UW-Madison senior shares her undergraduate experience and how her life and career path changed after joining a student organization.
“Okay, let’s just do a quick introduction in our small groups and have everyone say their name, major, and what they hope to do after graduation!” It was freshman year at kick-off meeting of a student organization. I had just nearly failed my first chemistry exam, and it was the first time I had no idea how to answer this icebreaker question.
My transition to college was harder than I expected, emotionally and academically, and I added to the difficulty by being too ashamed to admit I was struggling. I avoided my friends from high school, because I thought they had this image of me as a perfect student, and I didn’t want to tarnish that reputation. I was too young to realize that my grade school friends may have seen me this way because I was one of the only Asian-Americans in a predominantly white town. I had molded myself to fit their stereotype so it would easier for me to fit in. It was hard for me to make new friends, because my previous friend-making model of being in the same classes and activities with people for twelve years where my reputation preceded me wasn’t working anymore. I told my parents that everything was fine – more than fine, great in fact – in every weekly phone call. Even the thought of letting them know their “perfect” daughter was crumbling under the pressure of expectations and barely finding the motivation to get up every morning paralyzed me and kept me from seeking help. We didn’t talk about mental health problems in our family. Years later, my parents told me they knew I was struggling the whole time.
I had come into college with a set plan. I was going to be pre-med as an economics major. I would find a volunteer opportunity, a pre-med student organization, and a biomedical or clinical lab research position. I was going to pass my classes with flying colors, just as I always had done.
What I failed to realize was that at that point in my life, I had yet to form my own identity and goals based on my own likes, dislikes, and opinions. My identity was only comprised of how I saw myself through the reflection of other people – good student, good daughter, hard worker, would make a good doctor. And I had yet to develop the self-reflective toolbox that would allow me to differentiate between the descriptors that were true, the ones that were placed on me based on race and gender stereotypes, and those that began as stereotypical assessments that I grew to accept, and even revel in. I had never asked myself “Do I really want to study medicine, or is having MD after my name just a sure-fire way to prove that I’ve been academically successful and fulfill everyone’s expectations of me?”
That day, at my first student organization meeting, I introduced myself as the person I thought I was supposed to be, thinking that my doubts about medical school would be fleeting and were just an overreaction to doing poorly on my first college exam. It took me over two years to realize that, in fact, the person I was becoming and the interests I was developing, was different from the person I thought I’d be.
The student organization I was joining that night was Wisconsin MEDLIFE – a global health nonprofit. MEDLIFE has chapters around the world committed to helping low-income families develop their communities by improving access to medical and educational resources. At the time, I had no idea how this organization would change the course of my college career. MEDLIFE was the first time I had truly learned about Global Health or knew of it as an academic and professional field. Prior to that experience, I thought the extent of Global Health was practicing medicine abroad. I had always been interested in income inequality and the unequal development of nations, which is why I majored in applied economics, but MEDLIFE is where I first became aware of how interrelated poverty, inequality, health, and development were. By the end of my freshman year, I began to pursue a certificate in Global Health. The next year, I spent my winter break in Lima, Peru, leading a MEDLIFE Service Learning Trip. This trip cemented my passion for global health. It had been the first time where I witnessed how extreme poverty and inequality can drastically impact health and educational outcomes for generations.
Just a few months after my trip to Peru, I was back on a plane — this time headed to Tanzania to study abroad and teach adolescents about HIV prevention and treatment. I met many young Tanzanians on that trip that reminded me of my friends and me. They listened to the same music, had the same teenage drama, wanted to become lawyers and doctors and fashion designers, but they faced disproportionately high risks of HIV, malaria, and TB exposure through no fault of their own. I never wanted to be someone that said “Africa changed me,” but I have to admit that I think of those students often. With each global health experience, I began to question more and more if medicine was the right path for me. Two years done with college, I began to consider other options for my future, but I didn’t know exactly where to start.
