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If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it

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Aga Galej is a third-year veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Yale University in 2017. During college, she volunteered her time in South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, and Belize where she became deeply interested in international wildlife and conservation medicine and sparking her desire to become a veterinarian. Aside from her veterinary interests, she has a passion for education, photography, and most of all, travel. She is well on her way to her goal of at least 100 countries, having just made it to number 44 last year. She plans to pursue wildlife medicine in some capacity after vet school, but has yet to decide in what way.

For me, it all started with sand, a cardboard box, and a pair of webbed feet.

It was June 2014. After an hour drive, we had arrived at our destination. We grabbed the cardboard boxes from the back of the van and headed toward the beach. I remember the sand flowing between my toes in my flip flops and the cold wind splashing ocean water against my face and through my hair. I mostly remember how carefully I walked, my precious cargo came first. This cardboard box I was holding was more important than anything else on that beach.

We set the boxes down on the sand. On the count of three, we gently flipped them toward the ocean and crouched behind them, peeking over carefully to watch what was happening. A few penguins wandered out: some timid, some eagerly waddling back to the ocean they could call home again. Back to a body of water with no end in sight. We watched for a while and slowly retreated when they no longer remembered our presence. Photos were taken, tears were shed. We felt frozen in time. This was a day that was going to stay with me forever. It was the moment an idea became a dream.

This realization came on Boulder’s Beach in Cape Town, South Africa with penguins from the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), where I had spent the last six weeks working towards their release. Many penguins land themselves at SANCCOB because of oil spills or other manmade causes. There, they are nursed back to health and returned back to where they belong: the wild (www.sanccob.co.za). To save an animal so damaged from a byproduct of civilization made me immensely fulfilled. It was a massive privilege to get to undo this kind of wrong.

I have known I want to be a wildlife veterinarian since that very special moment in Cape Town when I said a tearful goodbye to my cardboard box of penguins. I have yet to decide in what capacity I want to work with these animals, but I know I want it to be a hallmark of my career. Some days, I feel drawn to specialize in something in small animal medicine and use my specialization (like surgery, oncology, etc.) on an as-needed basis in wildlife/zoo animals. Some days, I fluctuate between a zoo, wildlife, or exotics residency to truly immerse myself in these species. Other days, I consider pursuing a public health career to focus on infectious diseases and how they affect people along with animals. All ideas have merit and come down to the same goal, benefiting wildlife health, because that is the work that absolutely feeds my soul.

Of course, this dream does not come without challenges. I am reminded of this time and time again. I’ve been told repeatedly how little money there is to be made in this field, how hard it is to find jobs, how long the hours are, how much you have to sacrifice. In response to my goals, people have told me I am too ambitious, my vision is unattainable, I will not see success for many years if at all, I should aim for something more “realistic.” Any doubt you name, I’ve heard it.

I get it, everyone. Thank you for your input.

It terrifies me.

But I want it anyway.

I want it because I believe in a future for myself that involves work I absolutely adore – work that can change the lives of animals around the world. I want a career rooted in my desire to conserve species and help animals who have faced injustice in the hands of humankind. Why should I be discouraged from chasing that?

As people, we are driven by experiences, so we are allowed to change with time. Opinions and passions evolve. Who’s to say one day another idea won’t grab hold of me and change my goals? Life is a series of actions and reactions, so it absolutely might happen. If it does, I don’t fear it. For now, though, wildlife medicine is my dream. Let me cry my tears of joy. Let me cherish the moments with wildlife that made me crave a place in this profession in the first place. Let me long to leave my mark in this world, regardless of the struggles that come with that. Don’t stop me from dreaming big, because my passion is even bigger. I will not falter because of doubt. I will hold my own. Even if you don’t believe in me, I will stand tall. The worst way to respond to fear of failure is by giving up and settling for something you only love halfway.

This is a love letter to anyone out there who feels like their dream is far too impossible to pursue. Don’t shy away from it, whether it is a job, degree, or experience. Having substantial goals just means you need dedicated follow-through, and the way you achieve that is NOT by giving up. It’s terrifying not to have an example to follow or having one you don’t think you can live up to. I get it. However, think about how many people out there had to be the first at EVERYTHING that is now commonplace in this profession. Think about them and let yourself dream.

Because if it doesn’t light your soul on fire, why do you want it?

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