During the fall of 2015 I was finishing up my last semester of college. The arduous medical school application process was in full throttle and the dream I had of going to medical school, was now, alarmingly and excitingly, so close I could almost grasp it. As I wrapped up my undergrad career, I had yet to figure out exactly what I would do for the next eight months before, hopefully, starting medical school. I felt obligated to get an internship or a job and continue my self-imposed productivity. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do nothing.
By nothing, of course, I meant nothing to enhance my resume. While I loved putting my energy into my passions and schoolwork as a pre-med student, there was no doubt that I needed a break before starting medical school. I wanted to travel and see things I’d never seen before, meet people from the other side of the world, and eat really good food. And with that, two college friends and I booked round trip tickets to Bangkok, Thailand. In February of 2016, I was a college graduate, accepted to medical school, and ready for an adventure. My friends and I spent three weeks in Southeast Asia, starting in Bangkok and then working our way through Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Georgetown, Malaysia and lastly the beautiful island of Koh Samet in Thailand. While in Kuala Lumpur, a driver roped us into a full day excursion that involved us seeing a large waterfall, meeting some monkeys with no sense of personal space, feeding eagles while on a boat with some very loud strangers, and finally seeing fireflies light up trees like Christmas lights. At the end, the driver tried to overcharge us, but we negotiated with him and got him to bring it down to a fair price. Being assertive was an empowering moment for me and even though some of it was out of my comfort zone, it was a fun, spontaneous day that I’ll always remember.
On my second trip, my friend from high school and I went to Stockholm, Sweden, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Helsinki, Finland. In Copenhagen, we went on several walking tours. On one we learned about the Danish welfare system. As an American, I grew up being taught that our country’s way of doing everything was best. I grew up thinking that our method of governing our people and running our economy was second to none and a government run any other way was less effective and possibly dangerous. Learning about the Danish welfare system, which provides its university students with free education and a stipend, offers free medical services to all its citizens, and has one of the highest taxation levels in the world, was fascinating. Going to Scandinavia and seeing how people lived under laws and programs that many Americans are fundamentally against did not make me any more or less patriotic, but it definitely made me more open-minded to different types of government. It also helped me understand how the nuances of the values and culture of a nation can influence the way that they prefer to be governed.
To finish off my whirlwind adventure, I traveled through Italy and visited Zurich, Switzerland with my mom, aunts, and cousin. Visiting ancient Roman ruins was like having my middle school ancient history textbook come alive, Michelangelo’s David in Florence is by far the most mesmerizing piece of art I have ever seen, and I will never get sick of eating Italian food. Surprisingly though, it was my sense of direction that benefitted most from this trip. I will be the first to admit that I am terrible when it comes to navigation. I am that person who will have to make a complete 180 because I’ve been walking the wrong way for the last five minutes (even with my GPS on). I sometimes blindly follow friends to wherever we are going because I have no sense of direction or spatial orientation and trying to follow a map flusters me. However, being the youngest, most technology-savvy person on this trip meant that I was also navigator. Without an international data plan, I planned each day the night before while I had Wi-Fi, meticulously taking screenshots of the directions from one attraction to another. There was, without a doubt, a lot of time spent walking in the wrong direction, trying to get help from locals who didn’t speak English, and getting on public transportation hoping that we were going the right way. But, as is usually the case with anything, with a lot of practice, I got better, and I hope to be lost a lot less now.
I visited eight countries between graduating college and starting medical school because I wanted a break from studying, medical school applications, research, and everything else that had been consuming my time for the last three and a half years. I went on trips in search of doing “nothing”, but reflecting on the experience, I realize now that my travels taught me a lot. For those of us on the way to being a physician, it’s easy to slip into the thought process that every second not actively working toward being a more impressive pre-med student, medical school applicant, or medical student is a step backwards from our professional goals. We often forget that the time we don’t spend as students can be just as valuable to us, not just as future physicians, but also as interesting, well-adjusted human beings. I am far more culturally aware than I was eight months ago and I believe that will help me greatly as I interact with patients. But after my travels, I’ve found that I am also more comfortable talking to strangers, more knowledgeable about social welfare systems and art, and I am no longer completely clueless when it comes to navigation. I may have not done anything resume-worthy over the last few months, but the time I spent away from my books and outside of my comfort zone has added to who I am as a person. I am more confident, mature, recharged and ready to tackle medical school.
About Tejasvi Gowda
Tejasvi Gowda is a first year medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Originally from West Windsor, New Jersey, Tejasvi received her Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Carnegie Mellon University where she discovered her interests in community outreach and working with underserved and uninsured populations. Tejasvi hopes to incorporate writing into her professional journey as means of self-reflection and helping other prospective physicians.