Every financial and academic decision I made, I made with this goal in mind, even though I never discussed it. I went to community college on a scholarship for free tuition, worked multiple jobs, budgeted and built up my credit, did my damnedest in school, got a cheap apartment, and when I transferred to my in-state university, enrolled in the Animal Science program. I always put in my best effort, but I truly believed that, at some point along the road, I would have to give up.
Going Forth With Optimism
I almost didn’t even apply to vet school. I’m not a book smart person and I don’t master things by reading and writing them. I never thought my place was as a doctor, but I have an almost rebellious urge to push myself.
Toward the end of my degree at Rutgers, I met my friend Kevin. When I told him that I was going to apply to veterinary school but I might not get in, he was encouraging – he made it seem so attainable. Soon, I began telling my friends that I would apply, and then my family. Before I knew it, I was applying and asking freely for help. So, I told myself I would apply to vet school just once. If I got in, it was a sign that I should go. I applied, got into one school, and off I went to Ross.
When I began my first semester at RUSVM, I was extremely hopeful for my academic success. I had done well in undergraduate years, but not as well as I’d always wanted. Many of the veterinarians I knew said that vet school was much easier for them than undergrad – not because the information was easier, but because it’s more “in their wheelhouse,” so they felt more compelled to study and thus understand the material. Many of them said that their GPAs in veterinary school were much higher than their undergraduate GPAs. I hoped I’d follow suit.
Setting the Wrong Standard
That first September, my personal goal was pretty simple. At the end of my last semester, I just wanted to see more As on my transcript than I’d gotten in undergrad. Even just one more. Always the practical and realistic type, I didn’t put too much pressure on the first semester since I’d just moved to a foreign country and faced lots of new obstacles on a daily basis. When I got a neat row of Bs for final grades, I felt very neutral about it. I told myself that I could only go up from here, and promised myself As and Bs next time.
What seemed like optimism actually turned into the most painful, unachievable standard I have ever set for myself.
Second semester, I did nothing but fail or barely pass exams, despite spending all my time studying or in office hours. The fact that I was working so hard and barely squeaking by made me hate myself; but a challenge is a challenge. In the end I scraped by with mostly Cs and one lonely B. At first I was relieved, but then, in crept the thought that I had fallen short yet again: “My goal was for As and Bs, and I only got Cs and a B. How low do I have to make my standards?”
It began to take me down. Struggles surfaced that I hadn’t faced since I was a teenager. When you set a goal for yourself that you can’t achieve, and then you have to start lowering it, lowering it, and lowering it — in the face of all these people who are achieving it — you begin to hate yourself.
Because I will always push for progress, I came out fighting in third semester. The material was less abstract and more palatable – I was learning about bacteria (one of my favorite things) and viruses (for which I developed a passion). For the first time, including undergrad, I felt what it was like to master material, and it was awesome.
When we got our final grades, I found that all of my As had slipped down to Bs. Still, I was ready to accept that as progress, until I began to listen to my classmates. They’d hated the semester. They’d felt like it was useless information, stupid and purely memorization, but they’d still done better.
There it was: a year of personal progress, diminished in an off-hand way by people who I hold in such high regard. My best work easily and dispassionately outstripped. Maybe my improvement didn’t actually mean I was any good since it was “just stupid memorization.”
Halfway through vet school, I threw out my original goal, and instead pushed for just one A per semester. Fourth semester started, and in a massive effort to prove myself, I excelled. It was another great semester full of tangible, useful, inspiring material. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, but in the end my grades were the same as my third semester grades – the ones that I had devalued to worthlessness. With all the right ingredients working for me, I still couldn’t make progress, and I still couldn’t perform above our class averages.
Defining Failure – and Success
Now, at this point, the only reason I was “failing” was because I was telling myself that I was. But, that is when I truly began to fail. I lost my spirit and slipped into a fierce, soul-sucking depression. These comparisons against my own previous performances and against my classmates’ performances undid me.
