The DNA of a Good Doctor "My brain has been taken over by science!"

The DNA of a Good Doctor

Alex Cortez, a pre-med Spanish major, laughs and shifts in his seat as he recalls his switch from studying to be a Spanish teacher to preparing for med school. 


“My first two years at Calvin were all about the humanities—things that I’d never even heard of before coming to Calvin, like sociology and philosophy. I had always wanted to be a doctor, but it was like I had to let my competing passions win out for a while.”

Alex is a self-described “liberal arts nerd”: he considered majors in religion, sociology and several other areas before returning to his childhood dream.

“I tell people three to five, but in my head I was considering six to eight different majors during my first two years at Calvin."

After a life-altering experience in Honduras through Calvin’s Spanish-language semester program, he knew a couple of things about his future: it had to involve speaking Spanish, and it had to involve him being a resource to underserved people. At first, teacher education seemed the way to go.

“I love teaching, speaking Spanish and hanging out with kids, so I thought, ‘Why not become a teacher?’”


In the summer between his sophomore and junior year, Alex had a realization.  

“I was driving through the streets of Grand Rapids, in neighborhoods where people were outside doing their thing. I looked at them and realized just how lucky I was to be able to go to college. Not everyone has that opportunity. Then I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life? I’m taking great classes and getting good grades, but I’m not really being challenged.’ I knew then that I needed to take my academic life and my career plans off cruise control.”

For Alex, this meant doing an academic 180. It meant facing the possibility that he would have to stay at Calvin for a fifth year. It meant taking classes in biology and physics and chemistry—topics he hadn’t studied since high school. 

With the help of pre-med adviser and biology professor Rich Nyhof, Alex was able to figure out how to make Calvin’s rigorous pre-med program work and still graduate with Calvin’s class of 2011. The clincher? When he spoke with his education professor about dropping the teacher education program, he found encouragement where he’d expected resistance.

“He said, ‘If this is truly where God is calling you, go for it.’ I expected him to be upset that I was leaving his program. Instead, he was kind.”


If Alex was going to be ready for the MCAT (the entrance exam for med school) by the following summer, he would have to “cram three years’ worth of pre-reqs into one year.” He got started with “General Chemistry” and “Intro to Physics”—and nearly stopped right there.

“Here’s something you should never do: open your textbook to the middle and start reading advanced material during the first week of class. I did this in the first week of my physics class—I saw stuff about magnets and immediately knew I couldn’t do this. And the truth was, I couldn’t do it. But God could. He helped me keep going.”

Alex survived “Intro to Physics” and even the notoriously difficult organic chemistry, taken in 10 grueling weeks during Calvin’s optional summer term. The support he received during his “year of science”—extra attention from profs and stress management tips from Calvin’s Broene Counseling Center—made the year more than survivable. It was actually inspiring.

“During my first two years in the humanities, I was encouraged to explore huge world issues. It was like God was telling me, ‘Look how big I am!’ Now, in the second half of my Calvin experience, as I’m studying tiny things like atoms and molecules, I feel like He’s saying, ‘Look how I work in the small things, too!'"


Alex is starting to see his mid-college program change pay off. Because he didn’t take organic chemistry until the summer between his junior and senior year, he couldn’t take the MCAT and apply to med school until the fall. Still, he applied to 18 schools, interviewed at six and is now choosing among them.

“Obviously, you need good grades and a good MCAT score to get into med school ... but almost everyone applying to med school has that."

He needed to stand out in some way, and Alex is convinced that the quality of his Calvin experience made him do just that.

“College is a time that shapes the core of who you are. Calvin has prepared me to truly ‘be in the world and not of it,’ to be strong in faith and love." 

Courses in the humanities and the sciences, a semester living with a family in Honduras, a volunteer experience mentoring refugee families, a leadership role with Calvin’s Student Senate, strong support from professors, deep relationships with roommates and friends—these things unite to make the difference Alex needed when competing with other undergrads for med school spots.

“What you really need to get into medical school? You need good stories. More than anything, Calvin gave me that."


"In a one-week trip, it’s hard to go beyond pity for people who live in developing countries. When you’re there longer, living with them, you learn to get down on your knees with them. When you do, you realize that they are actually standing and are strong in so many ways that you are not."

Alex likes to say his Spanish professor “tricked” him into studying off-campus in Honduras for the fall of his sophomore year. “Just apply and see if you get in!” she said. Next thing he knew, Alex received a letter saying that he was going to Honduras. Since he wanted to beef up his Spanish skills, he decided to go with it. The experience helped him to go beyond the “one- week mission trip” mindset to a new way of seeing the developing world.

Why Calvin?

Alex was looking for a college that had just the right sense of Christian community when he visited campus. He also wanted to know that he would have plenty of opportunities where clubs and sports were concerned.

"Looking back, it just felt right when I visited. Now I know that was because Calvin had great opportunities for spiritual formation, leadership and community while also giving me a lot of freedom to choose those things instead of forcing me to do them."

Orientation Options

When Alex had to choose which Passport orientation session to attend, he opted for the Wilderness Passport orientation option. It became an unforgettable experience for him.

“I tell every incoming student to choose Wilderness Passport! When I did it, not only did I earn some college credit, I also met three guys that became my closest friends and roommates to this day!”

Pre-med at Calvin = Access to clinical experience

Nearly 85 percent of Calvin’s pre-med students are accepted to medical school on first application. Challenging academics, research opportunities and professors who know what it takes to get in certainly play a part, but there’s another ingredient that contributes to this success.

Calvin College is located in Grand Rapids, Mich., a city with a burgeoning healthcare industry, including 4 major hospital systems, a medical research institute and a brand new medical school.

Being pre-med at Calvin means access to a wealth of clinical experience opportunities—something you’ll need to get into med school.

VERGE: spring 2011

First-Year Experience