UPDATE FROM CASSANDRA [April 28, 2014]: As a personal update, I wanted to share that I am no longer considering applying to medical school or pursuing a career as a physician scientist. I have stated before that I feel that transparency is of the utmost importance in this process and journey, so I am choosing to be as transparent as possible. I once tweeted that “my dreams [had] no debt ceiling” and I blogged for several posts about my elaborate educational plan. From the beginning it was just that – a plan, but it does not make it any less difficult to come back and say this path is no longer right for me. I was, and still am, passionate about infectious disease research as it relates to virology, pathology, and other medical specialities. I do not feel that I have changed my mind so much as I have stepped back and taken a long, hard look at reality. Truthfully, and reasonably, my dreams do have a debt ceiling; they have a time maximum; and they have a sacrifice quota. Because I entered into a marriage with someone else four years ago, every decision I make for my future directly affects someone else. Several circumstances in our life together have led to the decision that this journey is no longer financially, or emotionally, practical for us. I am 100% at peace with this decision, as it was made early this year, and feel that my time spent as a “premed” was beneficial for my own growth and personal development. I hope that my experiences can help others make such an important decision for themselves, as well. Thank you.
Get ready to read about Cassandra Hendrix, a nontraditional pre-med student and author of the blog Two Strange White Flowers (read on for an explanation of this title). Thank you Cassandra for sharing your story with us – we wish you the best of luck and hope you keep us posted!
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study (or are studying) as an undergrad? What’s your favorite (non-school) book?
Cassandra: I grew up in a tiny little town on the outskirts of the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina called Brasstown. I graduated high school in 2009 and moved to South Carolina the fall of that year to attend a small technical college. I married my husband, Matthew, the following year and switched majors from English to early childhood development. I graduated in May of 2012 with an associate degree in applied science. To make an incredibly long story as short as possible, my husband and I moved back to North Carolina after I graduated for a gap year to pursue a few projects that ultimately did not work out as intended. Given the opportunity to return to college, I began to question what in the world I actually wanted to do with my life. I re-enrolled at Tri-County Technical College in August of this year for a second associate degree in science, building on previously earned credits. I hope to transfer to a university next year. I’m currently taking standard pre-medical science courses and I plan to major in microbiology at the next institution.
My favorite non-school book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I ventured out of my comfort zone in reading it, as it is a post-apocalyptic novel, and was pleasantly surprised by how lovely McCarthy’s manipulation of grammar and punctuation (or lack thereof) read. If I see copies of it at a used book store I usually pick them up and try to give them to others as gifts; I truly think it is that good of a work.
Accepted: Can you tell us more about your position as a “nontraditional” med applicant and your med school plan?
Cassandra: There are several factors that describe me as a nontraditional student. I am a first-generation college student, which is typically defined as the fact that neither of your parents or legal guardians attended or completed college. I am also a career-changer; I did not originally enroll in college as a premedical student and I hold a degree that is entirely removed from that specific career choice. As of this past fall I am also a returning student, not part of the straight-from-high-school demographic (even though that is how I originally began my post-secondary education). I’m nontraditional in the sense that I’m atypical, if you will, from the standard college student.
I have crafted my educational plan over the course of many months and it is something that I am most proud of. I have blogged about it extensively, and plan to continue blogging as the journey unfolds. My plan is simply an idealization of what I want my educational career to be. My goal is to pursue zoonotic virology, which is the study of viruses that originate in nonhuman animals. I am interested in viruses that cross the species barrier and are infectious to humans. I feel the best way to achieve this goal is to pursue three doctoral degrees: a doctorate of veterinary medicine, a doctorate of philosophy in the sciences, and a doctorate of medicine.
Initially, I was quite wary of sharing my personal aspirations due to the possibility of criticism and judgment. However, this is a path that I am truly inspired by and it serves a higher purpose than simply earning the formal title Dr. Dr. Dr. Hendrix. I am an avid supporter of graduate education and feel that it leads to opportunities that might not otherwise be available. In deciding to pursue all three paths I am going to receive a circumspect view of the subject. I chose to start with veterinary medicine because it is the origin of the type of viruses I want to work with, then move on to the research doctorate so I can gain experience researching disease with an extensive foundation in animal science, and complete the endeavor with a medical doctorate.
Ultimately, I want to have the qualification necessary to practice medicine on humans. My actual career interest is infectious disease pathology, and I would like to eventually work on zoonotic viral outbreaks and public awareness for an organization like the National Institutes of Health.
