I consider myself part of a group that juggles two identities – I am too Pakistani for Americans and too American for Pakistanis. I have left a part of myself in all the places I have inhabited but it’s the price you pay for wanting to broaden your perspective. This concept of dual identities has perpetuated through other aspects of my life as well. When I left Pakistan to attend Pomona College, I was introduced to a world of opportunities with almost unlimited access. I had wanted to be a doctor but as I took part in different activities, I could see myself in roles beyond catering to a patient population. In the first half of each summer, I used to take part in SURP research and the other half was dedicated to documentary making to shed some light on social issues that afflicted Pakistani society. I soon realized that I had become a misfit among the premed community. People often questioned the relevance of my journalistic and or advocacy ventures to medicine. Even academically, I found myself getting attracted to classes that dealt with a 10,000 feet perspective on humans than a molecular approach. I was a hard-core scientist at heart but my thoughts pervaded other disciplines. Confusion took over as external questions became internal dilemmas.
As an international student, you often have to think a few steps ahead of your domestic colleagues. You have added pressures of keeping tab of all the visa and work restrictions. Traditional logic indicated that it was best for me to stay in the US post graduation if I wanted to go to medical school here and opt for a healthcare related activity. However, I decided to risk it all by accepting the Watson Fellowship. I left the US knowing that I may not be able to come back. During college, I was extremely interested in public health. My interest became even stronger as a Watson Fellow so much so that I no longer wanted to put off a Masters in Public Health. I was fortunate enough to get an F1 visa to pursue an MPH at Emory University. The more I studied public health, the more I realized the importance of medicine in public health. It was then that I decided to apply to a few medical schools without having any backups – a fatal mistake on my part. I didn’t get into any medical school and by then, I had graduated with an MPH. I was offered an amazing fellowship at CDC. However, as an international student wanting to work in a federal institution meant that I could not be sponsored for an H1B visa. My only option was a J visa that required me to work in Pakistan post fellowship for a few years. Fortunately, a mentor and former employer (who also happens to be a die hard Pomona fan and alumnus) reached out with a job opportunity that promised an H1B visa. For the past 1.5 years, I have been working in a research lab while preparing and applying to medical schools. I have had a line up of amazing mentors along the way whose unflinching support has resulted in a few medical school acceptances this year.
Looking back at these past 8 years in the US, it may sound like a coherent story where every move seems strategic. However, having lived this story, I know that many parts were never able to fit together. I chose to tell my story in the disjointed pieces, as I dealt with them. I have been incredibly lucky most of the time but I also think that an inherent stubborn desire to listen to my gut feeling has probably played some part in determining the nature of my story. Most people I know have opted for a traditional route to medicine but I decided to find my own reasoning, in the backdrop of many challenges that come with being international (and broke).
Take home points: It is not necessary to conform to one single identity, culture, or traditions. It is perfectly fine to have multiple interests, explore, and cultivate them. Take calculated risks. Carve your own path. Solicit advice from a variety of people but weigh in your internal compass and see where it wants you to go. Have backups, and foster relationships with people far and wide. You never know who wants to shelter you from the scorching heat of life and help propel you towards your destination.