Luckily for me, I knew I was interested in research early. As a freshman, I applied to be a part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS). Through this program, there is a matching period at the beginning where the student looks through binders of participating labs, then sends out emails in the hopes of being offered an interview. After the interview, the student waits for offers, then gets to make a final decision. After my interviews were done, I had three vastly different offers: biomedical research in a pulmonary medicine lab, helping draft a book in the urban and regional planning department, or studying soil microbiology in a plant pathology lab. Though it may have made more sense for a pre-med student to choose pulmonary medicine, I ultimately chose plant pathology because I was more drawn to the idea of contributing to sustainable agriculture, and how microbiology could shape food systems and lead to community development. I loved my time in the Lankau Lab, and I left after two years having learned about soil microbiomes, bioinformatics, genetics, and most importantly- what it was like to be in a, supportive, and collaborative research atmosphere where I was trusted to carry on work independently. As a bonus, I learned how fascinating the field of genetics was, and began to pursue a second major.
The solid foundation that I gained in research and critical thinking about science from the URS program and Lankau Lab gave me the confidence to begin pursuing research and internships more related to the career I wanted to have. After I gave myself the freedom to look at other options for my future, I seriously considered research as a profession for the first time and became drawn to the idea of using my background in genetics and economics to research solutions for global health challenges. I pushed myself to write down everything I’d be interested in studying and reached out to professors and scientists on campus that were already doing the type of research I wanted to do. During the summer before junior year, at the halfway point of college, I began my independent research combining genetics, economics, and public health under the mentorship of Dr. Jason Fletcher where I am now studying the cost-effectiveness and policy implications of using genetic screening to decrease malaria prevalence. Additionally, I had landed an internship at the Center for Women’s Health Research, where I was given the opportunity to learn about and better articulate the challenges that face women and minorities in academia, especially in STEM fields.
Contrary to the expectation that changing the course of my academic and professional career would lead to an identity crisis, I felt more comfortable with myself than ever before. Finding a field that I loved made it easier to find friends with similar interests, and I’ve learned just as much from the different perspectives and backgrounds of my peers as I have in class. Though I was initially afraid to tell my parents that my decade-long “dream” of being a doctor had changed, their unwavering support for me when they realized that I found what I am passionate about moved me and inspired me to tell them openly about the rocky and wavering road I had. I doubt I’ll ever shed the influences that the self-fulfilling prophecies of stereotype threat have had on me, but I’m now much better at differentiating between the people who are looking at me as a single representation of Asian-American women and want me to say something that fits the bill and the people who see me as an individual with unique aspirations, experiences, and failures.
Public Health research wasn’t even on my radar when I started school. Today, I am confident that it is the work I want to be doing for the next few years. I am now wise enough to know that I don’t have to plan out my entire career right now. College has been an unpredictable journey the whole way through – with each triumph followed by an existential crisis, and vice versa. It is a journey that is impossible to through alone, and I am thankful to the friends who have stuck with me through 2am tears in College Library to eating ice cream for meals. I am also endlessly grateful to all of my mentors who have supported me and opened doors for me.
This year, I will be president of Wisconsin MEDLIFE. Of course, I would love it if everyone was impacted as I was and choose to pursue a career in public health. But what I really hope is that when I ask everyone to participate in the icebreaker, those who don’t know how to answer, feel comfortable saying so, and those who do continue to stay open to how their experiences in college will shape their goals and their identity. I hope that when they look at me, they see someone who has gotten here through years of pushing myself to answer the question “What do I want to do?” honestly. Most of all, I hope that they don’t feel they are alone in their uncertainty and struggle, and that it takes them a far shorter time than it took me to seek help when they need to, even if it means opening up to someone who seemingly has it all figured out. Because the truth is, no one really does.
By Diane Xue, Senior, Genetics and Applied Economics dual-major, Class of 2019
Diane Xue is also a UW-Madison STEM Diversity Intern (2018-19)
Links to more STEM student organizations can be found here on our website: stemdiversity.wisc.edu