12/05/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

There Is No 'Right Way' to a Career

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There is no "right" way to a career... at least that is what they say. They -- those already knee-deep into a career trying to impart wisdom upon the overly stressed college student, those overly stressed college students comforting their peers while simultaneously attempting to dampen their own worries -- are saying this to help. They want us to trust that decisions and choices made today will lead to dream jobs tomorrow. I have tried to remind myself of this regularly, as I watch myself ricocheting along a college path with no concrete end in sight. As I finished my junior year, I proceeded swiftly into a summer filled with MCAT studying, MCAT taking, MCAT panicking and MCAT loathing. It became the summer when medical school disappeared from my immediate future, the summer I realized a life in medicine may not suit me -- it became the moment when my path, once straight and defined, endlessly branched into clouds of uncertainty. And then I began to watch rounds of primary applications move to secondary applications to interviews for those around me. And I was left behind.

And abruptly I was swept away for the remaining summer months from the world of rising college seniors -- to Malawi. It was a place where the sole reminders of the competitive bubble which I had just escaped were the two first-year medical students working with me -- one of whom was Eric Strand.

Eric came off first as eccentric, always with a full mouth of thoughts and seemingly lacking a filter to contain them. He certainly made first impressions, and he certainly had a lot to say of work in Malawi. He had a lot to say of a lot of things. He worked efficiently and diligently, and the culture of Malawians in the hospital frustrated him. I soon learned that this habit of efficiency developed from his years serving in the Army Special Forces. I soon learned that, like his strong work ethic, most things in his life had a story behind them. And I found myself curious, wanting to know more about his unique character.

He and I first really truly bonded over reading our poetry at Wednesday open mic nights at the Living Room Café in Lilongwe. He wrote and spoke beautifully, but his words always were dark, often even haunting. He spoke in remembrance of friends long since passed; he told stories of a disease that once ate away at his inner body, threatening him with the tease of death. He told stories of a dark past and of coping with death near in his life; he shared words that clearly came with a personal struggle. And as he sat down and we could talk more, I pieced together his story -- his path that had brought him to medical school past the age of 30 and eventually into my life.

His unconventional adult life began with a high school of alcohol and drugs mixing with a rock band attempting to break into the cutthroat music scene, and it culminated with his removal from high school before graduation -- he still lacks a high school diploma. His life brought him subsequently into and between various odd jobs and to the eventual realization that his life was not going anywhere. He needed to change his life for the better. And so he enlisted -- in the Army Special Forces. And he trained, and he became a Green Beret, a part of the distinguished medical class for the Special Forces team. And the majority of his 20s were spent serving the United States in fearless fights throughout the Middle East. Moments of honor -- saving the innocent and conquering the guilty, saving lives of both close companions and of random bystanders -- intertwined with tragedy. Best friends fell valiantly in battle. Lives were torn from the palms of his hands. He balanced this life with one of a growing family, children; a failed marriage and a new marriage. Life threw at him the complexity of coordinating a life of fatherhood between several children and several wives, and he sought a way to handle this new aspect of life as well.

Years later, he found stability. He settled in North Carolina, training new classes of Green Berets at Fort Bragg. He took night classes through the military and through its connection with Campbell University. He simultaneously began to study for his MCAT exam, balancing work, family, class and his personal outlet in ultra-distance running all at once. And then, yet again, life swept from beneath his feet. And a personal fight with cancer commenced.

With a disease like cancer comes a medical discharge from the military. Eric had fought for years prior, and he fought again. And he survived again. And he continued to strive tirelessly through a medical school application process and through interviews and an eventual acceptance to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine -- a man over 30 years old lacking a high school diploma; bearing scars from battles with militant warriors and restless cancers; balancing a growing family alongside.

I learned a whole lot from my summer with Eric. We bonded over poetry and music. We went for long runs at the Kumbali Forest Lodge followed with conversations over the only burgers we could find in the country. We traversed the wards of Kamuzu Central Hospital every day. We screamed at Malawian televisions with Malawian friends over World Cup games. We backpacked along Mt. Mulanje and witnessed my brightest view ever of the Milky Way at night. He told me to grow up when I thought I was dying from a stomach parasite. And to find someone at his age, with his experiences and his memories, even those that bounced him out of high school and into war and across the face of death, in the process of building success -- out of what once seemed nothing -- helps me to understand what people had told me before. But Eric really taught me about the strength gained from bouncing back from life's bitter curveballs. He taught me that careers come from experiences -- any and all about careers.

I still have yet to see where the curveballs in my life will bounce me. I know that they will not be taking me to medical school next year, but that does not mean they will not take me there in two years, or four, or even 10. I could not venture a guess as to where I will be in five years. And now that's okay for me.