Picture this: your average first-year pre-med student. All shiny and bright because organic chemistry hasn’t broken their spirits yet. Textbooks in hand, folders meticulously organized, old A.P. notes from high school in tote, anxiously 20 minutes early to the large entry-level chemistry lecture. Since a large proportion of Duke’s undergraduate population has been pre-med at some point, this is pretty easy to picture. This picturesque student was me during my first year, fresh out of high school. Boy, if only I knew how much I would grow to hate it all.
Whether it be the excessive number of organic chemical reactions I desperately tried to memorize, or the long mornings spent delicately making tightly packed data sheets for Biology 201, it all became gray and dull. I hated it. Every day, starting last Spring, I would wake up with a sinking feeling in my gut knowing I’d have to face my pre-med classes that day. The dread I felt entering a chemistry or biology was unbearable. I felt so confused, because I didn’t always feel this way.
I had always loved science. Throughout middle school I loved learning about evolution, cellular biology, ocean dynamics, chemical properties, anatomy, you name it. When high school came around, I had the opportunity explore the medical studies in a four-course long biomedical science track. I was hooked; It was my wonderland of excitement. This only pushed me harder to take harder science classes, participate in medical research, and attend summer programs oriented towards amateur students looking for a taste of medicine and health care. I developed a deep love for cardiology and felt like I knew exactly where my life was heading. Isn’t it funny how steadfast we can get about our future at such a young age?
Though my love for science was strong, it was not the only thing I was passionate about. During my senior year of high school, I started reading. And I don’t mean picking up a book for 30 minutes every Saturday just to say I read. I mean I really started reading. My A.P. English literature teacher was incredible and was a personal mentor of mine since my sophomore year. So, after we read "Frankenstein" and "Pride and Prejudice" in class, I started wandering the shelves of Barnes and Noble, picking up Brontë, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wilde, Twain. Suddenly, that time I spent amongst the bookshelves become my safe haven, my sanctuary from all of the science and math around me. This interest didn’t go completely unnoticed. My teacher encouraged me to continue my reading endeavors and sharpening my writing skills. At this point in my senior year, I thought “Hm, I might as well minor in English. I like it, it could help me stand out, and it might sharpen my ability to write lab reports and research papers.”
Well, Duke isn’t easy. The classes are hard for all majors. All my classes started to show me the uglier side of medicine that I was sheltered from in those A.P. sciences. I started to feel discouraged. I even completed an internship in California this summer revolving around cardiac surgery, which was supposed to be one of my wildest dreams. But all the while I just felt underwhelmed. I was surrounded by all the things that used to make me buzz with excitement, but I felt so apathetic to it. What was going on me? If I gave this up, would this mean that I was not good enough to become a surgeon?
As time went on, my love for science started to fade slowly. So slowly that I barely noticed it was slipping away until it was already gone. Though this might seem depressing, something else was changing. The classes I consistently looked forward to and participated in willingly were all my English courses. For the past few years, my English classes kept me afloat. But how seriously could I take this interest, right? No one makes money as an English major anyway.
One particularly difficult and sleepless week, I remember going to the career center and just venting about miserable my pre-med classes made me. Hoping the advisor would just tell me it’s part of the process, and I should just keep pushing through it, he took me by surprise. He looked at me and said, “if you’re unhappy you don’t have to do this anymore. There is so much potential as an English major. Just stop and let go.” This may seem really simple, but up until this point, I never thought about just doing what I was interested in. What I love to do was accepted, and that felt strange. I started to feel… well, enlightened. I felt like the weight of the world was off my shoulders. All I had to do was validate myself.
For my entire life I felt like the key to a successful future was a sustainable job that made you money. Stumbling upon medicine early in my academic career provided both of these things, so I ran with it. Since it’s a profession in the STEM field, everyone around me readily accepted it. This blinded me, however, to exploring other fields in areas such as the humanities. Society has become so hyper-focused on STEM that the humanities have been lost in translation and blatantly not taken very seriously. I felt the need to constantly qualify my interest in English literature by connecting it to science.
Now I feel empowered, relieved, and overall so much happier. My experience this past semester has inspired to start this column, where I will discuss the humanities perspectives and experiences here at Duke, a research university dominated by STEM. I hope I help other people start to see that us humanities students are just as smart, capable, and hard working as our STEM counterparts.
Cliff Haley is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.