It seems like every day I get another recruiting email from this graduate school or that graduate school. Some of them are on-point (“Come to our online open house and learn about what a career in public health can do for you!”). Some of them…not so much (“Live and work in New York while pursuing an MA in art and design!”). I read through all of them (except for the art and design ones) and then just leave them in my inbox, presumably to revisit on another day. Schools get added to and from my list of schools I want to apply to/am actively applying to all the time. I am doing this in a semi-orderly fashion, filing schools under online/on-campus/hybrid, making note of application fees, letting my references know where and when to send a letter praising my various quirks and qualities.
There’s just one problem. I honestly can’t tell if my heart is really in this or not.
This afternoon I received a text message that got the wheels in my head turning. “I have a painting related question: I want to start painting, I have no clue where to begin! Can you help/guide me?”
My first question: “What medium do you want to paint with?”
My second question: “What kind of stuff do you want to paint?”
There’s a reason I asked those questions in that order. I don’t care why anyone wants to paint or, really, do any art. Art has its own value. But from a practical standpoint, you need to know where you’re starting.
The first time I had a panic attack I didn’t recognize what I was experiencing.
It was an odd time to have a panic attack. I was out on the Blue Ridge Parkway late at night with my best friend, who was driving. We were listening to Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia album, which was one of a handful of CDs we could agree we both loved for those long late-night drives. I had just moved back to Asheville to resume school after a yearlong absence. Classes hadn’t started yet. There was no other traffic, and both starry sky and winding road were clear, but suddenly my entire body was seized with an all-consuming need to go home. My heart was pounding, my face was burning. I told my best friend I wasn’t feeling well. We went home. Once I was back in my dorm room, I felt a sense of relief. I was safe.
It happened again a few days later. I was at another friend’s apartment, drinking tea and talking on a cozy evening just after classes had started. I had had a good day. There was no obvious reason why I would be anxious. But there I was, watching the clock and trying to figure out how long I had to stay before I could escape back to my dorm room where I felt safe. This was no ordinary Attack Of The Introvert. This was something darker.
Around 10:30 last night, I found myself staring at a submit button. This submit button was small, humble even, yet clicking it was kind of the equivalent of jumping out of a plane. That submit button would send 3 messy, painful applications to 3 different MPH programs–all of them programs I would love to get into. There’s something funny yet nerve-clawing that my top 3 were all due on the same day, that I had to submit those before I was really ready, before I’d even sorted out some last details of graduation from NMU. The feeling as I submitted them was not unlike the feeling I had at commencement: a sense of vague, dull panic twining sinuously around a cloud of this can’t actually be happening.
But it did happen. I submitted. The world moved on and I moved with it.
I don’t know what my chances are of getting into any of those programs. I am skeptical, yet optimistic, as I am with many things in my life. I would be thrilled to attend any of the three schools; I looked through their programs carefully, painstakingly even, consulted my research advisor and my life/academic advisor alike. I had my professors look over the rough draft and the less rough draft and the final draft of my statement of purpose; people on Twitter who I love and respect offered input as well. I looked at the cities in which the schools are located (I’ve only visited one of the cities in question, and even then, it was a brief flurry of activity at the airport and then a long drive out of the city). I have friends in all three states, though that doesn’t necessarily matter–when I moved to Marquette, I knew no one, and was profoundly lucky that I had friends from Michigan who had friends who lived in Marquette who were willing to pick me up at the airport and help me carry my stuff into my new apartment. Every camp I’ve ever worked at, aside from the summer I spent in Virginia, I went into the job not knowing anyone. I’m not afraid to be a stranger in a strange land.
…which is good, because in so many ways, my decision to apply for MPH programs, rather than continuing on with microbiology, is the very definition of being a stranger in a strange land.
It happened a lot.
“And this is our art director, Goose,” My boss said, introducing me to the parents who were visiting our camp (or visiting members from the council that owned our camp, or any number of other people).
I smiled. “It’s nice to meet y’all.”
The mother tilted her head. “You…don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“No, ma’am. I’m from North Carolina.”
My boss grinned, a hint of amusement. She’d once told me she loved the looks on people’s faces when she introduced me to them; I was not unlike a lost tropical bird to many people, even in Pennsylvania. “And she goes to school in Michigan.”
“Oh, are you studying art?” the father asked.
“No, sir. Biology. Microbiology, specifically.”
Both parents stopped and stared at me. You could see the wheels turning, trying to understand how all the pieces of me that they had just been handed fit together, how any of it made sense. My boss just beamed. I smiled too. I never really got tired of the confusion either. I earned that quiet little mischief.
On a chilly day in January 2009 I found myself signing up for classes at the community college near my hometown in NC. I had previously attended a 4-year university about 4 hours from my home, and was, frankly, still stunned over how quickly my life had changed when I had finally told my parents that I just could not go back to that school, that my mental health just couldn’t handle it anymore. Somewhere underneath the blank pale mask of shock was anger, thrumming low and deep, that I had to take a college algebra class before I could work on any of my dreaded math requirements. I didn’t want to take an algebra class, I didn’t want to take any math class that I didn’t have to, because math wasn’t just something I loathed, it was something I feared: I had been diagnosed with dyscalculia the previous spring, and I still wasn’t entirely sure that there was even a place for someone like me in the science world.
In hindsight, that math class is possibly the best damn thing that ever happened to me. Because I learned not just how to finally do math I was supposed to figure out in high school (and never did), I learned a lot about, well, learning.