Grit

Well this is kind of crazy. I’ve been wanting to be right here since the day I decided to switch careers. I’m still processing the overwhelming happiness (and RELIEF) I feel now that I have officially been accepted to graduate school. I can honestly tell you that I have never worked so hard, been so humbled, been so discouraged and yet so determined to achieve something in my life. And now, after checking that email I’ve imagined and hoped to receive for years, the one that begins with: ย “My warmest congratulations on your accepta…” it has all paid off. Folks, I’m doing this. It is FOR REAL now.

Pink church and limes. Salta, Argentina.

It is hard to express what this means to me but — well, obviously — I’m going to try. At 29, with my twenty-something journey coming to a perfect culmination and a new thirty-something journey beginning in a new place next fall, I can finally take that deep breath that I have wanted to take since the moment I graduated. I remember walking around the quad, sweating in the sun with my graduation gown dangling all around me. I was surrounded by best friends with the weight of that moment finally hitting me for the first time — the realization that I DID IT. I didn’t know the next time I’d feel that way, but knew it might be years — whatever those years would be. I drove away from college holding my boyfriend’s hand in the back of my parents’ minivan, trying not to get lost in a new world of unknowns, wondering where I was about to go with my life, and about to find out.

My journey to finding my career has been long, wild and challenging in every single way I can imagine and many twisted ways I could never have imagined. You all know the basic story — I graduated, got my heart broken, commenced soul-searching, listened to my gut and heart all along the way whether it led me to dark dangerous corners of third world countries or to unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime romances in the Caribbean. I almost moved to Holland. I almost moved to Chicago. I almost fell off a rocky cliff in Ecuador. I almost wrote a book. I almost went to graduate school for an MFA in creative nonfiction. I almost moved to Spain to do a Masters program through Middlebury College. I almost applied to get a MSW. I almost took a crash-course in architecture at Harvard (yeah – I bet you didn’t know that!). I almost did a lot of things. I almost didn’t take this risk… But then, I did.

Let’s backtrack.

In March 2010, I announced to the TwT world that I was going to pull a little switcheroo in the career department. (You can read the post “In Case You Were Curious…” here.) I won’t get into the whole story of why I decided to become a PT because I just wrote 13 personal statements about this subject, and frankly — I have run out of mojo. I remember writing this post, and feeling a little nervous to tell people about my decision to switch from travel writing to becoming a doctor of physical therapy, thinking people would assume I was in some sort of confused quarter-life-crisis when, really, I was finally less confused than I had ever been.

Two girls pose for me during a walk on the beach. Cabarete, Dominican Republic.

Making the decision was half the battle, as I had secretly struggled with my seemingly out-of-nowhere interest in PT since I strained a ligament in my back during one crew practice at Bowdoin. I had to miss the last races of my college “career” (yeah — the most fun ones) and ended up in PT instead. That is when I first learned about the field. By then, I was about to graduate without having taken a single science course and 12 courses were required to apply to DPT programs. I figured it was too late, but my interest in the field haunted me for years to come — through disasters like Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. I felt the constant tug of healthcare, of wanting to help, of wanting to have a skill to offer others, and eventually became the patient myself (that really put me over the edge). I was literally living the dream: I went on just about every travel experience I had ever wanted, and exploring foreign places (and foreign people!) became my passion. Wanderlust filled all the crevices of uncertainty in my soul, and satisfied my curiosity indirectly — albeit, not completely.

Like I said, making the decision was the hardest part, but once I decided to commit to the two years of science pre-requisites just to be able to APPLY to graduate school, I knew there was no turning back. That is, until school started.

Look, I have always been a good student. I care about school, about doing well, about learning and feeling like I gave a class my all. In the past, this had always gotten me the grades I wanted, without really caring too much what they were (I mean — not in the pre-med sense of caring). But for the first time, much of my learning was about to become about the grades: I was in these pre-med classes to get good grades so that I could get INTO grad school. This was BUSINESS. And, for the first time in my life, that had never been so hard to achieve.

New Orleans, Louisiana.

After making the decision to pursue this academic adventure, I retaught myself some Algebra, took the GREs, and began classes that May. The first two pre-requisites I took were Statistics and Developmental Psychology. Those were fine. I did well, and they were a good warm-up for my brain since they were each one semester condensed into an intensive six weeks.

Then, the real challenge began in the fall with Biology and Chemistry — two subjects I knew absolutely nothing about. I remember sitting through the first few weeks of my Principles of Biology course (considered one of the weed-out classes at NYU) surrounded by 800 eager type A pre-med undergrads ready to prove they were better than me (see: Falling Into Science). I wasn’t just a fish out of water; I felt like a hipster in a 9-5 office job: this was just NOT my scene. While my friends were all getting married, I was getting homework — and not the kind that gets you a degree. It was rough, to say the least. The intensity, the pressure, the learning environment — there was nothing familiar about any of it, and I was completely knocked down within the first round of midterms.

