I owe my love for biology to my grandma, who was my very first role model. She was an anesthesiologist and surgeon back then, who regaled me with stories from the operating room at the end of every day. As a 5 year old, the idea of literally looking inside someone was just about the most mind-blowing thing ever!
I wanted to be just like my grandma when I grew up which, at the time, meant being able to see the inside of a belly. It seemed superhuman that she was able to put people to sleep, cut them open, and fix their problems.
I was still pretty young when I emigrated from China to Canada, leaving my grandma and her amazing stories on the other side of the world. A young, ambitious girl in a new country, I soon started looking for new role models.
Finding role models on TV
Like most kids, I was a pretty big fan of watching TV in my spare time. I used to love the show House about a doctor who’s a total jerk but gets away with it because he’s a genius. House was a skeptic, and didn’t believe in seeing patients face-to-face because all he needed was facts. Back then, I thought it made sense that being a good scientist meant trying to make everything objective like that.
Other shows, like Bones (similar to House, but think murder scenes instead of medicine) portrayed successful scientists in a similar way: academically brilliant, but cold and cynical.
In my young mind, the message I got from these shows was that being good at science made strengths in other fields like social skills and humanities irrelevant. In school, language arts and social studies were never my favourites, and I took shows like House as validation that they weren’t important anyways.
A change of heart
My indifference towards the humanities lasted from early elementary until about halfway into high school. I started volunteering during junior high; beginning with school open houses, then branching out to community organizations like a local senior’s home and the Stollery Children’s Hospital. These volunteer experiences brought me closer to people from different walks of life, and I realized I enjoyed the time I spent connecting with them and getting to hear their stories.
At the same time, I started studying different pieces of literature in school by authors like Maxine Hong Kingston and Michael Ondaatje. It was the first time I really felt engaged in what I was reading: these writers told stories I could relate to about the immigrant experience, facing cultural barriers, and hybrid identities. When it came time to write essays, I felt like I had more genuine ideas to share, which motivated me to work harder and do them justice.
At this point, I was pretty sure House was not a good role model for me. Through my volunteer experience I learned that you can’t care for people if you don’t take the time to know them, something House never did.
I didn’t want to be the kind of person who shunned humanity in an effort to “stay objective.” This realization was life-changing, and it caused me to rethink the sort of people I look up to.
Role model vs. Mentor
I never outgrew looking up to my grandma, but after abandoning my TV-screen heroes I’m not sure I ever found another role model in the traditional sense. Instead, I’ve started to appreciate people more fully and learn from them in different ways. There are a lot of people in my life whom I admire, not for any specific accomplishments but for fulfilling their own unique identities and having qualities like compassion, patience, kindness, etc.
I don’t really consider these people to be “role models” because I don’t necessarily want to be just like them. Rather, I think of them as “mentors”; by being themselves, they impart wisdom from their experiences to help me develop who I already am. Rather than trying to emulate House’s cold detachment, I think finding mentors who can help me learn how to better support and engage with people will be important for my career development because personal interaction is something that I value.
To put it simply, I think role models show you possible destinations, while mentors help guide you along the journey. I misinterpreted role models as people I should try and copy, when really (as cheesy as it sounds) you can’t be anyone else but yourself.
Do you have any role models or mentors who are helping you prepare for life after high school? If you can’t think of anyone off the top of your head, trying thinking about the people in your life that you admire—whether they’re actual people you know or people on TV or in movies. Ask yourself, what qualities do I admire in others and what can I learn from people who are doing things I’d like to do?
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