When Honors College senior Kate Swenson stepped up to the podium as a featured speaker at OSU President Edward Ray’s Commencement Dinner on graduation day, it was the remarkable end of a remarkable journey.
Kate started her studies at Oregon State in the fall of 2008, but after two years of bouncing between majors, she decided to take some time off, unsure of her path forward. She ended up moving to New Mexico to explore her interests outside of the structured school environment.
“I was committed to not return to school until I knew what I wanted,” Kate says. “That could have taken one year, it could have taken ten years, but I didn’t want a degree just for the sake of having a degree. I wanted to bring my full self and to be intentional and committed, because I know that’s when I do my best work and when I’m a useful part of my community.”
After working in food service, exploring, and reading about medicine for two and a half years, Kate began to assemble the plans for a return to school. If anything, the time away had made the HC an even more attractive option.
“I had this sense that nothing else I found was of the same quality as what I had been exposed to at OSU, especially in the sciences,” Kate says. “I was used to a high standard of education from my first years at OSU, and I was searching for an interdisciplinary cross between science and humanities. I knew I was interested in and passionate about both.”
The Honors College supported that kind of breadth, but she wanted to be sure she was pursuing a degree program that would prepare her for lifelong engagement with her diverse interests.
With a career in medicine in mind, she remembered that OSU had been developing a medical humanities certificate program before she left for New Mexico. She found it online and realized she’d found a home.
“The medical humanities program really resonated with me,” Kate says. “I am not exclusively a science person or exclusively a humanities person, and at OSU, I was allowed to be both of those people, the integration of seemingly disparate threads, at once. There’s been this amazing opportunity for dialogue across these disciplines that we so often see as non-communicative. I’ve learned that humanities and science absolutely inform and come out of each other.”
She enrolled in some distance education in her declared major of philosophy, backpacked in Southeast Asia for three months, and returned to OSU’s campus in the summer of 2013. Kate has worked with Dr. Courtney Campbell in the field of biomedical ethics since her re-arrival, and she discovered a passion for narrative medicine, an approach that recognizes the value of people’s persona stories in clinical practice, research, and education.
“Narrative medicine is a field that combines the worlds of literature and humanities with medicine,” Kate says. “It explores how physicians can practice better medicine if they know how to attend to patients in the way that literature asks, how to listen and allow there to be a story to be told rather than a succinct yes or no that doesn’t extend past a medical history.”
She attended a narrative medicine symposium at Columbia University which led her to write her honors thesis as a triptych of creative nonfiction essays exploring narrative medicine and the ethics of medical practice.
Now, in the spring of 2015, Kate is graduating as a pre-med student with an HBA in philosophy, in addition to a certificate in medical humanities. She was selected by the president’s office to tell her story on a nontraditional education at the graduation dinner event for community members and supporters of the university.
After graduation, she will move to Colorado and look toward beginning a new chapter in her own narrative, which might entail medical school, medical humanities, or nursing.