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As most of those close to me know, I have officially begun my foray into a post-baccalaureate pre-medical education (i.e. a fancy way of saying I’m taking pre-requisites to apply for physician assistant or medical school). Those who know this also probably know that science and math have never been my strong suit and thus, this new undertaking is absolutely terrifying to me.

In college I was of the attitude that I should study what I enjoyed and it would thusly lead to a career I enjoyed. Well, after 4 years out of college I have come to realize this is not the case. I absolutely loved all of the classes I took for my Political Science and German majors as well as electives I took in other foreign languages and humanities courses. And I succeeded at them. Foreign languages have always come easily to me and politics/international relations involve a large amount of analytical writing, something I’ve also found I’m good at. And yet both enjoying my coursework and succeeding in it have not led to a satisfactory career path. I won’t delve into my rant against office jobs and computer work at the moment, but the end result after 4 years is that I can’t think of a job I could do using my degree (or an advanced degree in the same field) that I would enjoy more or equally to working in health care, an interest I’ve had for nearly 10 years but avoided precisely because of the intimidating coursework required.

Given the fact that I have, in the past, dreaded and struggled with science and math, I am open to any insights I can come up with as to why this has been the case, or why I suppose, some succeed while others struggle and what can be done about it. And yet, one theory that I have come across is infuriating to me. I have encountered the discussion twice now in the last two weeks that women struggle in science and math because of persisting stereotypes placed upon our gender. In particular, this article Study Suggests Simple Fix to Help Women Succeed in Science (two years old, granted) on PBS offers a solution to the achievement gap among men and women in science: a “values-affirming writing exercise” for female students to take their minds off of the “stereotype threat”. Supposedly a woman who completes this writing exercise will then perform on exams with ease, creating a snowballing effect throughout the semester.

Speaking strictly of my own experiences, never once have I attributed my struggles in science and math courses to my gender. Never once have I felt stereotyped by instructors (male or female) or members of the opposite sex based on my gender. And yet articles such as these suggest that it is in fact the case that part of my struggles stem from overarching stereotypes about the capabilities of my sex. To me this goes right back to suggesting that I struggle because I am a woman and at that I take offense. The fact that the PBS article suggests I simply need to perform a writing exercise to “bolster [my] sense of self-worth and personal integrity” is to me, bullshit and does not come close to a respectable discussion on the topic. How is an approach such as this helping our society to overcome the achievement gap among genders if it continues to focus on gender as the root of the problem?

Perhaps I am simply defensive of my own learning abilities. I haven’t done research beyond this one article and a similar discussion I heard on NPR that suggested that women with more feminine names will be more harshly stereotyped and thus perform more poorly than their sisters with less feminine names (this is just as absurd to me). I realize that the article is reporting on the results of a scientific study and am trying to be respectful of the fact that there is thus some credibility attached to it. I also respect the fact that we are as a society concerned that there is still an achievement gap among men and women in science and that we want to change this. But I’m curious to see what other theories and opinions are out there regarding learning abilities and capabilities beyond a gender-based approach because the assumption that I struggle because I am a woman is unacceptable to me.

I don’t think I’m cut out for big city living. By some accounts, DC isn’t even a big city. By my account, it’s big enough. The driving is the hardest. I always hope my Iowa plates will allow me some forgiveness from the other drivers but every time I get in my car, I get honked at. Sometimes for driving too slowly, for hesitating at a turn, or for doing nothing that I can discern to be wrong. So I think if I just take a deep breath, write down the directions, and remind myself that I’m an adult, I’ll survive the beltway with minimal stress. But it never happens, because how are you supposed to keep your stress levels down when there are “no-merge zone” on-ramps? How are you supposed to merge in a “no-merge zone”? I honestly don’t get it. Other drivers are brave enough to just zoom into oncoming traffic at 55mph. But I just sit there at the yield sign, hoping that an opening will appear in the traffic while cars backup behind me, honking and passing me and I curse. A lot. There was a story on the news recently about how people are developing heart problems because their commutes are so stressful. Because they don’t want to live in the city, where they work, so they live far out where it’s more peaceful and commute in. Either the commute is stressful, or city living is stressful. It’s a no-win situation as far as I can tell. Or maybe I’m just too midwestern. 

