When I was eleven, I had my path mapped out. Completely. I planned to get an undergraduate performance degree from Julliard, go to Northwestern for my doctorate, and land the first (or second . . . I was willing to settle) flute job in the Chicago Symphony. I was a psycho eleven-year-old, as this sort of path is typically built by teachers, mentors, and role models for young children in the classical music sphere. My parents were alarmed but—I think—proud of my ambition.
Come high school, I attended MPulse at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, & Dance. I was enamored. I had incredible lessons, met kids my age who were just as psycho as me, and took my first solo bus ride. I changed my plan a little, and happily swapped Julliard with Michigan. My mom and I cried when I found out I was accepted.
My parents had one condition before I left for college: no matter how much I loved playing, I had to double-major in something “useful” that would land me a “job” after graduation. I wavered between political science and English, and after discovering organizational studies, found my second home.
The first two years were everything I hoped they would be. I matched the Michigan expectation of working hard and playing harder. I screamed myself hoarse through overtime at our first night game against Notre Dame, and practiced until I couldn’t see straight. It was during that time that the strange, intense, and constant back and joint pain started setting in. Between my junior and senior year I started feeling vaguely ill most of the time, and around my senior year I cropped my hair to a pixie cut because it’s less alarming when short hair falls out than watching handfuls of shoulder-length locks make their way down the drain.
Through my senior year and first two years following graduation, I saw a number of doctors who were puzzled by my case. Two doctors suspected lupus, and one suspected I was drug-seeking when he couldn’t figure it out. I finally got a referral to the Sports Medicine clinic at the University of Michigan Hospital system, where they discovered that I have very loose joints, and combined with countless hours of flute playing, I had gradually dislocated my left shoulder blade. When the injury didn’t heal naturally, my immune system decided the problem must be internal, and started attacking accordingly.
I was (and still am) so thankful for the team that discovered and treated my problem. However, it left one very large and looming problem outside of my body: I cannot now, and will likely never, play at a professional level without going through more intense injury and illness. The plan I crafted at eleven deflated like a sad balloon. It didn’t matter that I worked hard or attended the right school. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the universe takes your plans, rips them up, then kicks you in the teeth and asks, “What are you going to do now?”
Thankfully, I followed through on my parents’ rule and also graduated with a degree in organizational studies, where I discovered my intense love of nonprofits and drive to take on meaningful work that leaves the world in a better place than when I found it. Struggling through my honors thesis taught me that sometimes you have ideas that just don’t work, thoughts the data doesn’t support, and ideals that suddenly make no sense in the face of new evidence. It also taught me that being unsure is equally frightening and liberating, and uncertainty offers windows of opportunity that otherwise would never have presented themselves.
I took my lessons and degrees and applied them to a new career in fundraising. I can take the creative skills I learned through studying music and the hands-on, practical skills I learned in org studies and marry them to encourage people to engage in philanthropy. Luckier still, I recently accepted a position in which I’ll engage with current and former patients of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, so I can use my story and experience to connect to theirs and, through their giving, provide positive outcomes for even more patients.
If someone told me at eleven that by age twenty I wouldn’t be able to have a career in performance, I’d be devastated beyond measure. At twenty-six, however, I now know I’m just getting started.