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A prescription for vocation

“So what’s your major?”

“I’m a triple major in German, computer science and math – that’s all for now, I think. What about you?”

“I’m going pre-med.”

About 60 to 70 Oles apply to medical school every year, although the numbers may vary slightly depending on how one defines the pre-med. Kevin Crisp, an associate professor of biology at St. Olaf, hazards a conservative guess that there are 250 pre-med students currently at St. Olaf.

Each year, numerous first years come in dedicated to the pre-med track, determined to live up to its high academic expectations.

“Each fall, close to 100 incoming first-year students attend the pre-health medical, dental information session . . .” Crisp said.

However, the path is hardly an easy one. St. Olaf’s pre-med track is unique from other colleges’ in that there is not a specific pre-med major. Although the track has many forms, most individuals major in some form of the sciences: chemistry, biology or physics.

“To be honest, I am okay with biology and chemistry but they’re not my passions,” Brendan Johnson ’15 said. “I chose math and Norwegian because I want to major in something I am passionate about that also shows I have the ability to think in a scientific, technical way.”

Due to the large number of courses necessary for the track, most students begin the process their first year, though with careful planning, starting as late as sophomore year is possible.

“I have always loved the idea of helping people and I really enjoy being in the hospital,” Olivia Manfield ’15 said. “So, I thought, what the heck! I might as well still try, even though I’m a sophomore. I love the idea of medicine and what it can do for people.”

Preparation proves particularly essential if students wish to double major, study abroad or take certain classes outside of the track. Many of the courses students take sophomore or junior year – for example, organic chemistry and physics – are year-long courses, making it especially difficult to find time to study abroad.

“I looked at doing Global, but it would force me to take organic chemistry sophomore year and physics senior year, meaning I would need to take the MCAT after I graduate, instead of junior/senior year as most pre-med students do,” Johnson said. “So, I’ve had to keep my study abroad options limited to summer and interim.”

If a semester of study abroad doesn’t fit into a pre-med student’s schedule, other options exist. The St. Olaf Global Medical Brigade – a student-led global health and sustainable development organization – will be traveling to Honduras this winter to implement medical clinics in rural communities, as well as educate locals on how to operate the clinics.

The upcoming trip takes place over interim break, providing an alternate opportunity for pre-med students to travel abroad while also gaining valuable medical experience for their futures.

“The thing I am most excited for is the opportunity to travel to a foreign place, see firsthand the medical problems the area is dealing with and be able to provide help,” Moriah Novacinski ’14 said.

In addition to a vigorous academic workload, going pre-med also consists of many extracurricular activities. Novacinski completed internships in the summers after her first and sophomore years – a common trajectory for pre-med students hoping to gain experience in the lab.

“Pre-med students have to take a heavy homework load immediately, be an active volunteer, gain research experiences, take MCAT classes and so on,” Novacinski said.

Between volunteering at the hospital to gain real-life medical experience and studying, Johnson realized he needed to make sacrifices in terms of his free time.

“I have had to choose certain clubs to put more effort into and not join lots of clubs I want to,” Johnson said. “I have also had to not try for leadership positions in clubs I want to. So, it’s possible to stay involved; you just need to be deliberate about what you really want to be doing, and prioritize accordingly.”

The rigid pre-health scheduling can also sow doubt in students’ minds. Intensive workloads and constant concerns about life after St. Olaf can be overwhelming.

“I definitely have questioned whether this path is for me,” Novacinski said. “I worry about the costs, about what to do if I don’t get the MCAT score [I need] or get into the medical school that I want.”

Only one physics class away from completing the necessary pre-med classes, Stephen Sweeney ’15 experienced a change of heart.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore,” Sweeney said. “Now, I am determined to be a music teacher, so I immediately changed my course load for my last two and half years at St. Olaf in order to get my bachelor of music education degree.

Despite the strenuous nature of the pre-med track, for Novacinski – as well as many other pre-med students – the desire to make a difference in the world through medicine fuels the journey.

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