I bought scented laundry detergent the other day, not because I actually wanted the scent, but because laundry detergent is so expensive. I figured I should get the most for my money because obviously a scent other than “original” adds value. Well that was poor logic, because now I don’t like the scent and I’m stuck with 32 loads of it. 

So maybe that’s why it attracts me. I write poetry and try to read it, and I think that poetry and medicine are quite similar. For me at least, writing poetry (and maybe the personal blog as well) is all about opening yourself up, exposing your innermost thoughts and feelings or whatever to the outside world, your most private self on display. Similarly, when we go to the doctor, there’s a large measure of opening ourselves up. Oftentimes what goes on inside our body is of the most private nature, something we want to keep to ourselves. But if we want to get better, we’ve got to allow somebody else to be privy to our deepest secrets. Writing for me is also healing, like once I’ve touched pen to paper everything starts to get better (I feel like this post is bordering on cliche). I like reading other people’s thoughts, sometimes easier to put in writing on a blog, than to verbalize in person perhaps. I like to be privy to people’s innards, when they allow it, written, medical or otherwise. 

I’ll be volunteering in the local hospital’s ER starting tomorrow. Emergency medicine draws me in, and always has. We’ll see how I hold up in practice, but in theory I love the idea of being a part of people’s biggest moments in life, many of which happen in the hospital. Not to be perverse, I realize most often people go to the ER when something bad is happening. But I want to be part of it, part of helping to solve the problem or being a calm, helpful presence to somebody in the midst of a crisis. Who knows though, maybe I’ll be twiddling my thumbs through my volunteer shifts or freeze up the first time I see blood. In any case, I’m excited to find out! 

After several months of trying to figure out how to be an adult in America again, I think things are finally coming together. Since I knew I wanted to move into health care, I’ve been trying to get started volunteering at a hospital ever since I got here. The process turned out to be pretty slow but this last week I was finally able to attend an orientation at a hospital just a ten minute drive from where I’m living and pending a negative TB test, I’ll be starting in the Emergency Room next week! I had also gotten started with a temp agency in the city a few weeks ago and after a few sporadic assignments I interviewed with a medically-related organization where I’ll be able to work through the summer. And, today I got my acceptance letter to American University’s post-bac program! I didn’t have much doubt I would get in since it’s not a degree program and probably not very competitive, but it was nice to get that letter and know that I can now make some solid plans. I haven’t gotten everything figured out yet (ahem-financing!), but I could be starting on my science classes as soon as May 14th!! Super soon.

Seven months ago, when I got home from Peace Corps, my plans were vastly different. I was frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to go to grad school until 2013, frustrated with the job search and uncertainties about my future. There’s always a level of uncertainty about the future, but at last I feel really good about the direction I’m heading in. I have a few decisions to make still, namely figuring out how much I can take on at one time/when to do what. With work, volunteering, and classwork, I’m already going to have to figure out the right balance, but I also need health care experience for PA school and I’m considering taking an EMT-B course at some point to get started with that. In any case, yay for choices and figuring things out! 

Also, a side note on why I prefer a formal, post-bac program to just taking the pre-reqs on my own at a community college. Yes, a community college would be WAY cheaper than a private university, but I’m preparing for admittance to a Physician Assistant master’s program. PA school tends to be pretty rigorous, about as intense as medical school but just a much shorter program. As such, they frown on community college coursework. I’ve never been super strong in the sciences and if I want to see if I can do this, and prove to an admissions committee that I can do this, I need to put myself in the most rigorous curriculum I can. I could go back home and take classes at ISU for much cheaper as well, but I’d be in big lectures with little contact with professors or advisors. At American, I’ll have smaller class sizes, have access to extensive pre-health advising, and hopefully be among other career changers. Also, I’m finally feeling settled in to DC/Alexandria and with all the opportunities here for pretty much everything, I think it’s overall the best choice for me. 

