May the Stars Align

I don’t know what to believe about medical school.

On one hand, I read about toxic and negative experiences, like an article today about people being asked to “tone down” their identities.

On the other, I read about my program’s dedication to trauma- informed care and humanities.

I know that neither example is representative of all experiences. But, as my move to NYC looms, I cannot help but wonder what medical school experience will be like. Extremely challenging but fulfilling? Or extremely challenging and also soul crushing?

I think I choose my school well. I’m going to Columbia P&S as one of ten members of the Columbia-Bassett program, which I already mentioned is uniquely concerned with trauma informed care. I would have never in a million years imagined that I would end up (or even want to go) to Columbia, but after the interview season it ended up being my first choice — and, miraculously, I was first in line on the waitlist to get into Columbia-Bassett. So here I am.

I would have never imagined I would go to Columbia because, first, it’s an Ivy League school. I come from a town of <200 people and finished kindergarten-10th grade at a school where religion often eclipsed science and critical thinking. I literally moved out at 16 to get better educational opportunities in another town 3 hours away. Doing so was a privilege afforded to me by my parents’ solid jobs and pay, and I will always be grateful for these oppprtunities — after all, few others from my hometown were afforded those same opportunities. But still, the idea of going to an “elite” school with my educational background was foreign to me. It still is.

Not only that, but Columbia is not easy to get into. I had a 100th percentile MCAT score, (which I got without any prep course or tutoring — way too expensive) and I was still waitlisted. In fact, I only think I got in because my values and lived experiences are greatly aligned with the Columbia-Bassett program. I don’t think Columbia, of its own volition, would have accepted me. The truth is that at competitive schools like Columbia, top percentile scores and skills simply qualify you – they don’t guarantee anything.

In a country with a doctor shortage and so many people without care, does that fact make me a little mad? Yes. It was by some alignment of the stars that my application stood out and got me a spot. In the same way I am thankful for the opportunities I was given in high school, I am also thankful for this luck and the fact that it landed me a spot in the Columbia-Bassett program.

BUT there’s another reason I didn’t expect to end up at Columbia. I didn’t expect to like it. I tried going into my interview with an open mind, purging stereotypes about elite schools and entitled students. However, the week before I had interviewed at Harvard, and left Boston feeling out of place and uncomfortable. One of my interviewers had actually asked me — I was interested in giving back to underserved or marginilized communities like mine, so why did I think Harvard and its mission fit mine? He all but explicitly said my goals and theirs did not align. I left knowing that, even if I got in, I would want to go.

But my Columbia interview was much different. It began at a rural hospital in Cooperstown, complete with a talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their impact on health. It ended in NYC with a student who baked us a quiche because it was cold and a dean who talked about the importance of having hobbies to keep you grounded. I fell in love.

I arrived back home with the terrifying realization that my top choice medical school was now the most competitive school I had applied to. I had only applied to Columbia (and Harvard, the only other “top” school I applied to) because I felt like I had to. I saw my MCAT score, a whole 11 points higher than I had been scoring on practice tests, and thought that I had to at least shoot high, just for the experience. Learning about Bassett while I was applying was a happy surprise. Getting into Bassett?

As I said — the stars aligned.

It feels too lucky to be true. I have so many hopes for my medical school experience. I can only hope that the stars continue to align — and that I can use this luck to do some good in a world with a broken healthcare system, where too many people have to wait for the stars to align to access the affirming, quality healthcare every human being deserves. Because the stars don’t align for everyone. I need to use my privileges, opportunities, and luck to do something about it.

Photo by Aaron Landry on / CC BY-NC-SA. Grayscale added by author.

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