For the first time in my life, my grades were everything. And for the first time in my life, they were the worst numbers I had ever seen. Luckily, all my med school friends assured me this was normal, and welcomed me into the pre-med world, which felt about as good as I imagine a fraternity/sorority hazing might feel. (And they were right — the grades didn’t mean what they looked like they meant before the curve.) Getting that first biology midterm back, and seeing the lowest grade of my life felt like getting my heart broken from a new angle. (See: Humble Pie Season.) This wasn’t how it was supposed to be! This wasn’t the direction I saw my “story” going!

Street in Brussels, Belgium.

I’ll tell you all a little secret. A few weeks into my dream-plan, I met with the post-bacc pre-med advisor at NYU because, if you got below a B on the first midterm, you had to. I had never ever HAD to meet with an advisor about anything. I was not that student. I was the other kind of student… the kind that met with his/her advisor and got lots of pats on the back for doing a great job!

I’m not going to lie: when I saw my first midterm grade, after sacrificing my whole life to do well in these courses, after putting more study time into these science classes than I had ever put into any course (or any semester) in my life (and don’t get me wrong — college was hard!)… I was crushed. It was one of those times when you realize that maybe you’re not who you thought you were, and maybe your dreams weren’t going to come true afterall. Maybe they were just a little too big. Failure is not something I do, or plan to do. But That first exam made me question everything. More than anything, it made me question who I thought I was.

I slept on it. When I woke up, I was determined. There was NO WAY I was giving up after coming this far. When I went to meet with my advisor, I was hyped up on adrenaline, determination, and confidence. I was in a hole I had never been in before, but I was going to claw my way out of it no matter what it took. I think that was the first time I really realized that there was not going to be anything easy about this journey to a new career — it was going to take more than “wanting it,” more than “working hard for it” — it was going to take blood and tears and true GRIT to get to the top of this hill (see: Hill Climb). Luckily, I had all those days of wishing I knew what I wanted, of feeling lost, of feeling driven but with nowhere to drive to help me suck it up and do this — for me, for what I had been through, for those days. I knew what I wanted now. It was hell getting here, so I was not going to turn around after one swift punch in the gut.

And the punches kept coming. I’ll never forget that meeting with the NYU pre-med advisor. I walked into her office, sat down, and couldn’t wait to tell her not to worry — that it had clicked! I had a steep learning curve, but that I learned the hard way that these classes were going to be unlike any other classes I ever took, and now I knew what I had to do in order to succeed. Before I had the chance to open my mouth, she told me she was concerned about me and that I should rethink this career change. I walked into her office oozing with optimism, and as I sat there I felt absolutely gutted. I felt worthless. I felt like the bug that thinks it’s about to get away when suddenly it gets squished under an old, ratty shoe. I didn’t tell anyone about that meeting. I didn’t want to believe it really happened.

She told me that this happens all of the time: people from other backgrounds think they can do the pre-med track later in life, and it is too hard for them or they just aren’t as smart as they thought. I’ll never forget when she said these words: “You know, maybe this just isn’t for you…I’d hate to see you waste the money. You should think long and hard about whether or not you’re cut out for this, because it’s only going to get harder.”

View from “home.” The island of Sint Maarten (Caribbean).

I looked at her in disbelief. Never, NEVER in my life, had I ever been on the receiving end of this talk. I tried to speak but she wasn’t listening to me. In that moment, I realized she didn’t know anything about me. She was wrong. The weak, scared, intimidated part of me worried she might be right, but the real me — the me I had gotten to know through ups and downs over the course of the last decade — that meย knew how wrong she was. Right then and there, I decided that no matter what it took, I was going to prove her wrong. That was all that I could do.

The hits kept coming, but before I knew it, so did the achievements. It took a little bit of re-learning how to be a student, and learning for the first time how to be a pre-med student, but I figured it out. My standards changed from the humanities days, and I began to realize the beauty of a curve. As my intro science courses began weeding people out all around me, I clung like a freakin’ tick to my goal. One by one, I got through the pre-requisite courses. One by one, I improved until finally I felt like the student I had always been again. People can tell you whatever they want about who they think you are, but when you spend as much time as I had trying to figure that out, you know when a person couldn’t be more wrong.

Steps and homes. Sintra, Portugal.

By the second semester, having made the cut, I took on a different attitude (see: Bull in a Classroom). The classes got more challenging, but my fight got bigger. Just when I thought I had gotten through the hardest courses of my life, I signed up for one year of physics condensed into seven weeks at Harvard. We had three hours of lecture every single day, a midterm or final exam every Monday, long labs every Wednesday, and mandatory two-hr review sessions every Tuesday and Thursday. The nightly homework took anywhere from two to five hours, in addition to the lectures, labs and study sessions. By week three, my brain was so burnt out I didn’t know how I would make it. What I thought would be a sprint turned into a marathon in the pouring rain. I think the class average for our second midterm (two weeks into the course, mind you) was a 52. This course covered exactly the same material that a normal Harvard student would cover over 9 months, and we were doing it in 7 weeks… and it was PHYSICS, for crying out loud! (Not a cake walk, lemme tell ya…) But somehow I made it through that, too (see: Finish Line).

