This is to share the journey I’ve had getting to where I am now. I’ll be 25 when I start medical school and I’ve been climbing towards this point since I was 17. It’s been a very long, frustrating, and rewarding process. I’ve decided to share this story because I think that is a good example of how things don’t always work out the way you expect them to and that nothing should deter you from what you really want. For those of you that endure the long read, I hope you find yourselves just a little inspired and appreciative of the quests that you have taken in your own lives. There is no one set path for everyone and many people will choose completely different paths than the ones they originally set out for. All that matters is that you are honest with yourself about what you want out of life and that you put in the work to make it happen.
That said, here is my crazy path 🙂
(See also: What made you want to become a doctor?)
Chapter 1: University of California, Santa Cruz
My journey from A to B starts Spring 2005, when I was a senior in high school. I attended a private, college-preparatory school that my dentist had actually recommended to my parents when I was in 8th grade. I had always gotten good grades in middle school, but honestly didn’t know anything about college, much less college-prep and was the only person I knew who applied to the school. When I got in my parents and I made a deal that they would pay for the school if I found my own way to pay for college. I owe, in large part, who I am today to the knowledge, techniques and life lessons I gained at this school. It was definitely one of the best decisions I have ever made. It’s possible that my deep fascination with science, and thusly medicine, began in my sophomore year biology class.
I was accepted to University of California, Santa Cruz where I planned on studying pre-med. I remember driving down to the school with my mom for freshman orientation and placement exams. It was a beautiful drive through the hills of California and the visit was the quintessential “I’m going to college” experience. One of the things I remember the most was my chemistry placement exam. I was horrible in chemistry in high school and thought there was no hope for me in that discipline (I would later find out that I actually loved it and was pretty good at it). Our multiple-choice placement exams were done in a computer program that provided your results immediately after completion. The chemistry exam was around 50 questions and was to take around 2 hours. Since I was horrible in chemistry and would need to begin at a lower level class anyway, I simply picked answers at random and completed the exam within 10 minutes. I remember the proctor’s face when I said I was done. He was simply put: shocked. And not just by my time, but by the fact that, in 10 minutes, I had placed into the second highest chemistry class available. It’s funny now, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been very funny on the first day of class…
Everything was working out as planned, until I found out that I wasn’t getting enough money from federal aid to cover my tuition and wouldn’t be able to afford my first year at University of California, Santa Cruz. I applied to a bunch of scholarships, but many of them were too specific and none of them covered the remaining amount. So, I had to make a decision.
Chapter 2: US Navy
I began checking out different ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) programs that would provide me with the opportunity of continuing my education at UCSC while training in the Army Reserve. This didn’t work out; one of the main reasons being that UCSC is one of the most liberal schools in California – therefore highly anti-military – and offered no such program. This meant that UCSC was out of the picture. The phone call I made to admissions, telling them that I wouldn’t be attending their school because I was joining the military, was probably one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had.
At the Navy recruiting office in Novato, I was to meet one of my favorite people along this journey: my recruiter. It was August and he was retiring at the end of the year. This meant that he was free to give me honest, unconditional advice and direction. I was to be his last recruit and there were no numbers to met on his end. I had spent the beginning months of the summer working out and getting in shape for a possible future in the military. When my first physical test came around, I failed because I couldn’t run. (I had a knee realignment surgery during my freshman year of high school and have pretty much no shock absorption whatsoever.) I decided to fight through the pain and started running 2 miles a day followed by 3-hour weight-training sessions. I passed my second physical exam and was then set to ship out at the end of November 2006.
Before leaving for boot camp, I had to take the ASVAB: a multiple-choice exam that measures your abilities and helps predict your future academic and occupational opportunities in the military. This exam consisted of the following sections:
- Word Knowledge (WK)
- Arithmetic Reasoning (AR)
- Mechanical Comprehension (MC)
- Automotive and Shop Information (AS)
- Electronics Information (EI)
- Mathematics Knowledge (MK)
- General Science (GS)
- Paragraph Comprehension (PC)
- Assembling Objects (AO)
Navy applicants also complete a Coding Speed (CS) test.
