Alex Cortez, a pre-med Spanish major, laughs and shifts in his seat as he recalls his switch from studying to be a Spanish teacher to preparing for med school.
LIBERAL ARTS NERD
“My first two years at Calvin were all about the humanities—things that I’d never even heard of before coming to Calvin, like sociology and philosophy. I had always wanted to be a doctor, but it was like I had to let my competing passions win out for a while.”
Alex is a self-described “liberal arts nerd”: he considered majors in religion, sociology and several other areas before returning to his childhood dream.
“I tell people three to five, but in my head I was considering six to eight different majors during my first two years at Calvin."
After a life-altering experience in Honduras through Calvin’s Spanish-language semester program, he knew a couple of things about his future: it had to involve speaking Spanish, and it had to involve him being a resource to underserved people. At first, teacher education seemed the way to go.
“I love teaching, speaking Spanish and hanging out with kids, so I thought, ‘Why not become a teacher?’”
GOING OFF CRUISE CONTROL
In the summer between his sophomore and junior year, Alex had a realization.
“I was driving through the streets of Grand Rapids, in neighborhoods where people were outside doing their thing. I looked at them and realized just how lucky I was to be able to go to college. Not everyone has that opportunity. Then I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life? I’m taking great classes and getting good grades, but I’m not really being challenged.’ I knew then that I needed to take my academic life and my career plans off cruise control.”
For Alex, this meant doing an academic 180. It meant facing the possibility that he would have to stay at Calvin for a fifth year. It meant taking classes in biology and physics and chemistry—topics he hadn’t studied since high school.
With the help of pre-med adviser and biology professor Rich Nyhof, Alex was able to figure out how to make Calvin’s rigorous pre-med program work and still graduate with Calvin’s class of 2011. The clincher? When he spoke with his education professor about dropping the teacher education program, he found encouragement where he’d expected resistance.
“He said, ‘If this is truly where God is calling you, go for it.’ I expected him to be upset that I was leaving his program. Instead, he was kind.”
THE YEAR OF SCIENCE
If Alex was going to be ready for the MCAT (the entrance exam for med school) by the following summer, he would have to “cram three years’ worth of pre-reqs into one year.” He got started with “General Chemistry” and “Intro to Physics”—and nearly stopped right there.
“Here’s something you should never do: open your textbook to the middle and start reading advanced material during the first week of class. I did this in the first week of my physics class—I saw stuff about magnets and immediately knew I couldn’t do this. And the truth was, I couldn’t do it. But God could. He helped me keep going.”
Alex survived “Intro to Physics” and even the notoriously difficult organic chemistry, taken in 10 grueling weeks during Calvin’s optional summer term. The support he received during his “year of science”—extra attention from profs and stress management tips from Calvin’s Broene Counseling Center—made the year more than survivable. It was actually inspiring.
“During my first two years in the humanities, I was encouraged to explore huge world issues. It was like God was telling me, ‘Look how big I am!’ Now, in the second half of my Calvin experience, as I’m studying tiny things like atoms and molecules, I feel like He’s saying, ‘Look how I work in the small things, too!'"