I Was Once in Their Shoes: Exploring Vocation in the Health Professions

A series of posts about a collaborative project at the University of Dayton to develop courses, programs, and opportunities for undergraduate vocational discernment in the health professions, including a first-year course, “Discover Health and Medicine.”

 “I’ve always wanted to help people” or “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor” are common student responses when I ask them why they are interested in pursuing a career in the health professions. This is true particularly among those students who were not initially accepted into a health professions major or who are struggling in classes and second-guessing themselves. Each time I hear one of these statements, it takes me back to my own experience as a teenager and as a first-year college student. I, too, was that student who decided at age twelve that I wanted to be a doctor. I was that student who excelled in science classes in high school but for whom first-year chemistry and biology were unexpected, anxiety-provoking struggles.

I took a different route after my first year of college, earning degrees in other disciplines and, over time, realizing that I had been fighting against my vocation of teaching for years. I ended up teaching and mentoring graduate and now undergraduate students who are pursuing or are interested in careers in the health professions. I sit with and listen to them, trying to determine how best to calm their self-doubt long enough for them to hear their true calling or to open their eyes to the much wider variety of health professions than they may have ever known existed.

In each of these situations, I revisit my own questions:

  • What does it mean to be “called” to a vocation in the health professions in which you hold another person’s life and livelihood in your hands?
  • What does it mean to be “called” to a vocation in the health sector that does not include direct patient care but still helps people?

In my current role, I teach and mentor undergraduates and develop academic courses, programs, and opportunities for them to explore vocations in the health professions and the health sector. My interactions with these students have reinforced factors which I now know may have contributed to my own confusion as an 18-year old: 1) many students lack awareness about the varied vocational opportunities in the health professions; 2) students may be unprepared for rigorous science and math classes because of limited educational preparation prior to college or because of deficits in appropriate college-level study skills; and 3) students don’t know what they don’t know. 

For the students who lack knowledge about vocational opportunities in the health professions, our focus should be on increasing awareness and exploration. For the students who lack the educational foundation, knowledge or skills to succeed, our approach should be different. Some faculty members advocate for the “tough love” approach of just telling the students that they’ll never have the GPA to be accepted into graduate school in the health professions and for redirecting them to another career as soon as possible. That was the message delivered to me as a first-year undergraduate, and it was devastating. Encouraging a student to pursue a career in an area in which they do not discern a vocational calling seems like a dereliction of duty to the student and to my own vocation as a teacher, advisor, and mentor.

Graduate training in the health professions is a long and arduous process. Some students are well-prepared to move quickly and smoothly from their undergraduate studies to graduate school. However, my experience teaching at a medical school for ten years illuminated the differences between those on the fast track and those who took a gap year (or a few) before moving on to graduate studies. Many students now choose to take gap years between undergraduate and health professions graduate training to gain more experience, increase entrance exam scores, take a mental-health break from school, or just work. If more students are moving away from immediate matriculation into graduate school, could a slightly slower undergraduate track with additional experiential opportunities or academic preparation be warranted?

My university has many undergraduate students accepted directly into pre-medicine, pre-dentistry, nursing and health science majors, but we know many students who are falling through the cracks and have not had the opportunity to explore these vocations. Our institutional emphasis on vocation discernment, based on Catholic Marianist educational values and spirit, has enabled me to partner with colleagues within and outside my own unit to develop courses, programs, and opportunities for these students to guide them toward identifying their vocation in the health professions. Our initial step is to develop a two-semester, first-year class titled “Discover Health & Medicine.”

In addition to this class, we will also consider questions about curriculum pathways, academic and career advising, study and other skills-building opportunities, experiential learning, planned gap years, and cohorts, among others. Through this blog series, I plan to share our team’s progress, lessons learned, best practices, questions, and revelations. Although the path ahead seems a bit daunting, I am looking forward to this journey.

Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Sabrina M. Neeley is the associate dean for clinical, global, and experiential learning in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science, for which she developed and now oversees the community health concentration. Her work focuses on curriculum and program development in the health professions. 

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