Of all the search queries that lead to this blog, one of the most popular is about studying medicine as an “older” student. Perhaps in the USA the question is not as prevalent, but Med School is an undergraduate program in South Africa, and the vast majority of students enter straight after high school.
I too followed the traditional route, so although I have had older classmates, I’ve always felt like my advice on the topic was pretty generic. You know, “of course you’re not too old for med school”, etc. But a great young woman agreed to chat to me about her non-traditional journey.
This was my first time interviewing someone using voice-notes. I really hate the sound of my voice on recording, but my interviewee was an absolute star. Allow me to introduce Tash, a final year medical student at the University of Stellenbosch, whom I have now known for seven years and who never fails to make an impression.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
Absolutely. I remember very clearly when I was about five years old I had a “teddy triage” and I used to inject my teddies, and I raided the first-aid kit to bandage them. So it has pretty much been a lifelong dream.
Did you intend to study medicine fresh after high school?
That was the plan. I actually got accepted at the end of Grade 11 (then standard 9) but then I got pregnant in Matric, had my son, got married and that changed everything. It was a big taboo back then so I got kicked out of school and only received my books shortly before my exams so that didn’t go as smoothly as for your typical high schooler.
Where to from there?
I pretty much thought that my dreams were over. We lived on a farm outside the city without electricity, so it really was an impossible dream. But the yearning never went away. Whenever I took my son to the doctor it would just come up again and again. I studied some other things, worked a bit, and earned money; but the desire to be a doctor never went away.
The watershed moment was one day in the shower, and I was so unhappy. I cried out to God in unhappiness. I was good at my job, but it wasn’t a passion. I didn’t wake up in the morning wanting to do it. And I just realised that I was unhappy because I wasn’t doing the right thing. I called my dad and asked him if he thought I had what it took to study medicine and his answer was, “Yes my girl, unequivocally, I’ve got your back.”
I had to do a Bachelors of Science first, and it was a scary thing to do. I had quit my job and applied to med school… and I was 27 years old.
Do you think admission was harder not coming from high school?
For sure, acceptance to med school when you’re older is harder. I hadn’t studied for a really long time, so even just doing my BSc blew my mind. Every day was fast-paced. When you get out of high school you’re so used to studying and pressure. For me, going from a business pressure to a study pressure was a massive change.
What was your biggest challenge once you decided to re-pursue the dream?
There were two big challenges: one being a single mom and living far away from Stellenbosch, getting my son to school in the mornings and racing back in the afternoons to take him to extra-murals. And financially it was a nightmare. Coming from a fantastic salary, having to sell my car, and downgrading to student-life while having to take care of a household on that very limited budget.
Was it harder to get financial assistance in your position?
I had saved quite a bit of money and sold my car, but I had underestimated the total costs. My dad helped me with my tuition fees up to the second year of med school, but then he experienced some serious health issues and he could not help me as much anymore. Then miraculously I got a fantastic bursary, without which I would not have been able to finish. But I grossly underestimated the costs. When I started with my BSc my tuition was about ZAR19,000 and this year tuition was ZAR56,000 – so it almost tripled in nine years.
Now that you’re literally months away from graduating as a doctor: was it worth it?
Short version: absolutely. Long version: I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now. I am happy and fulfilled. Being a doctor is great, but having gone through this has also been great because I have done what I love and I learn every single day; and I am going to continue learning every day for the rest of my life.
Do you think there is merit in waiting before studying medicine?
Committing to studying medicine at a very young age is a big burden. If the passion is there, then sure – jump in and go. But for other people who aren’t sure, it’s unfair to expect them to commit to a life decision of medicine as a career. I think having been an older student, I was much more equipped to deal with the pressures of life and studying.
Was it harder to connect with your classmates on a social level?
There were two points while studying that were very difficult for me. The first was during my first week of first year BSc, where I was 27 and my classmates were 18. I’m quite young at heart so I blended in easier than some other older students.
Then I failed my second year of medicine and I had to go into the younger class, and that was also tough.
I managed to build up a circle of friends and very soon age was no longer a factor. I didn’t particularly talk about my home life. You have different friends: your school friends and home friends and work friends, and they all fulfill different roles. I’ve become quite good at not crossing those roles. I don’t always talk to my best friend who is my own age about the internal politics of working in a hospital, just as I don’t discuss paying the bills with my university friends.
When I had to join the younger crowd in second year, I came from a class that was very separated into cliques to a more young-at-heart and integrated class. It took me out of my comfort zone, but the challenge helped me to grow. I changed the way I looked at my classmates. I looked at them as complete human beings, and not as children. I saw how happy they were about life, and that spirit was contagious.
What is your advice to other mature students who are considering medicine?
If I could go back and talk to 27-year-old Tash, I would tell her to take another three years and save so much money, and then to make peace with the fact that it probably will not take her only six years to finish. Then prepare yourself for penury. Get your car to a safe, comfortable place where it will last the years of studying. Get a cash back-up. Get a good pair of jeans and a good pair of sneakers. Look after yourself. Find things you enjoy that don’t cost money. Keep your body and mind healthy. The reality is it is going to cost so much more than you realise. Don’t let it become your focus, but it makes everything so much easier when you don’t have to worry about it.