My results were equally as shocking as my chemistry placement exam results at UCSC. I placed in the 98th/99th percentile (I’m a little fuzzy about what it was exactly, but I remember my recruiter saying that I got only one or two questions of the 225 questions wrong). As exciting as this was, it would actually put me through quite a few challenges in the future. I had placed above the medical qualifications. Instead, I was qualified for the Nuclear Engineering program – and this meant that recruiters wanted me, bad! I had recruiters calling me almost every month for what felt like two years after this exam, each time more insistent than the last that the Nuclear Engineering program was an amazing opportunity for me.
In addition to the ASVAB examination, all recruits went through a physical inspection. My mom stills laughs to this day at any mention of the sheer humiliation of this experience. My recruiter had well prepared me for this process. With my flat feet and knee surgery, I wasn’t a prime physical candidate – and I needed to show that I was one.
The physical inspection included the following:
- Standing in a large open room with 10 other girls you’ve never met, wearing only your bra and underwear, as doctors walk down the line, inspecting your body and asking you to do a series of exercises, including the duck walk, as the others look on.
- Providing a urine sample. This was not like at the doctor’s office, where you can take your time, in private, place your warm sample in a metal box, and avoid seeing anyone. There were no doors and no privacy whatsoever. In fact, I had to provide the sample as a large, scary woman watched me, every single second of it. I had such stage fright that I had to drink cup after cup of water for two hours until there was no choice but to go.
- Laying on a doctor’s table, wearing nothing but your underwear, while a doctor and a nurse measure every discrepancy on your skin: every scar, mole, birthmark – anything. By this point I felt so distanced from my body that I just lay there like a slab of meat. The nurse actually seemed to get uncomfortable when she had to tell me that I could put my bra back on for a second time.
At the end of the day I was to sit with a sort of counselor that would compose contracts based on my aptitude results. This meeting would determine where I would be headed after boot camp. This is another area where I am a little fuzzy about the details. I remember it being really difficult without my recruiter there to advise me. The Navy and I wanted different things from each other. I wanted a medical degree and they wanted a Nuclear Engineer. I think that I was put down as a sonar tech (or something like it) and then given the documentation necessary to pursue the nuclear engineering degree, which included a note about a $10,000 signing bonus.
There was a period where I actually did plan to go in as a nuclear engineering major, get my degree as a Nuke, and then continue on to get my medical degree. Luckily, my uncle Tommy had a friend who had completed the Nuclear program and he was able to offer some advice. He told me that if that was not where my heart was, then it wasn’t for me. He explained that the program squeezed 6 years of difficult math and science classes into 18 months. After some discussion with my recruiter, who was firm in my sticking to my original plan, we decided that I would go into Hospital Corspman, where I would train as a medical assistant.
By this time it was the end of September 2006 and I was still set to leave for boot camp in November. One evening I got a call from my recruiter telling me that, if I wanted to leave for boot camp now instead of the middle of winter, I had to leave the following week. When he first called me there were 26 open seats and by the time I called him back to confirm, there were only four spots left. Had this actually happened, had I actually left that following week, I would have flown out to the Great Lakes base in Illinois for boot camp/basic training for 9 weeks. After graduating boot camp I would have crossed over to the Corpsman training school where I would have gone through basic medical training for about 14 weeks and then move to my “c” school where I would have narrowed my training down to surgery. After surgical training, I would have been stationed on one of the many world bases, working full-time as a surgical assistant while attending school full-time, for about 5 years. Afterwards, I would have continued to medical school, covered by the military, while still receiving my salary. Finally, I would have worked in the Navy for 5-8 years as a plastic surgeon to pay off the cost of medical school.
So what ended up actually happening? I remember getting a call from my recruiter one afternoon. He told me that there was an opening in the Hospital program that I really wanted and that to get it I had leave immediately. I had about half an hour to pack up whatever I thought I would need for boot camp. I met my recruiter and we started the drive for my mom’s office in the city to say goodbye before leaving for the airport. Then my recruiter got a call – the call that changed the course of my life forever. It was from a representative from the officer’s program (ROTC). My recruiter had been researching the option of me being able to attend college first, instead of going to boot camp, and then entering the Navy as an officer once I had completed my degree. It was unlikely that it would would work out, but he had tried anyway. The representative told him that it was possible for me to apply to the program and begin my studies before going into the Navy. This changed everything. We were already in the city by then, so my recruiter drove me to my mom’s office. I felt like a firework that had been set to go off and right before exploding, simply stopped and dropped down to the ground again. That was the closest I ever got to joining Navy.
