I’m writing this a little tongue-in-cheek partly because that’s my default, and partly because I’m bummed, and hanging on to a good sense of humor helps keep my head up.
I’m a big plans kind of person—long elaborate plans or short weekend ones, color coded planner and all that jazz. I had plans for this spring break (that glorious week when college students get to not be in class and maybe go do something fun) but alas, I have fallen ill.
Really, actually sick, not just a cold or a stomach bug. I have mono—one of those fun persistent American college diseases that is a bi-byproduct of sharing drinks and food with everyone you know and living in an actual petri dish. You can google it if you want, it’s pretty gross. I’m pretty much out of commission, can’t really get outside, missing class and work sick. And I hate that, because I had plans to be at work those days, and be at class, and I had plans to not spend my one free week on the couch worried about all the class I missed. And as much as it sucks that I’m missing out, here’s where it doesn’t:
Things just don’t always go as planned. You can write something in your planner in ink, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and you have a lot less control than you think you do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just a fact.
Sure, I knew this before I got mono, and had some minor plans foiled in a minor way, but at the end of the day pulling out plans B and C is always a good learning experience.
I am so very lucky to have my health—mono sucks, sure. And I’m out of commission for a bit, sure. But I am going to better in the next month or two. I can walk, and run, and two weeks of being really sick is still only two weeks. That’s more than a lot of people can say.
Unless it ends up being three to four weeks. Then I’m going to go The Shining level crazy. Send help.
I’m building immunity—now that I’ve had mono, I’m immune to it! Whoo-hoo! Okay, this is a dumb one. I’ll take it off this list.
I’ve got such great friends and family. Seriously, thanks guys—for bringing me not one, not two, but 32 protein shakes, for sitting with me in the ER till 3 am, for listening to me complain ad nauseam, for picking up my shifts at work. Also mom, here’s that shout out you’re always after, love you, thanks for driving me around and hanging out with me.
I now understand karma. I’m not really a “knock on wood” kind of person, but I am not kidding when I tell you not three days before I got sick I was bragging to several people not only about how I hadn’t been sick in years, but how I hadn’t had missed a shift at work (my teaching job, not the tutoring one) ever. Now I’m not superstitious, but that might have been a bad call.
So yeah, being sick is no fun, and I’m missing out on lots and messed up my schedule for a bit, but I’m still really really lucky. All that’s left to do now is make up for the work I missed and try and get back to 100%.
I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.
This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.
This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.
“Do what makes you happy”
People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.
I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.
My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.
A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.
A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.
“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.
Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.
I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.
I like to think I have a handle on things—we all do. We all think we know exactly what we’re going to do tomorrow, and we have this rough idea of what next the year, or the next five look like.
We think we know what we’re eating for dinner tonight, we think we will have a boring day tomorrow, we think that we have control.
We don’t have control, and I think to some extent we know that too, but it’s a lot easier to hold on to the idea that we know what is coming tomorrow than to embrace the idea that we actually have no idea.
And then it hits us—you are doing so well, everything is so normal and then one day something happens. Maybe it’s small. Maybe someone says something that alters your perspective a little and it snowballs. Maybe it’s not small—maybe it’s big and it clearly changes everything. But either way, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly you are looking at things from a different place than you were yesterday.
The moments that change us—they are big and small, they are significant in their own way, and they make you who they are. Sometimes they hurt—a lot. Sometimes you feel it like a physical pain.
We don’t get to choose when everything changes and we don’t pick how. You don’t get to choose the moments you remember, the ones you think of, the moments that follow you.
It’ll knock you down, leave you bruised, and it will change you. It is scary to have something happen and all the sudden things are different.
But guess what.
The moments that knock us down, that make us feel confused and scared and weak, the moments that hurt viscerally—they are the moments that make the rest of life so much more vibrant. They stick, they make us uncomfortable, and ultimately yes, they change us. But that’s part of living—growing, changing.
So yeah, it’s hard, and you will change, and it will be uncomfortable and you won’t always like it. But it’s going to be okay, and you are going to be stronger tomorrow.
No matter where you are right now, one day you are going to be happy with yourself. And without the moments that changed you, the moments that made you, you wouldn’t be the person you are going to be. So hang in there—one day you’re going to look back and tell someone about the moment that changed you, and how it made you who you are.
About a year ago, I left for a study abroad that would take me to Ireland, England and Wales. And I had a good time, I really did. But was it life changing? Eye-opening? Am I suddenly cultured? No. Studying abroad for three weeks in countries that spoke my language did not drastically change my world view, but it was still a growing experience.
