When I turned eighteen, I left New Jersey for a school called Deep Springs: a two-year, 26-student college situated on a working ranch in the California desert. Although Deep Springs recently celebrated its hundredth birthday, it remains an experiment in higher education. Students govern themselves: they help design courses, admit and expel their classmates, and decide most campus rules — all while raising livestock and completing coursework in the humanities. There is little of the typical college experience.
When I was a senior in high school, my internet browser registered twenty, thirty, forty visits to the Deep Springs website. There was a photograph of a student windsurfing—using a tent fly and a skateboard—down an empty highway. Deep Springs encouraged nerdy enthusiasm, yet somehow remained impossibly too-cool-for-school. It pierced my millennial heart.
I never windsurfed. And although the college was on a ranch, I rarely found myself astride a horse. But I didn’t miss those things. Instead, I relished the social energy of my thoughtful and eccentric classmates. Every night, a few students prepared dinner with ingredients that were harvested, milked, or butchered by other students. And for dessert: taking measurements of the disturbingly bright stars — a homework assignment, for a course in which students replicated the astronomer Copernicus’s discoveries exactly as he made them in the early 16th century. If you used calculus to get your answer, you were cheating, because Copernicus didn’t use calculus. What a thrill to lose points for a correct differential equation!
Two years later I graduated and transferred to a big university to finish my bachelor’s degree. I spent my twenties trying to get back to Deep Springs — if not literally, then in my expectation that the bonds of fellowship were somewhere to be found in the world of working adults. After employment in an editorial office, on a construction site, and in a high school classroom, I surprised everyone in my life with the announcement that I intended to go to medical school.
My post-college jobs, even if they weren’t quite right for me, did show me what I valued about Deep Springs: being among a group of people genuinely excited about learning, and also taking care of a community. I found these things in medical school — the human body is endlessly fascinating, and I have enjoyed real camaraderie with my friends inside the hospital. (And for you pre-meds: like Copernicus, I’ve gotten along perfectly fine without calculus.)
When it came time to pick a specialty, I chose internal medicine, which is a board certification in its own right, but also the first step to becoming, say, a cardiologist or an infectious diseases expert. There’s an emphasis on systematic thinking and communication, which suited me. I liked how many internal medicine doctors seemed happiest explaining a concept at a whiteboard, and many of my favorite physician-authors are internists. During medical school, I became an admirer of their contributions to our society-level understanding of disease and health policy. Getting good medical information is an increasingly tricky task against the backdrop of a changing media landscape — especially at this moment, in the middle of an international public health crisis.
For now, I’m most looking forward to being a resident. I’m excited for this June, when I’ll get to meet the other members of my class. I expect residency to be emotionally, physically, and intellectually demanding. But I’ll be making new relationships: with mentors, with patients, and with other junior doctors. The resident workroom, at three in the morning, over lukewarm coffee and cold Szechuan noodles — now that’s good soil for a friendship.
There were moments after college graduation when I wanted to go back to Deep Springs. It was hard, but it was simple. You knew everybody, and what you did mattered. But it was only preparation for the real challenge, which is to serve a more complicated community — this big one, which we all share.
Even if I hadn’t attended Deep Springs, or trained as a doctor, I hope I would still have found my calling in that.
Eric Ward is a fourth year medical student in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He matched at UCSF for internal medicine. You can join the virtual Match Day celebrations by following #PSOMMatch.