I applied to the officer’s program. All my contacts, including my recruiter, seemed sure that I would get it. All the interviews and the security investigations were just formalities. There was even an officer that came to our house to investigate my connections in Norway, making sure that I didn’t have any terrorist contacts there. My recruiter told me that this meant I was in the final running since they wouldn’t take that much time to investigate someone that they weren’t considering.
My recruiter finally retired and moved to Palm Springs to work as a golf pro, his lifelong dream. He had put me in contact with a new group of recruiters located in Daly City, about an hour and a half away. They had completely different intentions for me. As soon as they found out that I had qualified for the Nuclear Engineering program, they did everything they could to push me in that direction (probably because of some bonus or credit they would have received). I no longer had someone “in the system” looking out for my best interest over theirs.
Then my letter came. A formality, I thought to myself. I opened it, read a few lines, and my heart sank. It said something along the lines of
“We regret to inform you that you have not been accepted to the officers program…..more physically superior applicants…..You may apply again next year”.
“Mom! I don’t know what happened! I got my letter….. and I was denied!!” I’d called my mom almost immediately. I remember that it was a beautiful sunny day and I was standing out on the patio staring out at the valley where we lived.
“Ok. So what’s plan B?” she had responded.
Looking back on it, that was the perfect response for that moment. I had been through so much up to that point and it would have been so easy for me to wallow in the disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. She gave me no time to do this. She made me to skip the unnecessary mourning period and take immediate action.
Chapter 3: Los Angeles – Santa Monica College
While the whole Navy thing was going on, I was working at a restaurant chain called California Pizza Kitchen. I moved up pretty quickly, beginning as a hostess, then a server, and then was a trainer within 3 months. I was learning a lot about life, how to support myself, how to be a leader and function in the “real world”. (I had worked all through high school, from the summer I turned 15, but it was an after school/weekend job.) During this time, I struggled with the actuality of not being in school. I felt like I was letting a lot of people down. Some counselors at my former high school had even told me that I was a bad reflection on them. It didn’t matter that I was working hard to get there, only that I wasn’t there already. Once I started sharing my plans with people, I got much more supportive feedback.
One of the most harsh moments was actually when a girl I had taken AP Biology with came with her family into the restaurant where I was working. They sat, of course, in my section. Everything started out fine, everyone was really friendly, until her dad arrived. She introduced me, saying that we had gone to school together, to which he replied,
“All that money and all that education – and you’re working here!?”
Truthfully, I was so shocked that I don’t recall exactly what happened afterwards. I think I tried defending myself, to no avail, and leaving as soon as I could. I think the girl might have even talked to her father so that when I came back, I received an apology. I was so hurt that someone could not only be so cruel, but also so entitled. Even if I had chosen that path, he was in no position to judge my decision to do so.
The reason why Santa Monica College in Los Angeles was my plan B, was due to its standing as the #1 transfer college in California. While the college offers two-year degrees, most students go there with the intent to transfer as juniors to a 4-year university to finish their bachelor degrees. My plan, as with hundreds of others, was to complete the first two years of my pre-med/biology degree and then transfer to University of California, Los Angeles to finish the last two years. This way, I could pay half the price for the same degree.
My supposed “inferior” job actually made my move to Los Angeles extremely smooth. Once I got the letter telling me I had been denied admission to the officer’s program, I called my aunt Tasha and asked if I could lived with her in Pasadena for a few weeks while I found a place. She was more than happy to help and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her help. I took a trip down to Los Angeles before moving there to check out the area and to see which restaurant I wanted to transfer to. I settled on the Marina del Rey location, which was about a 15 minute drive south of school. In moving to Los Angeles, I was leaving a lot behind: a family, a childhood, and a relationship – all for the promise that this “plan” would be the one to get me where I wanted to be. The long drive was a lonely one and I listened to Rascal Flatt’s “Moving On” almost the entire way. (If you don’t like country music, you should give in a shot ;)).
