Essay and photos by Audrey Ward
Last year, I walked away from my spot in the doctoral program of Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill and moved to Burundi for nine months.
If you want to know what that decision felt like, go ahead and have The Talk with that boyfriend you know you should have broken up with a month ago. Or lose your GPS on a hike to a spectacular view but find the trail again by yourself. Or strap yourself into a 150-ft high roller coaster while half your friends and family yell out statistics about amusement park deaths.
Essentially, I experienced all the extremes of relief, panic, anticipation, anxiety, and confidence (not necessarily in that order).
To quickly summarize the last year and a half of my life: I had jumped straight from graduating as an English major at Samford University in the spring of 2015 into my first fall semester at Chapel Hill, determined to plow through a PhD in record time. But by October, I began to question whether a career in academia was actually for me. At the same time, I realized that my earlier interest in medicine was growing rather gracefully exiting. Several months of panicked soul-searching ensued. I talked to professors, to doctors, to family members, to friends, to God. Was I just temporarily crazy or did I actually want to change careers? To make a long story shorter, by the following February I decided it was time to step off the academic hamster wheel for a year and contribute to something outside my own career path.
Serendipitously, at the same time, a team of American medical families in Burundi was looking for another teacher to educate their kids. Burundi is a small East African country, shaped like a human heart and nestled in green hills below Rwanda and the Congo. It is a country shaken by decades of civil war and one of the poorest on the continent, with little access to medical care. In a small rural area called Kibuye, there is a hospital where most of the medical students in the country go on rotation. The American doctors here are committed to training a generation of medical students so they can become leaders and excellent doctors in their own country. Moving their families far away from typical American school settings, the doctors still want academic excellence for their own children as well.
So, here I am in Kibuye. I’m allowing myself to pause, to stop trying to get ahead in life goals. I’m teaching the kids of American doctors, who in turn are here to train Burundian medical students. In my free time, I’m observing at the hospital, hoping to confirm my new desire to apply to medical school.
From literature to medicine is a difficult jump even to explain. As a member of a generation that often defines identity in terms of passion for a particular career, such a transition feels deeply disorienting. I worked hard to form myself into a PhD candidate, defending the importance of liberal arts to skeptical relatives and spending hours writing and rewriting a statement of purpose when I applied. If I admit my innermost self-flattery, I had constructed an identity that felt sophisticated and accomplished.
Recently, I was reflecting on one of the tough sayings of Jesus: “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Of course, here, he’s talking soul-level stuff. Still, it made me remember the blithely noble, watered-down version that often pops up on the inspirational section of Pinterest, against a background of some skinny girl standing triumphantly on a cliff: If you want to find yourself, lose yourself. Ah, yes. How nice. But I’ve found that deliberately setting aside the self you’ve constructed so far, walking away—that abandonment is messy. It might even feel like a betrayal.
So, even after I finally printed it in February 2016, the blank “Request for Leave of Absence” form sat accusingly on my desk for weeks. It dared me to formally admit that I had failed to live up to the self I had busily projected to the world over the past two years. It waited for me to recant some of my dearest inward self-definitions, such as I don’t quit. It threatened me with the possibility that other people might think I’m crazy.
The scariest part of making the decision to change careers is that there seems to be an unspoken expectation among millennials that you must discover your one true passion to become a complete person. As long as you find that one passion, you’ll have meaning and purpose. But what if you’re like me, enchanted by multiple avenues but not absolutely compelled to just one? The obsession with choosing or discovering a passion creates a crushing standard few can realistically meet.
The most frustrating advice I have encountered on my journey has been given me multiple times, both when I considered a PhD program in literature and when I started thinking about applying to medical school: “Well, you’ll be able to do it as long as you’re absolutely certain that you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.”
That advice seems suspect to me. Well, of course I’m not absolutely certain! In fact, I’m reasonably happy right now teaching second grade science in a tiny expat community in the middle of rural Burundi. It’s an experience which somehow never made it to my list of dream, or even expected, jobs. So does my flexibility disqualify me?
Obviously, I want to work where I can fulfill some basic desires—interesting problems to solve, people to learn, skills to offer. I also have some reasons to choose medicine over literature: I want to offer physical help in a way that also offers respect and love; I even have an almost intangible gut-level pull towards the medical profession. But I don’t want my profession to define me.
In researching different careers, I’ve read a lot of terrifying articles about skyrocketing suicide and depression rates for medical and humanities students. I suspect that these rates have less to do with the brutality of the work schedule and more to do with the fact that we’ve been taught that our very selves depend on success in our chosen career. We split their souls for our passion, turning medical school or a PhD program into a kind of horcrux. Even a small failure is an attack on our very being. Maybe finding yourself is not dictated by filling some ideal slot in the universe but by growing roots of identity deeply enough that you can weather bad days with grace and courage no matter what job you have.
If I end up going back into the grad/medical school environment, what I already learned this year in Burundi will be invaluable: I’m finding joy in loosening my grip on what I want to force my life to look like, even when it means entering a parallel universe where I have the competency of a toddler.
Case in point: the most difficult thing I did yesterday was to buy two avocados. Two avocados. A simple task that, a few months ago, wouldn’t have even registered on a list of “hard things to do.” But it took me two attempts to work up the courage to walk up the path behind the hospital to the market where I clumsily approached a woman with one of my four words in Kirundi and gestured and generally felt like a fool as I accepted two avocados, gave her the smallest bill I had, and waited to see if she would give me more produce or give me change. (I was pretty sure that the money was worth more than two avocados, but I have no vocabulary for bartering.) She did neither, so I slowly backed away as she laughed and waved. I clutched my avocados, heart pounding, and walked out of the market followed by dozens of bemused stares.
In the gritty, sometimes embarrassing, process of starting at square one, I’m slowly learning to root myself in something deeper than career. If an identity can be unraveled by a change in place or career or competency, than that one-dimensional self is worth betraying to find the real thing.
For me, at least, that involves strengthening my faith in a God who says that my value as a human being in the universe is distinct from what I can accomplish. This goes back to that quote from Jesus. I’m learning to lose my self-constructed life identity, which is constantly under the threat of my own imperfections, for the sake of drawing my identity from a God who loves me unconditionally. Digging deeper roots into my faith is bringing me freedom to try new things, to fail, to learn, and to enjoy the process.
The best advice I’ve received on my journey over the past year, which convinced me to take the chance to live in Burundi, was this: “You’re young. You need a year without structure to just be, to explore who you are apart from your career plans. You have the rest of your life for all of that. So enjoy!”
Audrey Ward is a teacher in Burundi. Driven Media is excited to have her as a contributor in the Fall 2016 self-acceptance essay series.