I traveled with a group of 11 girls I had never met before, so my experience was more interpersonal than it was cultural, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing.
So if I wouldn’t describe it as “eye-opening” or “life changing”, what all did I learn?
There is no one right way to travel
I personally like to travel quickly, efficiently, and always be early.Some people would rather soak up the experience of everything. Neither way is necessarily wrong, but travel with people who travel like you. If you don’t, you will end up either waiting around for people or feeling rushed.
Not everyone is going to like you
On one level, I knew before this study abroad that people aren’t always going to like you. On another level, I didn’t really expect people to dislike me when I was trying so hard to be liked.
The thing about traveling with a group of 19-21-year-old females, is someone is going to be the mean girl. Sometimes, more than one person is going to be the mean girl. And when you’re travelling in close quarters for three weeks, it’s going to be even harder to get along.
So while at first it bothered me when one girl decided that I was the B-word for being chronically early (no, that is not an exaggeration), and it bothered me when another girl didn’t like the way I asked her to clean the dishes that she had left in the sink for three days because we were literally out of dishes (also not an exaggeration), I eventually shrugged it off. I would rather have clean dishes than be liked by mean people anyway (this is an exaggeration. I would rather be liked).
Sometimes people are just mean
On a similar note, some people are just mean. Sometimes, you meet someone who you really can’t get along with, who really will yell at you for getting in her way, and who will say nasty things about you just for the sport of it. And sometimes you will have to sit next to them on a 7-hour flight and be nice even when they elbow you all 7 hours. Some people are like that.
A three-week study abroad might not be the best way to experience culture
I was really hoping to leave the British Isles with some deep understanding of how things work there, and some wild experience that made me feel cultured. Instead, I got interpersonal experience that I wasn’t expecting. I lived and traveled with a girl who was messy and rude, and did not care what her roommates thought. I lived and traveled with a girl so far removed from the world I understood that I could not possibly relate, and another girl who insisted that she tell us all how to travel, and even how to walk down a street. I lived and traveled with another girl who became one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t trade the bonding experience we had for the world.
My original goal of learning about a culture that wasn’t my own wasn’t necessarily accomplished, but I got a different sort of cultural experience that I would argue is just as valuable.
Reading will enhance your experience
It just will. Researching a place before visiting sounds like a lot of work, but you will get so much more out of seeing a place of significance if you understand its significance and know its stories.
For example, when we visited the Sherlock Holmes museum, I didn’t really get much out of it, because I don’t read Sherlock Holmes. But the historical places, Newgrange passage tomb, the Tower of London, Ireland’s Museum of Archeology, meant a lot more to me, because I had read both the history of the places and countries I was in, and a lot of the folklore. Because I had done this research, I wanted to see these places, not just because they were pretty or interesting, but because I understood what they meant.
Travel isn’t scary
I remember getting up at 7am to catch a 3pm flight at the beginning of this trip, and being insanely nervous about navigating the airport. By the end of the trip, I took a ferry and two planes in the course of 36 hours, and then had a 27-hour flight delay in JFK. Sure, I was stressed and sleep deprived, but not scared. Because whether you’ve missed a train or been stuck on the Atlanta tarmac for 3 hours in June, the situation can almost always be resolved.
You accommodate the culture you are visiting; not the other way around
This is something that I wouldn’t have thought really needed iteration, but one of the things I saw repeatedly from a few of my peers was an expectation that things would be done the way they are in America because it is the “best way”.
First of all, never say that the way things are done in your home country are better than they are in the country you are in. That is obscenely rude. Second, especially don’t do it if you are an American. Especially an American in London. Like, holy shit.
Moreover, the way things are done in your home country are not, without exception, the best way. I listened to two of my peers complain about not being able to use business’s trash cans in Europe despite having not bought anything from the business. While these two idiots complained loudly, as Americans do, we got the evil eye from like forty people before I quietly explained to them that trash bags here are more expensive to encourage recycling, so businesses can’t afford to just take their trash.
Which shut them up for about half a second before they loudly began discussing how the Euro is stronger than the Pound. Which is wrong.
You don’t have to always tag along
One of the things about living with a group of people somewhere new is that there will always be something fun and new going on, and you will want to be involved. I learned pretty quickly that sometimes it is better to get some rest and alone time than to rush out to the third or fourth sight of the day, and people won’t hate you for passing every now and then.