Stammtisch

Tonight I got to practice my German for the first time in a very long time. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of my German in the Peace Corps while also failing to learn another language, but I worked hard to get to a good level of fluency in my German and I don’t want to lose it all. One of the reasons I love Washington, D.C. is that there is so much culture and diversity and it seems possible to pursue any interest with like-minded individuals. So since the opportunity exists I decided to go to a German conversation happy hour this evening and it was fantastic. I definitely started off a bit rough, stumbling over words and reaching for vocabulary that I knew was in the back of my mind somewhere, but gradually, the more I spoke and the more I listened, the more came back and the more confidant I became. There were a lot of advanced speakers and several native speakers at the happy hour which was great because I’ve found that I really need to speak with people who have a higher level of fluency than myself to really improve. I can still understand probably 97% of the conversational German I hear but there’s just so much vocabulary I’ve forgotten so even just listening to a native speaker brings back so much. 

One of the things about adulthood and the pursuit of a career is that it seems to be much harder to pursue a variety of interests and hobbies. Now, while I’m not working full-time, I really do want to use my time to keep a hold of those interests I really care about. Even though I likely won’t ever use my German in my profession I still love speaking it. It’s totally cliche, but it’s a part of me, and it makes me really super happy to speak it. And luckily, I’m pretty good at languages and I don’t want to waste that (note: this knack for languages did not apply to Setswana. I still need some sort of logical, structured, competent instruction which Peace Corps failed to provide). 

Even though I’m going to be going in a different direction with my career, I still really do want to be involved in international development, hopefully a few years down the line when I’ve finished school and have some clinical experience. Since the Germans weren’t big colonizers, German isn’t really very helpful when it comes to working in international development, or working with disadvantaged populations period. So, I really need to improve my French and/or pickup Spanish…but when will that be possible? Right now, I have the time but not the money to take a language class and I know I don’t have the discipline for something like Rosetta Stone (which is also expensive). Once I’m back in school I will only have time to crank out the basic science classes I’ll need, and then the goal is to get an MPH/MPAS which will leave no room for language classes, and then I will be old and really need to start working. So, when I’m solidly entrenched in my career path, how will I hold on to old interests, much less pursue new ones? One of my German professors in college is a full-time faculty member and performs in the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra, which I think is pretty freaking awesome. Maybe I’ll figure out a cool way to find a good work-life balance like that…I’d certainly love to get back into playing the clarinet. So, I’m curious, if I have any readers, what, if any, interests or hobbies do you feel you’ve had to give up post-college? What have you found time to keep? 

Job Search Update

Yes, it is a Friday night and I am sitting on my couch alone writing a blog post. Such is my life. Although to be honest my social life has been fairly non-pathetic since coming back to DC. I’ve had a smattering of happy hours, some lunches, a weekend jaunt to a Maryland island, a weeklong visit from a friend, and some lovely dinners. The unfortunate matter is that most social events here seem to involve spending money because very few people actually live close enough to each other that you can just casually hang out at each other’s places and it’s much more convenient to meet somewhere for a meal or a drink. Anyway, this would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that, you guessed it, I’m still unemployed. The funny thing about that though is that I’ve now turned down two non-professional jobs that I applied for at times when I was in the mindset of “oh dear Lord I need to earn money now no matter how overqualified I am for the position” and ended up applying and getting offered two jobs that I realized after the interview I would absolutely despise and weren’t very well-paid anyway. So now I’m about 80% glad I turned down those jobs and 20% regretful that I haven’t earned the small amount of money, but money nonetheless, that those jobs would have paid me.

