A Different Direction


There are some things we take for granted in the academic world. If you want to go to law school, major in political science. If you’ve got your eye on medical school, major in biology. Some students, however, go beyond these pre-made pre-med paths in favor of a more unique route.

We sat down with Megan, a recent graduate of UIUC’s kinesiology program who is now attending medical school in St. Louis. Along with her nontraditional pre-med school major, Megan worked and volunteered in all kinds of capacities. She was willing to share with us what she learned about herself and about her chosen field along the way. 

Tell us about your experience volunteering with Carle Foundation Hospital.

I enjoyed it because I was able to see different aspects of the hospital. I liked being able to interact with both patients and patient families. Even though most of the work we were doing was just helping out the nurses, it did allow me to see the relationship between healthcare workers, patients, and patient families, which I really appreciated. It was a little hard just because it pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new, so I really appreciated it overall.

A headshot of Megan smiling in a lab coat.
Megan, a recent graduate of UIUC’s kinesiology program, is now attending medical school in St. Louis. “In the future, I really hope to be a physician who works with adolescents.”

How about your research in the molecular muscle physiology lab?

I primarily did data analysis. I learned a variety of techniques like mouse work, muscle sectioning, staining, and taking images. I had a great time because I felt like I was given a lot of responsibility as an undergrad and considered very much an active participant of the team. And it provided me with a lot of research experience that helped me learn responsibility and the whole overall purpose of lab work. 

You also did some volunteer work in Cape Town, South Africa.

I applied through HDFS (Human Development and Family Studies) and the ACES study abroad program. The program appealed to me because there was a healthcare aspect, and it was going to a place that I hadn’t traveled to before. My family is from Poland originally, so I’ve been in and around Europe for most of my life. So I wanted that fresh experience. 

We had an eight-week semester course about what our role was going to be once we got there. I learned a lot about the history of South Africa and the socio-cultural stuff, and why the country is the way it is. So when I got there it wasn’t voluntourism, it was more like, we’re here to work. But we also had this cultural experience where we were able to visit museums and historical sites with more of an appreciation for what we were seeing [thanks to our cultural classes]. When we were working, I volunteered at the free clinic. It was about assisting the nurses, but it was also very much an observational role, because I was able to see healthcare from a different cultural perspective.

Will that cultural context be valuable to you here in the US?

I definitely think so. I’m in St. Louis now, [in an area that is] predominantly Black, compared to the Chicago suburbs where my hometown is, [which is] a primarily Latinx community. I’m now more comfortable interacting with patient populations that are very different from what I was used to. So now when I approach a patient, it’s very easy for me to understand that their backgrounds are going to be different from my own, and I can adapt using my knowledge to present a patient care profile. So I think it just forces me to think a little more critically, and on a broader scale. 

Megan and friends taking graduation pictures at Memorial Stadium.
Megan and her friends take graduation photos at Memorial Stadium. When asked why she chose UIUC for her undergraduate experience, Megan says, “I knew that I was going to go into post-secondary education, so I wanted a school that had a good reputation.”

Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?

There are two. [The first was] doing so well academically as an undergrad and being a bronze tablet winner. Looking back on that, I really pushed myself in undergrad and stepped out of my comfort zone and chose different classes. [By majoring in kinesiology] I wasn’t necessarily doing what a stereotypical pre-medical student was doing with their coursework; It wasn’t biology, it wasn’t chemistry. And even the minor I chose was just a personal interest of mine. So that academic accomplishment coupled with the fact that I did [a nontraditional major] and still got into medical school—I really enjoy that. 

And then [I’m proud of] the fact that I’ve focused on my wellness. I think oftentimes in college, and in secondary or post-secondary school, we focus so much on the stressors. And I make sure to take time for myself. I work out every day, I read books, and I don’t [focus on stressors]. For undergrads, I think that’s a personal accomplishment. In the bigger picture, I can’t take care of patients unless I take care of myself. So I really am proud of myself for doing that.

What are your plans for the future?

I know I want to work with kids. On Monday nights, [I tutor] at the local juvenile detention center. I think that teens are oftentimes forgotten about. We think about young kids, we think about adults, but there’s so much happening in the teen years. So I think I want to work specifically with that community. And even outside of medicine, if I have the time, I would love to coach sports, because that’s what was important to me as a kid. So in the future, hopefully I have the time to stay connected with adolescents.

Is there anything that you’d like to share with individuals who are planning on going to med school?

It’s okay to not be normal with your application. You do not have to be a bio major. I think a lot of people wish they had changed their majors to something that was important to them. I think that passion stands out on your application, if you can talk about something you’re passionate about. So if you chose music because you’re passionate about it, that will shine through your application. Stick with it! Most of the time in my interview experiences, they didn’t even talk about my academics. They talked about things I was interested in. And that made it so much easier to talk and sell myself.

Megan and friends sporting Illini gear at a game.
Megan attends a Fighting Illini football game with her friends. “I love sports,” says Megan. “So I think one of the best opportunities was the fact that I could go to so many athletic events. Being able to go with my friends, that was the best social aspect of [UIUC] that I really enjoyed.”

Is there anything you want to say to someone who’s torn between going the traditional pre-med school route or a more non-traditional route?

Yeah, [in my kinesiology major] I was 100% happy going to class and I felt like I didn’t have to force myself to learn. I liked chemistry, I liked bio. But sitting and doing organic chemistry was not interesting to me, and I wasn’t going to use it ever again. But I’ve used my kinesiology classes not even just in academics, but in my personal life. [Even if you don’t study chem or bio in school], you’ll get that same [informational] foundation in medical school as everyone else, too. So take what’s interesting to you.

What advice would you give to students who might be struggling to meet their goals or want to make a difference, but aren’t sure where to start?

I think a lot of times we plan too much for ourselves. You can take a breath. Setting even the smallest goal—like getting out of bed and deciding to make your bed every morning—that is an accomplishment. You’re already in a high-stress situation. Setting little goals and being proud of achieving those little goals is huge. That gives you a sense of self-worth that you’re building up to bigger things. So I think taking it slow and one step at a time is so important. 

Finding mentors is very important. [Find someone and say] “Hey, I don’t know if I want to go to medical school. Can I shadow you, or at least talk to you about your experience?” [That’s] a step in the right direction. Because to an extent, you never know until you try. A job is something you’re going to do for the majority of your life, so you should do something that you enjoy.