In fifth semester, I returned to therapy for the first time in a long, long time. Every day was a fog and I couldn’t recognize my own thoughts or words. I had so much love and support all around me, but it just hurt that my loved ones wanted to support me when I was so disgusted with myself. Class was a living nightmare. I felt that I was sitting in a room, being presented with my own ruin, being lectured by my own failures, being taught that my very best was the rest of the world’s mediocre.
I tried for a long time to heed the advice I give friends on a daily basis: “Bs are exceptional grades; you should be proud! Don’t beat yourself up too much — you had a lot going on that week! Stop being so hard on yourself or the stress alone will stop you from getting questions right! You’re in vet school and you’re passing. Isn’t that enough?” But when you’re stubborn and you aim to always improve, you can’t take your own advice. I would tell my friends these things knowing how hypocritical it was. But I needed to prove to myself that I could get an A, and I once again lowered my goal — if I got one A in all seven semesters, I would feel valuable.
In the end, I passed fifth. It was due to the help of my friends, who tutored me, and my boyfriend, whose voice drove me when I couldn’t empower myself. It was thanks to professors who gave me all of their time and became my personal coaches. I found a love for the material that had been taught all semester, despite my absence.
I began to fix the problems in my personal life, and I made a pact with myself. As long as I was happy with my own mastery of the material, I could dismiss grading and class statistics.
Setting Myself Up to Win
Since then, I have regained my old day-by-day happiness. Not because I’m doing an amazing job academically, and not because I’m “beating personal bests” or “always making progress.” It’s because I am happiest when I work hard on material that I love to learn, and to the simplest degree, that’s all I need to be successful. I check my gradebook to make sure I passed, then ignore it. I allow myself to have downtime without feeling wracked with guilt, and I no longer hide it when I watch TV or spend extra time Skyping with my family. I let myself watch a movie or take a drive without being defensive.
Sixth semester yielded me the best grades yet. They happened to fall 0.01 GPA point short of the overarching goal I had set for my seven semesters – something that would have destroyed me a year ago. I still don’t have one single A on my transcript from my entire time here at Ross (oh, let me count the B+s!), but that’s okay. I was never cut out for academia. I hate studying, and I hate getting lectured to for six plus hours a day.
What I have learned is that I was cut out to be a veterinarian. I love learning, and I love being on my feet twelve plus hours a day just to solve a few problems. From now on, I will utilize the strength I had from the start: being a happy worker. This is what has made my final semester so rewarding and empowering.
With my final months of vet school coming to a close, I am looking back on what I put myself through for 2.5 years. To be honest, I don’t remember the hard times and the pain as much as I remember all the shiny moments that made my heart happy, the small triumphs I prided myself in that others would have dismissed. Like when after months of repetition I finally recalled anatomical details of the horse leg that everyone already knew, when I pulled my Reich average up from a 60 to a 70 with one great exam, or the appreciation I developed for clinical pathology puzzles.
I remember the conversations I had with professors who rooted for me, and all the times I took a drive to chase down a moment of pure peace in a beautiful corner of the island. The time I passed my aseptic exam, the time I changed our donkey’s bandage in record speed, or the time the surgeon hated on me through a whole procedure and at the end admitted that I suture beautifully. These are the moments I’m basing my success on.
My advice for anyone on a tough path, veterinary student or not, is that when you start to struggle, look to yourself first. Maybe it’s you who is standing in your way. You will be your biggest antagonist unless you can learn to work with your strengths and forgive yourself the weaknesses. My drive is what earned me a seat at this school, but it also almost caused me to withdraw. Build the relationships that will love you at the bottom and celebrate you at the top. Create those tiny moments to live for. One tiny shiny moment after the next, you will have a grand accomplishment. Nobody blossoms without a little appreciation – that goes for yourself and the people around you.
Erin Gruber is a third year veterinary medicine student at Ross University in St. Kitts, and will be attending her clinical year at Purdue University. Her career interests include large animal medicine, public health, and bison. She is from Beachwood, New Jersey and has two dogs, Abbey and Rascal.