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Careers in History: Medicine

Abigail TanAbi Tan

Medical doctor, Seattle, WA

My career track has been a bit unusual. After Calvin I entered Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. I took a year off between my third and fourth year to do a Fulbright in Jordan where I completed a pediatric developmental screening project in the UNRWA refugee camps. I am graduating from medical school this year and will be starting my family medicine residency with the Swedish Medical Center and the Seattle Indian Health Board. Lots of history and lots of culture! My patient panel will be mostly Native Americans as well as the urban under-served population, refugees and immigrants.

Why did you choose to major in history at Calvin?

I started out at Calvin as a pre-med biology major, but ended up switching to a European History Major in my sophomore year while keeping my premed emphasis. I've always enjoyed history, and I really loved my history 151 class—frankly a lot more than any of my biology classes at the time. It was actually several conversations with Prof. Frans van Liere that helped me make my decision. I wanted to learn more about the social aspects of medicine before medical school, and as long as I completed the pre-requisite classes, I was eligible to apply to medical school even as a history major.

How did your time at Calvin prepare you for what you are doing now?

I think majoring in history was the best thing I could have done for my career as a physician. I learned so much about the history of modern medicine, the philosophy of healing, and the dialogue between society and medicine that's resulted in how medicine is viewed and practice today. While at Calvin, I worked part time for Prof. Bert de Vries in the archaeology lab. He was also my advisor, and through him I was able to take part in two summers of work in Jordan and the West Bank on his Wadi el-Far'a research project. It was a great experience, and it was the foundation of my future work as a Fulbright student to Jordan where I worked for a year on a project in the Palestinian refugee camps. I really felt that my history major led me to not just the opportunities I've had, but it also gave me valuable tools and knowledge for my experiences there.

Do you have any advice for current students or those thinking of majoring in history at Calvin?

I think a history major is a great major for just about any career choice. It gave me an appreciation for the cultural contexts I've been privileged to work with from refugee clinics in the Middle East to Navajo healing ceremonies. And I found that it taught me a lot of valuable critical thinking skills that have been useful in my training as a clinician.

What are some of your memories of the Calvin History department?

As for a favorite memory, I really enjoyed the Medieval Potluck at the van Liere’s.


Rebecca (Jelsema) Jansen

Medical doctor

I entered Calvin with the intent of going to medical school. Thankfully, before beginning my college education, I was informed that I could be “pre-med” without majoring in the sciences. While many people assume medical schools want students to major in chemistry or biology, a humanities major can actually make one stand-out in the applicant pool.

Why did you choose to major in history at Calvin?Becky Jelsema

I chose to study history because I had always enjoyed studying the subject both in school and in my free time, and I knew that I would have little time to pursue this interest while at medical school!

How did your time at Calvin prepare you for what you are doing now?

Overall, my time at Calvin rendered me tremendously prepared for medical school. Here are just three examples: First, it helped me to develop a solid work ethic. In all of my classes I had to work hard to earn good grades. After our first round of exams, many of my current peers quickly discovered that our medical school had higher expectations than their respective undergraduate institutions. In contrast, because my Calvin professors provided challenging coursework and prepared me well for graduate studies, I had a very easy transition into medical school. 
Second, Calvin helped me to understand the importance of discernment. When reading history texts, we were taught to look beyond the surface. Who was the author? What is the context of the story?  What was the stated purpose of their text? What was their actual intended purpose? What biases existed? Now when I read medical journal articles, I find myself asking these same important questions about studies and purported findings.  I don’t take medical information at face-value. 

Third, my Calvin history classes helped to overcome some of my personal biases and cultural stereotypes to become a more compassionate health care provider. I began to grasp the complexities of race, social class, education, and culture in my American history classes. Without trying to minimize personal responsibility and the decisions individuals make, I am better equipped to understand my patients as people shaped by their history, just as I have been shaped by mine.

What are some of your memories of the Calvin History department?

Working on my honors thesis and watching the progress I made—from a general topic to a forty-page paper in four months!  It was a great blessing to be able to work so closely with a faculty mentor.

Getting graded papers back. I always looked forwarded to reading the critiques regarding both what was well done and what could use improvement. I appreciated that my professors took the time to carefully read and comment on my work—they didn’t just slap a grade on the top of the page.

Annual dinner at the van Liere’s. Professor Bratt’s Colonial American History class—three straight hours every Wednesday night and never a boring moment. Arranging our desks in a giant circle in Professor Bays’ Asia and the Pacific class to discuss great books. 

Do you have any advice for current students or those thinking of majoring in history at Calvin?

I really enjoyed majoring in history at Calvin, and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering it. If you are unsure, try a class or two to see whether you enjoy it.  One nice feature of a history major is that it requires relatively few credits compared to some other majors. I was able to complete a full pre-med course load, all core, and all of my history classes in four years.