Day 3: Career Immersion Excursion Chicago

Illinois Wesleyan alumni spoke with CIE students.

Following our regular routine of waking up, sighing at the pitch-black sky, and blearily shuffling downstairs for breakfast, we took the ‘L’ to Rush University Medical Center. IWU alums Jill Volk and Stephanie Hollis came to talk to us about admissions and special healthcare programs at Rush; afterwards, we had our Professional Practice panel with alums ranging from dermatology to physical therapy. I loved watching them interact during the Q&A session as they laughed about professors and classes they shared, because I think it exemplified how much of a community IWU really is, regardless of individual academic interests.

The alums also shared stories of their most memorable patients, some of which showed the alums’ greatest successes, while other alumni used a tragic experience with a patient as inspiration to improve as a healthcare provider. In one story, an alum mentioned that he learned that he was “treating a whole patient,” rather than being solely focused on making a diagnosis within one’s own area of expertise. That statement struck me as insightful, and it complemented the recurring mantra among alums that a liberal arts education creates well-rounded students who can think holistically in order to solve the complex problems within a patient.

Next, we went on a campus tour with some IWU alumni as guides. My favorite place we saw was probably the cadaver room, morbidly enough, just because I’ve never found myself in that type of setting. I don’t have any pictures from the cadaver room out of respect for those who chose to donate their bodies, and it was very evident from the demeanor of the students that they took their work in the cadaver room seriously.

Dr. Lisa Castillo ’95 spoke with CIE students.

After chatting with some of the med students over sandwiches and chips, we said our goodbyes and went to meet with Dr. Lisa Castillo, a genetic counselor at the Center for Genetic Medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. As someone interested in specifically learning more about genetic counseling, I had spent the last few days anticipating her talk, and like the keynote speakers before her, she did not disappoint. After graduating from IWU with a degree in biology, she didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do, so she worked in regulation for Abbott for a few years before deciding to go into genetic counseling, which had briefly interested her as an undergraduate.

Despite having researched the genetic counseling field beforehand, I came away from Dr. Castillo’s talk with even more insights into the field. Genetic counselors spend time with patients to discuss the risk of carrying or passing on a genetically-linked disorder, as well as time in the lab researching these genetic mutations. However, in Dr. Castillo’s experience, the ratio of patient time and research time is different at each job site. Like me, research didn’t appeal to her as much initially; however, she soon came to love her research work. Dr. Castillo also was able to hop between several specialties within genetic counseling before arriving at cardiovascular diseases, which is exciting to me as someone who enjoys learning different things and doesn’t have a particular specialty in mind. She also recommended that I attend Northwestern’s Genetic Counselor Awareness Day, which is essentially a career day centered on genetic counseling, and yes, I have already marked it on my calendar.

After a brief Q&A session (and you can bet that I peppered this woman with questions), we took a tour of the lab where she works and chatted with some lab students about their experience in graduate research. These people are working crazy hours in the lab for years, but they didn’t look worn down at all, and you could tell that they wouldn’t want to do any other type of work, which was heartwarming to see.

Unlike the past few days, this trip was truly non-stop, so instead of going back to the hotel to freshen up, we boldly marched ahead to the Union League Club, host of our IWU alumni social. Beforehand, however, we got the opportunity to hear a keynote speech from Dr. Steve Ondra. Before I go any further, please Google this man, because there’s just too much about him for me to cover in the blog, but let me just throw out neurosurgeon, military doctor, and member of Implementation Deputies Group for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as some of the job titles this man has held throughout his career.

Dr. Steve Ondra ’80 addressed CIE students.

He talked to us about his work in the Obama Administration and how he views the ACA as a flawed yet important first step toward reform. This man has managed to work in nearly every aspect of healthcare, so he understands that no one entity is to blame for the current state of healthcare. Each sector is just understandably concerned for its own welfare, so reforming healthcare is a matter of creating win-win situations that incentivize more cost-effective ways to manage healthcare.

When discussing his career path overall, he talked about the importance of continuing to learn and grow your skills, even after leaving formal education. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to be the best possible neurosurgeon as he aged, Dr. Ondra spent decades slowly acquiring skills to thrive in the business world, and later in government. I think that given the changing landscape of the job industry, and that more people than ever are having multiple careers, I appreciated that particular piece of advice.

It was an absolute delight to hear from Dr. Ondra, a man who comes off as eloquent and well-learned, yet still very personable and approachable. After his talk, we had the chance to mingle with him and alumni in healthcare who showed up for the social. Even though I found the idea of casually walking up to strangers in the middle of a conversation and saying hello very daunting, in hindsight, I really had nothing to worry about. Every single alum I spoke to was excited to engage with students, was doing interesting work in his/her field, and had tons of advice to give about making it in the healthcare industry. I even managed to walk away with some business cards, which I can add to my growing stack from this trip. 🙂 It was a shame that I couldn’t have met with more alums that evening, but I feel so grateful to every one of them for taking time out of their very, very busy lives to support us. You could palpably feel that support in the room, and it was reassuring to see that the adult world, as daunting as it is, is filled with friendly, welcoming faces. I know going forward that I can always find friends in Illinois Wesleyan alumni, and that truly means the world to me.

We’re coming up on the final day of our whirlwind career trip! Thank you all very much for reading along so far, and I hope you’re looking forward to Day 4 like I am!

–– Rachel McCarthy ’21

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