For the first two and a half weeks of living in Los Angeles, I drove back and forth between work, school and my aunt’s house. I had to drive for about 1.5 hours each way depending on traffic (if you’ve lived in LA, you know EXACTLY what I mean) and take 8 different highways to get to work. I ended up finding a room in an apartment only a 5 minute walk away from school. The guy I lived with for the next year was clinically insane. I could write a whole book about how crazy he was – everything from openly picking worms out of his butch cat’s butt to getting high on coke and trying to shove pizza slices under my door to joking about a camera in my bathroom (I checked, there wasn’t one). It took me a while to realize how unhealthy it was living there. At the time, I was so focused on school (I was there pretty much all the time, if not at work) and I didn’t really think I had any other options. I eventually moved in with my good friend Nicole (one of the many amazing people I met in LA). We rented a house in Lawndale, which was about 15-20 minutes from school without traffic, and up to 2-3 hours with traffic.
Two years at a community college was something that I could afford on my own, which helped because I wasn’t eligible for financial aid. When your parents file their taxes and list you as a dependent, then the amount of financial aid you receive from the government is based on what your parents salary is – thereby assuming that your parents are paying everything. I figured that three years of me filing my own taxes and claiming myself as independent would open up financial aid to me. But then I found out that in California you are considered dependent until you are 25. This meant that I would have to petition and somehow prove that I couldn’t/didn’t get financial assistance from my parents. If this didn’t work out, I would have a big problem waiting me when it came time to pay tuition for UCLA.
I attended school year-round – fall, winter, spring and summer semesters. I worked as much as possible, usually 30-40 hours a week. By the end of the fall semester in 2008, after I’d been living in LA for 2.5 years, I was thoroughly burnt out. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings my sociology study group met at 5:30 a.m. at a Starbucks near school where we would study until we needed to head to school to fight for parking at 7:30 a.m. On days that I didn’t have my study group, I would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and drive to school to avoid the morning traffic. There I would sleep in my car until my first class. In addition to a full load of classes and working nearly full-time, I was the Chapter Officer for Community Service for the scholars society Phi Theta Kappa. This meant that I had to ensure that all 200 members fulfilled their community service requirements, help lead any community service events, and find community service opportunities of my own to present to the chapter. On days that I didn’t have to work, I was at school until around 8:00 p.m. and then studying at a local coffee house until about 1:00 a.m. (they had $1 coffee refills). I was rarely home and therefore had everything I needed in my car: clothes, school books, notes for all my classes, every cd and dvd I owned, etc. One day, I was heading to work and as I walked towards my car, I noticed that I had left one of the windows down. As I got closer, I saw glass all over the sidewalk. The window wasn’t down, it was smashed to pieces. My car had been broken into. They took everything – even the little nobbs to turn the air conditioner on and off – and the middle console had been ripped out when they dislodged my stereo. I had barely enough time to sleep and now I’d lost everything, all my notes, text books, clothes, music and gps.
This happened to also be my first semester taking physics – ever. And it wasn’t just regular, ease-you-into-it physics, it was calculus-based. It was the first class I have ever taken that I just could not do. I went to every class and took great notes, but nothing sank in. I didn’t have the time or energy to do what I needed to pick myself up in that class. One day, during my lunch break before my physics lecture, I was sitting in my car in the parking garage talking to my mom. She could tell that I was burnt out and beginning to grow hopeless that there was any chance that I would make it to medical school. Christian, my younger brother, had moved to Norway to attend folk high school in August. Folk high school (folkehøyskole) is a sort of middle year between high school and college where students can take more elective classes. For example, Christian attended a school way up in the Arctic Circle near Kirkenes where they offered classes like arctic kitchen, dog-sledding, kayaking, Russian and Norwegian. It seemed to be working out really well for him and we have a lot of options available to us since we are dual citizens (American/Norwegian). Which is probably why my mom asked me, while on the phone in my car in the parking garage at school, the question that changed it all:
“Why don’t you move to Norway?”
After 15 or 20 seconds, I couldn’t come up with one single reason for why this wasn’t possible or for why it wasn’t a good idea. Many people, including guests at the restaurant where I worked, had asked me before why I was struggling in the states when I was a citizen of a country that offers free health-care and education. So all I answered was, “Ok….why not?”. I vividly remember the hope I began to feel at that point. Suddenly I was quenched with drive, motivation and passion for the future.
