education, me - Brian C. Allen

My Education and the Road to Oriental Medicine


I guess it all started when I was in kindergarten.  I already could read some words and I knew the letters of the alphabet.  However, I didn’t really know the alphabet.  I mean, I didn’t realize they had to be in a certain order.   The teacher pointed to the list of letters above the blackboard and asked the children to recite the alphabet.  There they all were reciting the alphabet, and I felt clueless.  They all had a jump on me, and now, at age 4, I was faced with the monumental task of having to quickly memorize a 26 item sequence – not cool.

I begrudgingly accepted the duty of rote memorization.  I shouldn’t be too down on it.  Rote memorization has its purposes, and it is important.  It is, however, the lowest form of learning and speaks nothing of actual understanding or one’s ability to apply knowledge.

I should point out that only one other person was able to read in my kindergarten class, and she was at least 6 months older than me.  I understood letters and knew how to use them; I just had some initial problems with the rote memorization.

Let’s fast forward to 7th grade.  I took the SATs that year and scored better than the average high school student.  That opened a few educational doors for me:  special classes, accelerated programs, etc.

In high school, I was already taking college calculus in the 10th grade.  I was the guinea pig for the development of the college level physics class at my high school as well.  The rest of my classes were college prep and advanced placement classes.  I did very well in school, but I never developed good study skills.  I understood everything and could figure out anything that was placed in front of me, but I still hated memorization.  More importantly, by this point in my life, I hated the structured environment of the education system, and I hated jumping through hoops.  I hated having to show up for class.  I hated having to read what book they told me to read (I am a very slow reader, also), and to add insult to injury, they would make me write a book report which I also hated to do.

OK, so I was an angry youth.  I really was.  Everybody assumed that I would just go to college and do great things, but I just couldn’t do it.  I was sick of it all.

High school graduation came and went.  September came, and I did not go to college.  However, by the time that February came around, I decided I really had to go college and do something with my life.  I was always a science nut, so I signed on the line and declared my major:  a B.S. in Biology (Biotechnology).  I chose this over physics, which I loved, because I was still totally fed up with math.  Math was easy for me, but it was sort of shoved down my throat, and I was still sick of it.  Biology was cool, but my real plans were for graduate school where I would switch my track to Neuroscience.  The human brain fascinated me, and I wanted to do research work.

Well, I only lasted a year and a half.  I was going to school full-time.  I was working 35 hours a week to pay for it all while living on campus.  I got burned out.  Unfortunately, I was still an angry youth, and I still hated memorization and jumping through hoops.  I knew I could handle the courses and the information, but I had to do it when they said and how they said, and I couldn’t handle that.  In retrospect, I realized that I lacked the maturity required for success at college.

So, from that point I went into the workforce.  I spent a few years working as a bookkeeper (computers + math = easy) at a law firm.  Then, I got into computer aided design, CAD, work and then worked as a technical illustrator (computers + math + art = easy).  However, those were just jobs that paid the bills.  My real life was martial arts.

I worked out anywhere from 2 to 6 hours per day, 6 days a week.  I both practiced and taught kung fu and t’ai chi, did light weight training, and did aerobics.  My goal was to one day have my own business, a large martial arts school.  All along, since early childhood, I was fascinated with Chinese culture.  Martial arts had introduced me to and peaked my interest in the healing arts of the Asian countries also.

Then, one day it happened.  All of a sudden, I realized that a career in Oriental Medicine (Acupuncture and Chinese herbs) was possible.  I never realized that there were Chinese medical colleges in our country.  I always thought that one would have to go to and live in China in order to learn such things.  I was wrong.  There were about 40 accredited Acupuncture or Oriental Medicine colleges across the country.

I investigated the colleges and found out that the ones located in California had the most comprehensive programs, almost double the hours of some of the colleges located elsewhere.  California had its own licensing standards which were higher than those of the National standards.  Acupuncture is well integrated into the medical insurance system in California, and Acupuncturists enjoy primary care physician status.  I figured that if I was going to put in the time, effort, and money (too much money) into this, I wanted to get the most out of it.  I chose the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) located in San Diego, California because its graduates consistently achieved the highest percentage of passing scores on both the California certification exam and the National certification exams.

It was a 4-year, 3400 hour Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine degree program.  However, I learned that I needed at least 2 years of undergraduate college in order to be admitted.  So, I went back to college.

I was more mature this time around.  Also, I changed my major from Biotechnology to Philosophy.  I figured that if I were going to take classes that weren’t going to matter in my career, I may was well take courses that were 1) very interesting to me, and 2) easy.  I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me in San Diego, so I thought I would take it easy in Delaware.

I was working full time, still working out, and teaching kung fu and t’ai chi.  So, I attended college part-time.  My original plan was to finish the whole Philosophy degree before moving on.  I should note that I had several minors as well:  East Asian Studies, Chinese Language, and Religious Studies.  That plan changed.  The part-time pace was too slow, so with just one year left to finish, I gave up again.  Already having more than enough credits to gain admittance at PCOM, I packed up and moved to San Diego.

The full-time course load at PCOM was quite intense. Originally, I planned on a more normal pace, taking 6 years to finish the 4 year course.  However, I decided to take a full load my first trimester there:  7 classes.  Yes, the full-time schedule consisted of 7 to 8 classes per trimester, with 3 trimesters a year, with a 2 week break between trimesters.  There were 75% more courses than a standard 4 year undergraduate degree.  I found that I was able to handle it that first trimester, and full of passion and excitement, I continued onward at the full-time rate.  It did, however, take me 5 years to finish, instead of 4, because I took a lot of extra courses, mostly in bodywork, but also pediatrics and external herbal applications.  In the end, I graduated with 211.5 credits and a 3.9 GPA.  The only reason it was not a 4.0 is because, once again, I got very burnt out, my health suffered, and I decided on occasion that my health and peace of mind was more important than an “A”.

Sadly, during my time at PCOM, I found myself fighting those old demons.  I found myself hating the process.  I did not want to keep jumping through hoops.  I just wanted to be a practitioner.  Really, I am not a good student.  I enjoy learning, but in my own way and in my own time.  Attendance policies were very strict; tests and assignments were frequent and numerous.  The amount of memorization required was insane.  Have I mentioned that I hate memorization?  This was killing my passion for Oriental Medicine and made me question my dream.

I did find a remedy, however.  I just did even more work.  While everyone else was in study groups working on memorization, I was reading.  Rather than just memorizing the ingredients of an herbal formula, I would read all the commentary on that formula that I could find, not just in the required texts, but in any other texts I could find.  I found myself reading translations of old Chinese medical texts as well as newer texts by some of the great minds in the field today.  None of this was required, but I needed it.  I needed to understand the medicine and know how it all worked, rather than just memorize everything about it.  This helped keep my passion alive.

Ultimately, I found the work easy, but the process was very hard on me.  I guess I am just not wired that way.  I really tried to be the good student.  In the end, though, I am glad that I still did it my way.  I came out of PCOM both learning and understanding much more than what the standard program could offer.  It is also worth mention at this point that out of the approximately 40 people that started the program when I did, only about 5 actually made it through to the end.

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