On a Thursday afternoon, I sit in the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room overlooking Main Street with nothing but my laptop. I sip an herbal blend as I think about the days I used to spend in the Chemistry Building atrium glued to textbooks and coursepacks, chugging Peace Teas for sustenance.
I, like many here at Michigan, started off pre-med. Actually, I set on the track in middle school. In my naivety, I equivalated wanting a career where I can help people exclusively with pursuing medicine. It was easy to be pre-med in high school, when it was all talk at family holidays, but when college rolled around and I actually had to take pre-med courses, being pre-med conflicted with my other passion: English. I loved all things in the world of prose: editing people’s work, reading liberally and, of course, writing. I spent hours chasing the euphoria of crafting a sentence precisely how I envisioned it in my head, the perfect amalgam of words, contractions, modifiers and phrases in the most felicitous sequence. My first semester in college, I decided I would double major in biomolecular science and English.
Unknowingly, joining Copy at The Michigan Daily was my first act of rebellion. I knew it was a deviation from the pre-med track, but at the time, I rationalized the choice within my pre-med mindset. It was a manageable amount of time to spend on an extracurricular — a three-hour commitment per week — and I could tie it back to being advantageous for a pre-med skillset I would eventually discuss at med school interviews. I would explain our fact checking as an extension of research outside the academic world; that being in a section of The Daily founded on style and grammar rules and the implementation of them demonstrates my commitment to compliance and integrity. Copy was supposed to be a way to feed the other English-loving side of me, to fend off hunger while focusing on STEM pursuits. I wasn’t prepared for how much I would enjoy it.
Copy was a space to focus on what I loved: the written language. At The Daily, I spend hours fixating on style decisions, demolishing all Oxford commas and allowing my inner grammar geek to shine. Quickly, I was reminded of why I fell in love with the English language in the first place. The em dashes, the lofty ellipses, the profound ability of 26 symbols to prescribe a world of actions, things, emotions — there was so much to love! But once I left the doors of The Daily, I was chained to the coursepack or the lab notebook pages or the lecture slides I still didn’t understand.
Suddenly, I was divided in every way between my two interests: I was taking organic chemistry and genetics — with Cultural Rhetorics and the Art of the Essay. I was writing freelance for an online magazine, whilst on the board for the University of Michigan Chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association. I watched others manage pre-med with humanities or social sciences majors and thought I could do it too, but often found myself out of balance, pre-med consuming too much bandwidth. I couldn’t keep up anymore: I was being split in half. I had to choose.
I wish I could say leaving pre-med was a black and white decision. There were parts of pre-med that I loved — working through challenging orgo mechanisms, studying gene mapping and antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and working in my research lab at Michigan Medicine — that made it reasonable for me to imagine sustaining the path. I was doing fine academically — I just wasn’t happy. It was easy to excuse current misery for the future hope of having a white coat, to offer up personal happiness to the pagan gods of medical school admissions. But there was something more: Every late night I would spend in the Ugli studying for my STEM classes reminded me of how much I wanted to be spending my time doing other things (and well, not be at the Ugli at 2 a.m.).
I missed feeling my hands zip across a keyboard, trying to snag every tendril of inspiration before it escaped my mind. I missed reading for leisure, soaking in glorious language of someone else’s mastery over their craft. It took a long time for me to realize that I wasn’t pre-med — I just had pre-med coursework clogging my schedule. Whatever excuses I came up with for not changing — parental pressure, being too far along or just being afraid of not knowing what I would do without the comfort of the predetermined 10-year medical track — it always boiled down to the same common denominator: The only thing standing between leaving this path and going down another was myself.
It’s a senior year cliche, but of course, I can’t help but look back and wonder if I would do anything differently. Of course I would. I spent two years trying to get excited about something I wasn’t completely passionate about. I was so fixated on being this version of myself I had created when I was in middle school, when I was too young to even understand who I was, much less who I would end up being. If I had listened to what my present feelings were telling me, I would have realized my childhood dream of being a M.D. was my current nightmare and was only holding me back from accomplishing all I wanted to at this University. I wish I spent less time worrying about rerouting, instead of just doing it, even if I didn’t know where it was going.
The truth is, I don’t know what I want to do after undergrad any more now than I did when I first stepped foot on this campus. But I’m ok with that. We often forget we are here to cultivate a toolbox of skills and to collect experiences rather than figure out what we are going to do with our lives. We spend too much time trying to pin down our path rather than validating our curiosities, too much time ignoring what gets us truly excited, because it isn’t what we first set out to do. Being pre-med gave me one of the most important lessons I’ve taken out of undergrad so far: You may not know what you want to do, but you’ll know when it’s something you don’t. And now, I am so happy that the path I’m on allows me to wander to the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and peruse the book covers, to edit articles at the copy desk, and of course, to write.
Ironically, my senior year of high school, I had come to similar conclusions without realizing it. For my high school newspaper, The Bagpiper, I wrote a piece on choosing a career for my last article at the paper. The last words I wrote right before heading to college seem aptly appropriate for here:
“All in all, it boils down to this: you only have one life. And in that life, you are going to spend about 35-45 years working. That equates to 1,715-2,205 work weeks, and 69,600-88,200 hours of work in your lifetime. Wouldn’t it be nice if you actually enjoy it?”