Your dream experience is not that important
Everyone has this vision of what their study abroad, or even vacation, should be, but achieving this vision is not more important than being courteous.
I cannot count how many times, on this trip alone, I heard someone say “well it’s a once in a lifetime chance,” before doing something inconsiderate or downright mean.
When a group I was traveling with left me alone for a half an hour somewhere in the middle of the Tower of London I was told by one girl upon their return that she couldn’t pass up a once in a lifetime chance to see the crown jewels by waiting 20 seconds for me to return from the bathroom (not exaggerating).
When the girl who made our entire tour bus late at the Cliffs of Moher finally boarded a full bus she shrugged and told us how buying that Guinness pint glass was a once in a lifetime experience (it wasn’t). Meanwhile, someone across the aisle of the bus muttered “Americans” under his breath.
So no, you’re “right” to a once in a lifetime experience doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Just don’t do it.
Studying abroad is expensive
Another thing worth mentioning– this kind of program, a faculty led, country hopping, study abroad, can be really expensive, and I personally don’t think I would do this again. Traveling independently and doing your own research will be a lot cheaper, and you aren’t bound to a class itinerary.
On the other hand, there absolutely are scholarships available for this kind of program, and there are a lot of them– several of the girls on my trip were able to cut the program cost down by 75%. Talk to your advisor, talk to your schools Office of Study Abroad, and look and see if your school has a Student Travel Association. All of these people/resources should be able to help you find scholarships and get discounted flights.
So is a study abroad right for you?
I can’t really answer that. I think for me, at that time, this study abroad was probably the right introduction to travel. But for other people, who are looking to have a little more autonomy than travel training wheels, I would recommend direct enrolling in a foreign university for a full semester, or traveling with a small group.
There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.
I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.
While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.
DO: Explore Majors
People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.
DON’T: Be Stubborn
It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.
My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.
DO: Get Involved
Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.
Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.
DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way
One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.
Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.
DO: Get a Job
The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.
My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.
My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.
Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.
DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day
You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.
Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.
DO: Make Your Own Path
Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.
You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.
I entered college like a lot of students do— with a singular goal to get a practical, employable degree. For me, that degree could be in one of three fields, or it wasn’t considered practical: engineering, business, or medical. I chose medical, because, you know. I like to “help people”.
Throughout my freshman and some of my sophomore year, I worked towards this. I shadowed, I studied constantly, working toward my medical school dreams.
Except, they weren’t my dreams. Medical school was a dream I thought I should have, and I thought people wanted me to have, and maybe they did. But it doesn’t matter what other people want you to do.
You have to do it for you. You have to live your life for yourself, the way that you want to, not the way your parents want you to, or your older sibling did, or the way you think will look best, and impress the most people.
People say that following a passion won’t get you hired, but how is pursuing something that makes you unhappy better?
Adults—parents—have this odd tendency. They go through life in one career, with friends in that career, and then, when they’re older, with kids, they decide that their path to success is the best one. And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. In their defense, it’s a path they know works.
There is more than one road to success. This seems like such a no-brainer, but I honestly didn’t think there was as a freshman. I really, truly thought that I had to be a doctor, and that my grades were more important than my happiness.
It took sitting down and talking with a professor and role model to realize that there is a lot more out there than just STEM. It took even longer to realize I didn’t need a STEM career to prove to myself I was smart.
There is more than one way to quantify success. Success doesn’t have to mean a paycheck, or an advanced degree, or a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer. It doesn’t have to mean a 4.0, or a dizzying amount of extracurriculars. You get to define your own success; by happiness, by the difference your making, by the way you treat others. Success is unique to the individual.
I don’t know when I realized I hated the idea of going to school for 8 more years, and being in a hospital, and having to deal with real, actual pain, but I did. Maybe it was in the Emergency Room, when the little girl I had played with all week died, or when I vomited after watching a routine surgery, or one of the many nights I stayed up in the library panicking because I had to 4.0 this one.
But I realized it wasn’t what I wanted, or what I was cut out for and I made a change. You have to have goals for yourself, not goals that someone picked out for you.
You will never work as hard at something you aren’t passionate about as you will at something you are, and even if it is in an obscure and unlikely career path, hard workers get jobs. You just might have to do a little research to find out just what sort of job is right for you.
At the end of the day, you’re never going to make everyone happy, but that doesn’t matter. This is your life, not anyone else’s. Be it a degree, a job, or any sort of life change, you have to do it for yourself, not for them.