My College Experience, or 3 Expensive Pieces of Paper and Prayers for Student Loan Forgiveness

My career goals started with my freshman year in undergrad back in 2008. Damn, I’m old.

How I look as a professional lady versus how I feel

Eleven years ago, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-year-old, ready for the full #collegeexperience. I had a dorm, a roommate, suitemates, a dining card with an unlimited meal plan, and 15 hours of classes scheduled. The world was my oyster. I started as an English major because it was my best class in high school, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do yet. I had a vague idea of working in health policy, but I was terrible at math. I assumed that anything STEM was automatically out.

While I had a lot of typical college experiences, like joining a sorority (Zeta Phi Beta) and going to events on campus, I wasn’t a traditional undergrad. By sophomore year, I was working 40 hours per week while also going to school full-time. Whenever possible, I would schedule all 15-18 hours of my courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I could work the other 5 days of the week uninterrupted. I spent a lot of days at my cash register, writing papers in my notebook between customers.

I also didn’t do the traditional partying. I didn’t drink any alcohol until 2 weeks after my 21st birthday (I know, I’m a square), and I got a bit drunk one time my senior year while out with Best Frand™ and a couple of her sorority sisters. Afterward, we sobered up, slept in the car for a couple of hours in the Whole Foods parking lot, and clocked in for our 7:30 am cashier shifts. I don’t recommend it.

Not drinking wasn’t bad though. I was usually the designated driver, and people would pay me to drive them to a club or a party. They would pay my cover, give me gas money, and buy my food. This probably wouldn’t work today now that Uber and Lyft exists, but it was a good side hustle back in the day (seriously, I feel old).

My proud dad, taking a photo of me at my undergrad graduation at Christian Brothers University in May 2012

Social stuff aside, I was there to get my degree, first and foremost. By sophomore year, I discovered a love for cognitive neuroscience and changed my major to Psychology. I still wasn’t strong in math, but I made it through pre-cal and chem, albeit with Cs. But I made it through. I even completed my practicum in a cognitive neuroscience lab at the University of Memphis. It was a mouse lab which was a really cool first lab experience.

I began to think that maybe a PhD in Neuroscience would be a good path, or even medical school. I also went to a law school fair and toured a few law schools for the hell of it. But I didn’t want to sue people or work in criminal law, and at the time, I thought that was all law school would lead to.

The summer after graduation, I was given the coolest opportunity any 22-year-old, new grad could receive. I was selected for a paid research internship in Brazil for 10 weeks through the MHIRT program. Just a few weeks after graduation, I was on a plane for my first trip abroad, and I was doing it alone. Yes, there were other interns, and yes, I had a roommate, but I was nowhere near my friends and family. It was scary, but also extremely exciting. I was placed in a biochemistry lab where I dissected cowpea weevil larvae and learned to run assays. Almost no one in my lab spoke English, and I had to learn Portuguese on the fly. It was cool as hell.

Praia da Joaquina (Joaquina Beach), Florianópolis, Brasil

When I came back home, I toyed with the idea of going to medical school. After working in two different labs in 6 months, including one abroad, I was more confident in my science abilities. But going to med school meant that I needed 18 hours of additional undergrad credits, including calculus. I didn’t know if I would succeed, but I was going to try. I enrolled in the additional courses, had 0 drive, and bombed.

At the time, I was interning at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital on a pediatric cardiology research project. I told one of the doctors at the clinic about my lack of passion. I suddenly didn’t care about school. He asked me what I wanted to do, so I told him about my ultimate goal of wanting to work in health policy. He laughed and said, “You should probably go to law school.”

In the 8 months following that conversation, I took the LSAT, applied to law schools, and started my first semester at the University of Memphis School of Law.

Just before my law school graduation in May 2017

I learned about health law and the different types of work that health lawyers do. I realized that I wouldn’t be tied to a courtroom and that a law degree would open many more doors to do health policy work. As an added bonus, I found out that the university was starting a new dual degree program where law students could get their Master of Public Health degrees at the same time. I began the dual JD/MPH program my 2L year, and while I was very busy and very tired, I was finally feeling the drive and passion that I had lost.

Law school wasn’t a walk in the park by any means. It was one of the most stressful experiences I have ever had. Much to people’s surprise, I have a Type B personality. I finished undergrad with a B-average GPA, and I refuse to sacrifice my mental health for an exam. So being surrounded by a lot of Type A overachievers was overwhelming at times. I did a decent job of blending in, doing moot court competitions, working in legal clinics, and doing research assistant work. I published articles and did all of the right overachiever things. But at the end of the day, I was just as happy with my As as I was with my Cs.

My master’s project defense, June 2017

At 27, I was finally done with school. I had my BA, JD, and MPH, and with those, a hefty six-figure student loan debt balance. But even more shocking was that I actually had a job, and a good job at that. I was one of the lucky few who had a position lined up before graduation, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. I moved to Washington, DC shortly after graduation and dove right into public health law policy. I still don’t really know how I got here, and there is only one explanation that I can think of: I just kept trying new things.

Now, I’m not saying don’t have a plan, and I am definitely not saying to be irresponsible. My carpe diem approach to going to law school was crazy, and expensive investments like that should be thought through more (for real — think twice before you borrow that money). My advice is if you are unsure about where to go next, that is okay. There is no reason not to apply for that internship abroad. Don’t be afraid to work in a lab or tutor or volunteer in another state or whatever it is that sounds interesting and cool. As cheesy as it sounds, life is too short not to.

So go forth, be awesome, and don’t get into debt. If you do, then let us all pray for some loan forgiveness!

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