Accepted: What people or experiences have inspired you to pursue a future in medicine?
Cassandra: This is almost as complex of an answer as trying to describe my educational plan. It essentially can be broken down into two parts: First, I’m going to reveal something about myself that I have reserved until this moment in time: I was a “Medicaid kid.” Government provision for healthcare is the reason I was able to have near-cancerous lesions removed from my tonsils at seven years old, have my vision corrected at fourteen years old, was able to manage extreme allergic sensitivities throughout childhood, and able to receive necessary treatment during emergency situations. It is also the reason that the treatment, both medical and social, I received differed from other patients. I am not stating this to victimize myself, but rather to shed light on the reality that in certain situations there seems to be an evident bias against patients with government insurance.
Whether it is because the demographic is typically low-income or because the process of receiving payment is so arduous, a perceived difference in treatment can often be painfully felt. I have never had a primary care physician or family doctor; I saw whoever would take my insurance card for whatever medical care I needed. Since losing eligibility at 19, I have not had health insurance of any kind and have been to a doctor thrice in the past three years. Again, this is not so I can provide some commentary on government healthcare or stand on my soapbox to declare my political views; the situations I have described were simply my reality and a piece of my life that has strongly shaped how I feel about the practice of medicine in the United States.
Due to these emotional experiences I never thought I could be a doctor. I thought physicians were on such a different plane academically and financially that such a career could not be a possibility for me. As I grew older, I came to the realization that my financial situation, economic status, and social standing had nothing to do with my ability to become a physician.
The second part comes in the form of personal interaction. During the course of our gap year my husband and I became friends with a man who, for the sake of this story, I’m going to call Sam. Sam was an interesting individual, very reserved, with an ailment that had haunted him for over ten years. It presented physically and seemed to have diminished his sense of confidence. Out of a love for natural healing I was convinced that an herbal infusion held the cure. Matthew and I zealously crafted tinctures and formulated teas, and other concoctions we thought could be of use. While these preparations alleviated certain symptoms, they (of course) did not phase the ailment itself. He had spent many years and thousands of dollars seeing specialists searching for name and a cure. All of these efforts were to no avail. His condition reemerges every few years, each time creating pain and discomfort. After meeting Sam, I realized how much compassion I have for people who are ill. Additionally, the mystery surrounding the sickness intrigued me and piqued my intellectual interests. Sam will always be the initial inspiration for why I chose virology. I wanted to help him, to heal him, because he represented the greater whole of mankind. The only way that was ever going to be possible was if I spent my life researching viruses and practicing medicine.
Accepted: What’s been your biggest challenge so far in transitioning back to school? How have you worked to overcome that challenge?
Cassandra: My biggest challenge so far has been adjusting to the “pre-med lifestyle”. In my first degree I excelled in all of my courses and graduated as an honor student. However, I did not have to take college-level science and mathematics courses and the level of memorization required was slim in comparison to certain premedical subjects. When I returned to college this fall it had been four years since I graduated high school. I immersed myself in the basic level sciences and assumed that it would be a fairly easy transition. I did somewhat poorly on my first few exams, and I even dropped my algebra course in order to lessen my workload. This resulted in my losing some confidence in my academic abilities.
I began to search for bloggers with similar experiences and I interacted with other premedical students on Twitter. I sought help from my college’s tutoring center, and I also took time away from my blog in short bursts to really evaluate my commitment. Giving myself some time to absorb the situation and find a rhythm was essential in fighting “burnout.”
I feel like it is extremely easy to let yourself become overwhelmed, but it is important to realize that the transition into a college student is a process. So, meeting the challenge is not something I feel like you have to overcome as much as it is finding the courage to trust in your own evolution. Once I chose to do so, the material became enthralling and enjoyable to learn. Keeping my focus on my future goals inspired me to live up to the challenge of my new life.
Accepted: Can you tell us about your blog — Two Strange White Flowers? Why did you decide to blog, and how did you come up with that name?
Cassandra: The idea to start a blog came to me in November of 2012, and I began actively blogging this past April when I enrolled at a small distance-learning college in Vermont. I was not able to continue my education there because the format was very nontraditional, so I removed all posts and decided to start anew. I searched for hours for other bloggers with experiences similar to mine and found very few, most of which had let their blog go some years prior.
