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What it Means to be "Non-Traditional"

Posted Jun 16 2010 12:00am
Traditional. It's synonymous with conventional and classic. It's a term to describe the student who follows the typical path of education. In my case it would have been college straight to medical school. And that was the original plan until college went and screwed with it in the most spectacular was of course. I went to the perfect college for me, it was a place where I explored different facets of academia. I not only discovered my voice, I learned to appreciate it and believe in it. The freshman version of me, the first one to declare a major in my class, ended up as a graduating senior that had changed majors and minors multiple times and was still unsure of which career path I was going to take. I worked for a couple of years in a great lab where I learned about cancer research and got a taste of what it might feel like to pursue a PhD in the sciences. I also got the chance to live on my own, experience the satisfaction of turning a one-bedroom apartment into a home, and pay bills with my own paychecks. But there was always that question lingering in the background...what's next? I had enjoyed the lab work, but I learned it wasn't meant for me. So I was down to two options, English literature PhD or Medicine.

It was by chance, serendipity really, that I stumbled upon a Medicine and Literature program in London. It was as if the heavens had opened, a single ray of light shining down on the computer screen. It seemed to good to be true. A master's degree combining my two loves, interests that I had believed to be opposing, and all in London! I thought I would have to choose between the two, like a child caught in the middle of an ugly divorce. But here was the answer - a way to combine the two. That year in London was beyond glorious. I'll be honest, there were some tough times, but it was mostly inspiring. And at the end of the year, I finally figured out what I wanted to do.

The thing about being a non-traditional student, a student that takes some off in between studies, the thing that is both freeing and terrifying, is that it means carving out a new path. It's different for every non-traditional student. Some teach, some research in labs, others volunteer abroad. Whatever it is, it's a journey in foreign territory. The boundaries that define you as a student change, they give way to make room for all of the new experiences life will hand you. I was dealt some ups and downs (who hasn't?), but I think they've come in handy for medical school.

But here's my dilemma, I thought that by being non-traditional I would be able to offer wisdom to my fellow students, I could be calm and confident because I've been out there in the real world. I thought the stress wouldn't phase me because I've matured and I know how to handle it. Oh dear, my stomach hurts from laughing at that last sentence. How naive. It turns out the relationship between age and "having it together" is more complex than I thought. My life feels messy - I'll graduate when I'm 30 (what?!?), no romantic prospects (meanwhile my friends and family are getting engaged and having babies), and I'm going to be in student loan debt for a while. But in the midst of the mess is a little patch of composure, the small grassy area that somehow missed the big rainstorm. That's where I try to hang out; lay out a blanket and bathe in the halcyon atmosphere. I'm not as frequent a visitor as I'd like, but I try. It's where I remember that I finished my first year and made some good friends.

So what does it mean to be non-traditional? According to the online thesaurus it means fresh, revolutionary, avant-garde. My answer - learning to pick your battles and always being willing to learn. You know what all of that real world experience has taught me? Be open-minded. Be open to the idea that carving out this new path may lead to detours and dead-ends, but it can also lead to cruising down open highways under a big blue sky. I can feel the wind in my hair already...
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