Teach kids how to dance. That’s making a difference right there!” Regarding the whole premed dilemma, Dr. Powell told me that beyond good grades and book smarts, medical schools want individuals who are PASSIONATE and can COMMIT to long-term goals. Having interviewed so many prospective medical students, Dr. Powell says that a premed student can go through the entire checklist of “premed extracurriculars”, like volunteering at a hospital, doing groundbreaking research, or “giving blood transfusions to homeless people”, but if there is no passion there, he sees right through it. He told me that if I still wanted to go to medical school, there was NOTHING wrong with getting good grades, a decent MCAT score, and doing nothing but dancing as my extracurricular throughout college. What’s wrong with doing that? I may not be the “cookie-cutter” premed student who greets patients at hospitals and joins Stroke Force or EMRA (2 really big premed clubs at UCLA), but honestly, I think it’s so much more important to stay true to myself and do what I love doing, than to create this contrived, on-paper entity that speaks nothing of me–Belicia– at all.
I’ve only just begun my college journey, but I feel that I’ve reached a whole new level of clarity since I came to UCLA. It’s funny– I made the decision to come to UCLA so that I could pursue premed whilst continuing dance as a hobby. Coming into UCLA, I was so bent on premed, so set on becoming a doctor, that I never really stopped to ask myself if this was really what I wanted. All my life, the default career path was medicine. My parents never gave me any pressure to become a doctor. It was all my decision, from the beginning. This was the path that felt “safest”. So many before me, my father included, have embarked on this very path and succeeded. It’s a respectable profession and the work is undoubtedly profound. Saving lives? Who wouldn’t give to have such knowledge and skill and power? Steady income doesn’t hurt. It’s the reason why my dad’s able to take me and my family on cruise trips to Europe and treat family friends to expensive dinners. It’s the reason why we can live in the Bay Area! So becoming a doctors has all these face-level benefits. I have the smarts, work ethic and family support to do it. So what’s stopping me from chasing the glorified white coat?
Before I came to UCLA, I had embedded in my mind this idea that I HAD to become a doctor. That any other profession would not be “respectable” or “prestigious” enough. In allowing societal ideals to dictate me in my choice of career, I had renounced one of the most fundamental freedoms of a human being– the power to think for oneself.
I can’t pinpoint what exactly changed when I got to college. I had the opportunity to talk to so many people– classmates, professors, doctors, artists– conversations that both expanded my mind and gave me the courage to listen to my heart. The more I listened, the more I realized that I really didn’t know if medicine was my passion. Science has never piqued my interest the way art and human behavior and language has. Sure, I’ve done well in my science classes throughout high school and college thus far. It’s not that I lack the intelligence to go for medicine. But it’s the other organ– the one that keeps you alive with purpose and passion- that is more important. And the more I listen to the soft whisper of my heart, the more I realize this truth: I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to be… Well, I have yet to find the answer to that question. What is more important than knowing the answer to this question, however, is the new state of mind I have adopted. In coming to university, I broke free from the stifling forces of my upper-middle-class hometown and self-construed idea of NEEDING to follow in my dad’s footsteps to live a good life. In doing so, I freed myself from the chains of society. And for the first time in my life, I feel as if I have the power to live my life with my heart as my compass. This feeling of liberation is something that I felt greatly during this week. I may not have studied as much as I should have (that’s what this weekend is for), but I spent much of my time dancing and sharing my knowledge of dance with others. I attended a meditation workshop last night, led by a master Buddhist monk, who actually received her post-doc in chemical engineering in the U.S. before earning her ordinance in 2011.
And I am the happiest I have ever been in my life.