After getting off the phone, I headed to physics class, smiling the whole way. I was blissful during the first half of class until break, when a friend in the class, who’s husband was a doctor, told me something that I was not prepared to hear. She had been witness to my struggle during the semester and understood what I had gone through to get to even that point. When I told her the decision I had just made, she told me,
“What? That’s a horrible decision. That’s honestly the worst decision you could possibly make! You can’ do that. If you do that, you’ll never be a doctor. You’ll go over there, waste a bunch of time, and never get to where you want to be.”
I can’t imagine anything more damaging to your self-esteem than when you’ve committed yourself to making a big decision in your life and the very first person you tell bats it down without hesitation. When talking to my mom later that night, I told her about what my friend had said and she told me something I will never forget, something that I remind myself of almost every day.
There are always going to be people who react any deviation from the common path. They are going to cut you down, tell you that you’re not going to make it, that you are going to fail and regret your decision. They are going to tell you its wrong because they are scared. They are scared to think that there is another way to do it. That you know something that they don’t. They will question themselves and wonder why they didn’t think of it first. And the only thing that will comfort them, is telling you that you are wrong.
Chapter 4: Norway
It was November 7th, 2008 when I made the decision to move to Norway. I stuck with physics a little bit longer, but then dropped it when I realized it was dragging me down more than helping me. I spent most of my time preparing for the move. I sold almost everything I owned – which, by this point in my life, was almost an entire house full of furniture. I sold larger pieces online and had a huge two-day yard sale for everything else. I finished my semester at school, put my notice in at work, and completed my duties as a Chapter Officer for Phi Theta Kappa. On February 3rd, 2009, I drove off into the sunset – literally. It was really, really difficult to say goodbye to the life I had created there, to all the amazing people I’d met and the experiences I’d had. I’ll even admit that I cried when I first starting driving out of LA. I was doing something I used to do everyday: driving the 405 in my little grey hyundai as the sun set. But this time was so different. I only had three suitcases left after selling my stuff – and that was it. I felt like I was literally tearing myself away from from everything that I knew and loved – and I wasn’t coming back.
I lived at home during the month of February in order to spend some time with my family and finish any last tasks, like selling my car. It was interesting to experiencing life as a teenager again after having endured big, bad LA for almost 3 years. I loved having that time to enjoy my family and the area I grew up in. I worked a couple shifts that the restaurant I had first started at, but almost everyone was new and it just wasn’t the same.
It was REALLY hard leaving my mom and grandpa at the airport on the morning of my departure. I was walking away into a security line that would send me into the big unknown. I was almost numb the entire flight. I was in pain from leaving my family and friends behind, but also nervous and excited about the future. Most of all, I felt vulnerable. I had no home, no job, no school and only $500 left after all my moving expenses. Then, when the plane was halfway through its descent, when it broke through the clouds and exposed the ground, I saw it….snow. Snow!? I’m going to live in a place with snow!? I of course knew that there was snow in Norway, but I neglected to make the connection that snow in Oslo and me living in Oslo, meant I would be living in a city with snow. It wasn’t until my cousin Ola met me at the airport and we started driving into Oslo that I was fully conscious of what was happening. I was watching signs written in Norwegian fly past my window and talking with Ola about the trip, when all of a sudden my brain clicked and I panicked. Oh my god! What am I doing!? Why am I here?! It was as if I was surprised that one could physically enact the tasks presented by one’s mind. I had always been one to have the next 10 or 20 years planned; not a super strict plan, but a basic idea of what I was doing. This time I hadn’t planned anything past landing at the airport.
I kept a blog for the first couple months after I moved to Norway; the entires are posted under Archives: Blogs from when I moved to Norway in 2009. Upon arriving here, I found out pretty quickly that in order to study here I had to do one big thing before I could do anything else: learn Norwegian. I worked first as a server at a summer season restaurant, where Skjalg and I met, and then at the company I work for now. Both jobs required that I speak only Norwegian and I passed the university level exam in Norwegian in April 2011.
That pretty much covers everything up to this point. My time in Norway has been amazing. I’ve had a unique opportunity to return to my roots and experience the other half of my heritage. I’ve met a whole new group of amazing people, ones that I hope remain in my life for a long time, and I have learned more about myself than I could have ever imagined. And lastly, I’ve met an amazing man who supports me through everything and loves me so much that he has decided to combine his journey with mine.
We truly do not know the extent of what we are capable and it is only right that we do everything we can to find out.