On Sunday, August 14, 2016, the Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy welcomed its inaugural class. The keynote presentation was given by Dr. Eileen Lee who was a member of the first class of what was then known as The National Academy for the Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (NAASE), the first incarnation of the Belin-Blank Center’s early college entrance program, in 1999. Here are Dr. Lee’s inspiring remarks to the new students:
It’s a true delight to be here at this welcome dinner and to reconnect with the people and the program that helped give me my start at this University so many years ago. Part of me finds it difficult to fathom that it’s been seventeen years since I started college. The other part finds it difficult to fathom that it’s only been seventeen years as, in many ways, it feels like that was another me another lifetime ago. When Jan tracked me down back in June, I didn’t hesitate to say yes to speaking at this dinner, but when I actually sat down and tried to brainstorm what I wanted to say to you tonight, it was rather like the end of Finding Nemo when the fish escape the dentist’s office and find themselves in the ocean still trapped in their plastic bags, and there’s lots of cheering, and then an awkward silence, and one of them asks, “Now what?” So much has happened to me since my Belin-Blank Center days that it actually took some effort to dig into my memory and try to figure out how my experiences back then have translated into what I believe and who I am now. Ultimately I did piece together a few thoughts, and I hope they’re useful to you, and if they aren’t, well, you’re in college now, so you might as well get used to hearing people drone on about something while you let your mind wander. For the record, I’m not encouraging it, but it’s bound to happen from time to time.
When I was recruited for early entrance to the U of I, I felt like I was at the top of my game. My life up until that point was filled with honors and awards and high expectations, both self-imposed and external to me. Straight As were a given, my test scores were great, I won piano competitions and violin competitions and had played a leadership role in almost every orchestra I’d ever been in, and I was always the teacher’s pet – your garden variety overachiever. That was largely how I identified as a person back then. I was arrogant and conceited about my talent, and I took my blessings for granted. And then I came to college and the real world began.
College is a fantastic venue to learn and evolve as a human being as you set a trajectory to move into adulthood. But you came here for a challenge, and a challenge is what you’re likely to get. Somewhere out there is a class you can’t coast through. Somewhere out there is a professor who is going to push what you thought were your limits. And somewhere down the line might be the day when your performance fails to meet your expectations. And this is where my first message for this evening comes in: That your identity should not lie in your successes so much as in your ability to deal with failure. To clarify, when I say “failure,” I mean anything you categorize as failure, because Chinese kids joke that a B is an “Asian F”. If you identify yourself as someone who succeeds, you’ll do great until the day that you don’t. But if you identify yourself as someone who can view failure as an opportunity to grow and change, someone who can react to failure and the insecurities it creates in you by redoubling your efforts or changing your tack, someone who can be humble and honest about your shortcomings and view the people who outshine you with admiration rather than jealousy, then you really have something to work with – you will have an identity seated in resilience that will be keep for the long haul and serve you well in both the good times and the bad.
I don’t have to tell you that your situation is unique, but it’s how it’s unique that’s really interesting. There are people who think going to college early isn’t a big deal, and maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones for whom it isn’t, but it turned out to be a bigger deal for me than I could have anticipated. There are unusual challenges associated with being thrust into a world that’s suited to your intellectual experiences but not necessarily to your emotional ones. College isn’t just a series of classrooms, it’s a lifestyle and a community and a world full of newfound freedoms and new people with whom to explore all of that, and you’re coming into it with fewer years of life experience under your belt than Joe Freshman. My personal take is that you will be doing yourself a disservice if you try to think of yourself as an “average” college student, if you ignore the reality of the situation. The obvious legal consequences of engaging in common college behaviors while underage aside, you have to keep in mind that the teenage brain is still a work in progress. I’m going into physician mode here for a second to point out that that the frontal lobe of your brain – the part that controls your personality and your insight – is not fully myelinated until you reach your mid-20s. That means that the signals it sends are sluggish. This is not a rag on teenagers, this is basic neuroscience. I remember vividly what it was like to be your age. I look back at some of the things I said and did then, and I cringe. If you want to be smart about this, you have to recognize that because of your younger age, you too probably possess this temporary biological limitation and to a greater extent than most of the other students at this university. You have to be self-aware. You have to be willing to question your own judgment. And you have to keep people close to you whose guidance you can trust, because if you’re anything like I was, there will be days when your ability to think logically just takes a hike and leaves the rest of you bumbling about trying to figure out what the hell you ought to do about that class or that exam or that party or that guy or that girl. This is where you need to lean on the people you trust. This is where your family comes in. And I say this because when I left for college at 17, I assumed I was striking out on my own and didn’t really need my parents emotionally anymore, and I was probably really wrong about that. So this is my second message to you all: Don’t lose sight of who or what you are just because the people you interact with on this campus may not be aware of your special situation or treat you (or even pressure you) to act like something that you aren’t yet. Revel in your talent, but understand that you are not entirely without limitations. And call home a lot.