The other thing about the job situation is that about a week after moving out here I made up my mind to finally attempt to pursue my passion for medicine/health care stuff which will involve going back to school to take all those basic science classes I tried so hard to avoid in undergrad. Then, if I survive those, I will apply to Physician Assistant school. I’m pretty sure many people don’t know what a PA does because half the time when I tell people of my new plans I get a confused look, but it’s the kind of confused look where they try to look like they know what I’m talking about but can’t quite pull it off and are too embarrassed to ask what a PA is because they know they should know. And anyway, I didn’t really fully know what a PA was until about a year ago when our Peace Corps medical officers were switched out and a PA came on board. So if you don’t know, a PA is a health care provider who can do about 80% of what a doctor can and works under the supervision of an M.D. The training is generally two years and no residency is required. I’m really excited about the prospect of pursuing this new career path and have grand visions of coming full circle and putting my future clinical skills to use in an international development setting, but yeah, we’ll see how it goes. I’ve got quite the journey ahead of me, but what I was getting at with this story is that I’ve more or less stopped applying for real jobs because I want to go back to school in the next 6 months, but find myself in this odd place where I’m in D.C. and need to pay the bills. My solution is temp work. I got in with a temp agency and am just waiting for an assignment! 

So despite the fact that I had this big change of plans after moving out here to pursue international development jobs, I’m still glad I came. The Peace Corps put on a weeklong career conference earlier this month for RPCV’s and one of the events was a panel of international development professionals. They were discussing how important it is to be local, or at least have a local address, when applying to jobs because as one guy put it “Nobody’s going to pick up the phone and call you in Dubuque, Iowa”. And that’s why half the people at this conference had also recently moved out here without a job, trying to start their careers in international development. Another of the panelists advised to “look for the work, not the job” and this sentiment is basically at the root of my switcheroo. I was really just trying to get into an international development job of any kind without thinking about what kind of work I would be doing. After being here and talking to people in international development and researching, I realized I wasn’t going to be happy working on the administrative end of things or spending every day at a desk, which is what most of these jobs are. I need to be doing work I’ll enjoy and work for a cause I care about, and I think health care will be just that. 

Is this really even remotely interesting? It seemed relatively non-weird to write about my life in the Peace Corps but back home I just feel like I’m trying to make average mundanity seem special. And yet, I’m still writing…Also, people are still asking me what I do all day in my unemployment. It’s getting seriously annoying. What would you do if you had nothing to do and limited funds? 

Readjustment Blues

Since arriving in the city about three weeks ago, I’ve been having a hard time readjusting. It’s almost as if my post-Peace Corps readjustment was delayed until this point. I didn’t go through much in the way of a hard time coming back to the States initially. I was surrounded by family and friends I’ve known so long they are family. While job hunting from Iowa I stayed within a realm of comfort, living at home, working on job applications from my local coffee shop or library, volunteering at a Fair Trade store I had volunteered at in college, and seeing my good friends in the evening. It was a little weird at times, catching up to what had cropped up in the two years I was gone, like redbox, smart phones, Netflix streaming, and current fashions. Aside from some travel-induced anxiety when I flew to California and Texas, I was fine. I didn’t feel much reverse culture shock and I didn’t get overly emotional. It seemed like a fairly smooth transition.

But since my group’s Close of Service conference was cancelled, I missed out on what to expect in terms of readjustment. I just figured the difficulties people talked about in transitioning back from their Peace Corps service was the more superficial stuff, like being back in a first world environment, different foods, different climate, etc. I’m realizing now that there is a lot more to it.

The best way to describe how I’ve been feeling since coming back to D.C. is overwhelmed. Everything is overwhelming: figuring out public transport and planning on at least an hour to get anywhere outside of Alexandria (where I’m living), seeing people I haven’t seen in years, telling the same exact thing over and over again to everyone I reconnect with about what kinds of jobs I’m looking for and what Peace Corps was like. As great as it’s been seeing old friends again, it’s exhausting. I feel like I need to recuperate after any social interaction. Most of all, I think trying to find a sense of purpose again and figure out where I’m headed in life now is weighing heavily on my mind. While I was off in Peace Corps my friends were settling into careers and graduate programs with a clear cut path ahead of them. While I still have goals and some vague direction in my life, I’m kind of in a holding pattern. That in and of itself, having no idea where I’ll be geographically or what I’ll be doing 6 months from now, is exhausting. I’m in a city of 9-5ers, of people with a ton of drive, and I feel like a fish swimming upstream, or whatever that analogy is. You know, where everyone is going one direction and you’re trying to go the other but can’t get anywhere? You know what I mean? Yeah, that’s how life feels right now.

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