In an attempt to connect with others, I felt the urge to open myself up and be transparent with my own journey. I concluded that if no one read my posts then the blog could serve as a diary, sort of like a first-hand account of this wonderful adventure I have embarked on! Fortunately there are people who read it (which I feel incredibly humbled by) and I am excited that, in sharing my experiences, I might be able to encourage others towards a similar path.
I decided to title it “Two Strange White Flowers” upon its inception. My husband had mentioned that he wanted to start a blog eventually and, since he is a mathematical physicist, I told him he should consider titling his “The Time Traveller.” One of our favorite books is H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, so the suggestion was in an effort to reflect his interests. We read the book together before we were married and I remember falling in love with the story, how eloquently written it was, and the plight of the Time Traveller sitting with me long after the book was put back on the shelf. There is a small excerpt from the book I have also put on my blog that reads thus:
“[The Time Traveller,] I know…thought but cheerlessly of the advancement of mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably…destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank…a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”
I found this ending conclusion of the book incredibly inspiring and wanted to pay homage to great classic literature by titling my blog after so prominent a statement. As a personal connection I feel that my husband and I, because we are nontraditional, are like the two strange white flowers the narrator references, seemingly out of place and out of time.
However, the flowers are indicative of much more than what their physical existence implies; they also represent the future. Throughout the book, the Time Traveller is sharing an elaborate story of how he traveled 802,000 years into the future and things were so drastically different from the time he and his acquaintances are familiar with (Victorian England). He leaves two flowers behind, both a symbol of the time he traveled to and the future of the world in its entirety. I chose to name my blog “Two Strange White Flowers” to represent the journey I am on (inevitably intertwined with that of my husband, “The Time Traveller”) and the future that this path represents. I want my story to be an inspiration to those who feel the need to begin anew, but who are afraid. The “future is still black and blank…a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places” only by the radiance of our dreams.
Accepted: Can you share some advice for other pre-med students who are just starting out their journeys?
Cassandra: My advice mainly consists of suggestions for nontraditional students, as that is the only scope of the premedical experience I have. However, I think it is most likely applicable to anyone who has chosen to pursue higher education, whether it is medicine, research, or anything in between!
1. The past does not define the present. Yes, it gives this moment context and meaningful direction, but it is certainly not the definition of who and what you are. Dwelling on negative aspects of your past experiences will not help you take positive steps towards your future; if anything it only leads to frustration. Try to not turn your past into a scarlet letter because there is much more to the nontraditional process than focusing on what could have been better. Whether you failed out of college the first time, you did not do well on standardized entrance exams, or you lacked direction, it is important to not let these things define you. Choose to move forward from where you are, and do not regret where you have been.
2. Keep organized and stay focused. I cannot stress this enough. This was undoubtedly my biggest struggle, even though I sought help from others in how to go about “keeping it all together.” The most valuable thing, to me, is finding your own rhythm. How do you prefer to study? What time of day is best for you to read your notes, textbook, etc.? What kind of environment is conducive to your learning process? In addition to keeping an agenda and calendar, it is also important to evaluate your response to questions like this in order to maximize your learning. The best universal advice I can offer is to work diligently, effectively, and do not be afraid to ask questions.
3. Don’t give up. This is a common phrase espoused by most motivational propaganda and has unfortunately become a cliché. However, looking past the simplicity, these words represent grasping hold of hope. Just in case you might be like me and need to hear it twenty times a day, I am going to say it just for you (yes you who are reading this): DO NOT GIVE UP! Do whatever it takes to encourage yourself to keep pressing forward. Check out books about your subject, start a conversation with your professor, form a study group, watch educational videos, visit medical schools, do whatever it takes! But whatever you do, do not give up on your educational goals. It lies with you; you are the only one who can decide what is best for your life, what you want to do with your life, and how you are going to do it.
In accordance with this thought, I wanted to share a quote from The Road. McCarthy’s characters are unnamed, simply a boy and his father, and a conversation takes place midway through the book regarding the father’s concern for his child. He realizes the hardship his son will face and wants to encourage him to always press onward. McCarthy omits punctuation in his writing, making it difficult to sometimes navigate, and the quote I have shared begins with words from the father:
“You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
We each have a fire burning within us, a passion that brings joy to our lives. Sometimes it can be smothered by failure, or is weakened by a sudden gale of hardship. Despite all of this, the fire never truly burns out and can always be rekindled. Stoke your fire, keep it ablaze, and allow your passion to shine a light into the future.
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