And now that I’ve probably scared the crap out of all the parents in the room, let me turn around and say this: My mother says to this day that letting me come to college early was one of the best decisions she ever made for me. It gave me a valuable head-start on the road to my professional career, and though it was scary to let me go to college early, she knew I was in good hands with the staff at the Belin-Blank Center. You guys can rest assured that they are experts in working with students like you in situations like yours. You are not guinea pigs. They have years of experience working with my class and all the incarnations of this program since then that they will be using to try to ensure your success. You can and should seek support and guidance from your family. But these people sitting here will also be a family of sorts to you if you are smart enough to let them. One of the hardest things about being students like you is finding people who can understand or relate to some of your experiences. My high school friends were a quorum of high-achieving nerds, and yet none of them could understand what it was like to go to college early. This program surrounds you with peers who can understand the unique challenges of being in your position. You have each other for support, people with whom you can grow and commiserate and stress out and celebrate your triumphs. The ten of you may not all end up super close with one another; this isn’t the Disney Channel. But the likelihood that you find someone you can relate to is as good, if not better, here than it is anywhere else in the world. One of my closest friends and the Maid of Honor at my wedding was a classmate of mine in this program, and though we went very different ways and live hundreds of miles apart, our first year together here at the University was enough to cement a friendship that I hope will last for the rest of our lives.
My final message to you all is about being flexible and not being afraid to carve out your own individualized path. By doing something as unique as enrolling in this program, you’ve already demonstrated a willingness to seek alternative means of reaching your goals. Keep that open-mindedness about you. Sometimes doors are going to close. Sometimes what you thought would be a good plan isn’t. Sometimes an area of study or a career path you thought would be a good fit won’t be. When I started college, I majored in biochemistry because I was deeply interested in genetics. Then I got a taste of basic medical research – what we call benchwork – and I realized I wasn’t into it. In medical school, I became friends with a pair of physicians who specialized in Pulmonary Medicine and Critical Care. They were amazing mentors to me, and while I wanted to follow in their footsteps for the longest time, I realized that Pulmonary Medicine wasn’t a good fit for me either, and I had to revise my plans again. Be ready and willing to shift course if life throws you a curve. You’re going to be asked to put in long, hard hours no matter what area of study you pursue, and you’re not going to love every minute of it, but ultimately, life is too short to pursue long-term goals that you find out you’re not passionate about.
I wish all of you the very best as you embark on this new adventure. It’s been an honor to be here and to meet you. Congratulations to each of you for the hard work and success that has gotten you this far. Go forth, work hard, be smart, and have fun. Thanks for your time.
Eileen Lee originally hails from West Des Moines, IA and was a member of the inaugural class of what was then known as The National Academy for the Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (NAASE), the first incarnation of the Belin-Blank Center’s early college entrance program, in 1999. She started college at the University of Iowa at the age of 17 and completed her B.A. with a major in biochemistry and a minor in chemistry three years later with the help of advanced placement credits. She then went on to receive her M.D. from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in 2006 at the age of 23, the youngest person to graduate from that school at that time. She completed her residency in internal medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in 2009. She now lives in St. Louis, MO where she is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, splitting her time between providing direct patient care as a hospitalist and working with medical students and residents as a clinical educator. She is particularly interested in medical education with an emphasis on teaching communication skills. She is also one of the primary physician advisors on a massive, $3 million project to implement improved screening and monitoring of hospitalized patients with suspected or confirmed sleep apnea.
Outside of medicine, she enjoys spending time with her husband and being mommy to their 3 year-old son. Her hobbies include traveling and travel planning, singing, playing the piano and the violin, composing and arranging music, writing, and trying to keep the house in some semblance of order.