When I was in high school, I remembered debating for a really, really long time what I wanted to study in university. I knew what academic subjects I was particularly good at, what I was really, really bad at, and what subjects I found to be especially intriguing. I was good at history, a bit of a struggler in the sciences, and deeply passionate about what I now understand to be sociology. Beyond this, I had it stuck in my mind that what I majored in undergrad must directly relate to what career I ultimately would take on post-grad. Balancing a profound excitement for social justice and the glimmering hopes of my self-proclaimed tiger mom, my attempts at channeling all of these thoughts and opinions into some kind of major caused me to be more confused than before. I wanted to take these pieces and lend into some sort of study – a life path that would ultimately bring me somewhere that made me happy on all of these fronts.
Chief Medical Officer for PIH, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, working one on one with a patient in rural Haiti.
But I was ultimately able to come up with a formal version of a major. Whatsmore, I came up with a potential career plan that fit all of my key points. I hope to one day work as an OBGYN (obstetrician/gynecologist) for an NGO that does long term health infrastructure development in Southeast Asia. I knew the what, I knew the how, and in knowing that this was a direction that made me happy, I knew a bit of why. But my ‘why’ was solidified in working with Partners in Health, a health infrastructure NGO, this summer.
Partners in Health operates with the following as a long-form mission statement; “At its root, our mission is both medical and moral. It is based on solidarity, rather than charity alone. When a person in Peru, or Siberia, or rural Haiti falls ill, PIH uses all of the means at our disposal to make them well—from pressuring drug manufacturers, to lobbying policy makers, to providing medical care and social services. Whatever it takes. Just as we would do if a member of our own family—or we ourselves—were ill.”
It was not until being faced by banners around the office that proudly served as daily reminders of this statement that I internalized the importance of long term health infrastructure. In the past, as I was formulating my future plans, I thought of working with organizations like Doctors without Borders; emergency medical relief programs. While Doctors without Borders certainly is an essential NGO, my heart finds more of a kinship with Partners in Health and their mission to structural development of healthcare infrastructure. With an organization like Doctors without Borders, crisis; be it war, a natural disaster, a civil conflict, or other emergency event, is required for a form of intervention. Once the crisis is nearly over Doctors without Borders tends to leave the area. I once read in a Doctors without Borders memory book “Hope in Hell” that some global posts are abandoned if the estimated time slated to complete the intervention surpasses a few years. It’s not a bad model. But to me, it feels that that short-term approach overlooks a crucial point – the crisis, whatever that might be, is often the boiling point for structural inequity within that nation. A natural disaster is so devastating because access to clean water was already so limited before it. War or civil conflict has such horrible, horrible consequences because of pre-existing structures of violence and unrest. Crisis is not the problem; it’s a consequence of a problem. In approaching healthcare with a full understanding and undertaking of structural violence, Partners in Health is different.
Patients under the care of Doctors without Borders, a crisis-prevention healthcare NGO.
Thinking about what I did this summer, and how that translates into what I want to do in the future, both in and beyond my career, I want to go back to what I ended up studying during my four years at Brandeis. I am currently a double major in Biology and International and Global Studies, making my way through the pre-health track. I’m also minoring in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, supplementing both my global and clinical perspective with these essential lenses. I think about the full education I received by being an undergraduate at Brandeis and how that has effected and shaped my perspective on health, healthcare access, and the global community. And I think back on the summer that I spent at Partners in Health, in many ways the intersection of all of my academic passions at Brandeis. From the three or so months I spent at the organization, I learned a lot about the why of my intended career choice; both why I wanted to pursue the career path I did and why it made sense in the larger context of the world. As I finish my undergraduate career up this May, and begin another academic journey into medical school, I hope that I might take with me lessons of true, sustainable development work and an even deeper dedication to healthcare for the poor.
A PIH project; the layout for the new Zanmi Lasante Hospital to be build in rural Haiti.
“What I tell my students all the time is: you speak English, you have a passport, you have a responsibility to use those tools. Go see these places and talk about them. Write about them. Be an advocate. It’s a huge job, but the coolest thing ever is to change the world.”
– Joia Mukherjee, Chief Medical Officer of Partners in Health
See Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl, Joia Mukherjee and many, many other amazing people speak this weekend at the Millennium Campus Conference!
An article by Joia Mukherjee, “Structural Violence, Poverty, and the AIDS Pandemic”
Learn more about Partners in Health in this “Global Journal” article.
– Sarah Van Buren ’13
One thought on “Picking a Major, Following a Career”
Hi Sarah, your experience is very inspiring! I, too, sometimes feel very confused as to what I can do to combine all of my diverse interests into a couple majors and a minor, when I have only 4 years for college. I was wondering how you came to decide on all your majors/minors and if you found in the long run that they were much more similar and overlapping studies that you had originally thought.
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