I haven't been tending this blog in the way I like for a couple of months. That will change soon, for sure. And for now, how about a version of the essay I'm submitting with my grad school applications? I promise it's more like a blog entry than an app essay is. Oh academia, I want to come back to you. Kinda-sorta-sometimes. Anyway, I'm not sure that this is less interesting to you than what I usually post. So here it goes.
My time with the Peace Corps in Senegal has completely changed the way I envision spending the rest of my life. I had studied philosophy and been focused on an introverted, academic future before I became a volunteer. Joining the Peace Corps was supposed to give me a temporary break from that life, a chance to learn to use my hands a little and to see a new part of the world. But I spent two years in a village of 300 people as a health volunteer, and now I work in Dakar, Senegal’s capital and largest city, on malaria prevention and education initiatives. I have come to believe that a life of service is more important than the life of the mind.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw the people the village as my constituents. I listened to them, learned what they considered to be their greatest health-related problems, and worked with their abilities and resources to try to find solutions. Sometimes I could bring additional resources of my own, whether through grant writing or the technical training I received when I became a volunteer. But no matter what the project, I always wished that I could do more, pass along deeper knowledge, and serve the people of the village better. As I thought over what it would mean to serve better, I began to focus on the practice of medicine as my means.
There was also, always at the back of my mind, a thought that there was some sort of obligation I had to meet. It wasn’t my obligation as an individual but rather my obligation as a representation of a type: privileged enough to have been well educated from early in my life, free enough to join the Peace Corps after college, and inclined to think that I am not entitled to live a life of suspended, isolated ease simply because I was born in a First World country.
My sense of this obligation grew as I saw the residents of what I came to think of as “my” village in Senegal fall ill from preventable diseases or die from treatable ones. It seemed wrong, especially when the victims were children. And what compounded this wrongness was that the children of my host family, whom I love, were not particularly special. Special to me, yes, of course. But my host sister Thian, now almost four, who has survived malaria and diarrheal and respiratory diseases, is not one in a million. She’s one of millions. I could – and did – help Thian by teaching her mother about insecticide-treated mosquito nets and oral rehydration solution therapy. That’s something, and I’m glad I could be there to do it. But there are lots of children like Thian, and their needs are greater, more systematic, than I feel qualified to meet now.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I remember thinking that the task ahead would be like cleaning a very messy house, maybe one that had been flooded or damaged in an earthquake. If you stepped back and looked at the whole of it at once, you would feel as if you were doomed to be cleaning up the mess forever. But if you stopped in the first room you reached, picked up one book and put it back on the shelf, you would have made a start. One tiny job would have been completed. And so I told myself, “Do the job in front of you – for now.” I kept my focus on particular projects and people and events, and I tried to ignore the bigger picture as much as possible.
I think I’m ready for that bigger picture. I want to understand disease and be able to fight it on an individual level – on the level of one person, one patient. I think perhaps that I want this so deeply because of Thian and the other members of my host family in Senegal. Living with them, seeing them struggle with malnutrition and disease, has left me believing that disease will never be an abstraction for me, will never be something whose story could be told entirely by the tabulation of morbidity and mortality statistics.
But I also want to be able to see why some diseases attack the poorest countries in the world, why they thrive there, and what we can do about it. In my mind, great opportunity comes with great obligation. And maybe our obligations are greatest toward those with the least opportunity.
It’s hard to escape my background in philosophy, so I’ve been inclined to think of these statements about obligations and opportunities as universal maxims. But I am realizing now that they serve perfectly well as guiding lights. At this moment, these beacons have led me to desire to pursue a career in medicine, with a concentration in global public health.
It will be very hard for me to leave Senegal. I have a life here, and a family, and a job that allows me to do good work. But if by leaving I can take a first step toward a career as a doctor, I will be grateful and come eagerly to the new studies and pursuits. Thank you for your consideration.