As you can see, this post-baccalaureate pre-med thing has sort of blown my mind. I knew it would be hard, but I never imagined it would be thisย hard. Luckily, I didn’t know what I was really getting myself into or it could have scared me away (maaaybe, but doubtful). With challenges this big, the joy of success is even bigger. There were many moments when I wondered how I would get here, how I would pull this off — every weekly quiz, every beast of a midterm, every humbling, soul-crushing step of the way. I took many steps backwards, but more steps forwards until ultimately, I pulled it off. I didn’t give up (I couldn’t!), I didn’t listen when someone told me I should rethink this career-change, and I didn’t let the moments of self-doubt become bigger than the overriding stop-at-nothing-to-get-where-I’m-trying-to-go determination. And I can barely believe it, but… It worked.

Gladiator. Rome, Italy.

I tell you this story because I don’t want anyone to think this has been a easy, or that they can’t do this too. During my first graduate school interview, one of the kids next to me was asked what is the greatest challenge he has faced. The boy is 20, a senior in college, and on paper, he is as qualified to become a physical therapist as I am (or more). His response: “Calculus…” And he had every right to say this, as I totally respect and understand that being a challenge when you’re graduating from a good college and you’re 20 years old. The four other applicants in my group interview cringed at the thought of calculus, and commiserated saying “Oh god, YES! Calculus was rough.” In that moment, in my suit with my twenties almost completely behind me, I just smiled. Ah yes, calculus. I took two semesters of it in 2001/2002 — and I loved it. To be honest (and I already told you how hard science was for me, so I am allowed to say this): Calculus was easy for me. EASY compared to the courses I am taking now. What they didn’t know, bless their hearts, was that life was about to get much harder than calculus.

So, here we are. The challenges are by no means behind me, in fact, now the real challenge is about to begin. But I’m going to become a Doctor of Physical therapy. I actually feel like I’m already becoming one. I am so incredibly excited about this career. I’m so incredibly proud of myself, and every single person who takes on the challenge of switching to a medical field later in life — or to any field, for that matter. This is not the easy path. This is not the instant-gratification many want. This is the biggest, baddest academic beast you will ever conquer, and it’s not dead yet for me, but I just aimed a spear at its heart.

Lava rock beach. Kona, Hawaii.

It turns out that after all that soul searching, after all those long solo flights around the world, after all the uncertainty and the cold hard desire to find what I wanted to be and who I was trying to become in my crazy twenty-something journey, this right here is where I was trying to get. This — how I feel now — was where I was trying to go the whole time.

I emailed the admissions director to thank him profusely for the opportunity. In his response, he said to please not thank him: it was my determination, my hard work and intelligence (his words!), and my “grit” that got me here, not him. Unlike the NYU advisor I spoke with, I felt like someone finally understood what it took. Someone finally gave me the pat on the back that I worked so hard for, and yes — it was all worth it.

This is just one pitstop during a long journey, but pardon me as I take a quick swig of champagne and one ENORMOUS hard-earned deep breath. Finally, I can. Then, it’s time to get back on the road because another leg of the journey awaits me.

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9 Comments

Filed under Life Stuff, Physical Therapy, School, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Grit

  1. Sarah Zim

    Congratulations Tavel! What an accomplishment -knew you would do it! Best of luck ahead on this great adventure.

  2. Dawn

    You should be SO incredibly proud of yourself. Even knowing how tough and dedicated you are I’m still beyond impressed. I bet school will be so exciting it won’t feel as hard ๐Ÿ™‚ Celebrate!

    • travelswithtavel

      Thank you Dawn!! Whenever I write posts like this, I always worry it seems like I am “asking” for this type of response, when really I just hope it gives other people hope that if I can do it, so can they!! But I know you know me well enough to get it ๐Ÿ™‚

      Everyone says that the DPT program is the hardest school you’ll ever have… I mean, it’s like mini-Med School… so I know I’m in for more challenges, but to have the challenges lead to a degree… well, that’s something I am willing to work for!

      xo, Tavel!

  3. Rachel! I am so happy for you and very proud of you. Through all of our biology and chemistry study sessions, I never doubted you for one instant. It is great to see you happy and successful and I wish you the best of luck ๐Ÿ™‚

    -Dennis

    • travelswithtavel

      Dennis!! What a sweet note. Thank you so so so much. I couldn’t have done it without you and the rest of the post-bacc team. Thank you for making it bearable and pleasant, and for being such a great study buddy all last year. You’ll be celebrating your acceptance to med school in no time… I hope I’m invited to the party ๐Ÿ™‚

      Miss you guys.
      Tavel

  4. Sue

    Hooray Tavel! I’m smiling so big for you after reading this post ๐Ÿ™‚ Of course you have grit – you’ve always had it! I’m so glad you never let yourself forget it. You have so much empathy and compassion; you’re going to be a hella of a doctor of PT!!

    • travelswithtavel

      Awe, Sue! You’re the best. YOU make ME smile. Thank you for the constant support! It has meant the world to me.

  5. Pingback: TwT Highlight Reel | Travels with Tavel

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