“Who gave me permission to do this?”
I thought to myself as I wiped snot and tears from my face, standing in the Transportation Security Administration line at the airport after hugging my dad goodbye. “Who said you can get on a plane to live in another country without anyone else’s approval?” I did. About a year earlier, I had decided I was ready for a change from the monotony that had become my day-to-day office job, working toward someone else’s goals. So I put on my big-girl pants and applied to the Peace Corps.
I was living my dream—that far-fetched bucket-list “one-day-I-want-to” dream. It was the first time I had lived more than a three-hour drive from my family, but little did I know that the host families that took me in would love me as their own. I had never developed my own work; I always had a boss dictating what needed to be done. But with this program, I was empowered to act with and for my community to develop sustainable resources that would last long after my service. I had never felt threatened or different in my home in Southern California, but in the depths of the pineapple fields of Costa Rica, I was the first blonde that many of my students and other local people had ever seen. It was common for people to play with my hair on the bus or street corners. I learned to travel alone. I tried to understand the best way to communicate with a culture with sometimes very different values. I began to understand that I will never know enough.
Through every challenge, I became closer to who I envisioned myself: more alert, more attuned, and better equipped to adjust as needed. I decided my motto was, “cultivating resilience.” When a school principal wasn’t convinced I was qualified to teach, when the high-school boys whistled at me in and out of the classroom, when my region had the highest rate of teenage pregnancy but students were only taught abstinence, when I got calls from family in the United States who were in the hospital, and when I desperately missed home, I was cultivating resilience.
Medicine and medical school have mirrored those challenges. I’m already in the third year of medical school and I still can’t believe I’m here. These aspirations always seemed so far-fetched. The Southern hospitality of rural Tennessee was thrust upon me full-force the first time I got sick, and peers and staff from my medical school took as good care of me as had my Latina host moms in Costa Rica. I developed my own schedule, determining how much time would be spent studying, volunteering, and focusing on personal care. My occasional enthusiasm for fall colors and yoga and my naiveté of snow and “BBQ” versus “cookout” betrayed my roots to locals. “You ain’t from ‘round here, are ya?” And oh boy, did the challenges come: exam scores that didn’t reflect my study efforts, feeling like an idiot in front of professors or preceptors, having back-to-back exam weeks fueled on caffeine and vending-machine snacks, my own health being in jeopardy, and losing the grandparents who had inspired my heart and backbone. Resilience was a necessity.
It’s taken determination, more setbacks than I can count, and a whole lot of grace to get me here, but I am here. The first two years of school felt like I was constantly tripping and catching myself mid-fall. But I’ve become adept at bouncing back, and with the support of loved ones, I can see beyond my limitations and move onto the next phase. Third year has already brought its own challenges, but as I have proven time and time again, mostly to myself more than anyone else, I’m capable. The only person I need permission from to dream big is me, and I don’t plan on leaving anything on my bucket list.
Written by Austen Nelson, Lincoln Memorial University-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine