Nora Burnes transferred to the University of Washington this year and is a double major in Philosophy and Public Health with a minor in Bioethics and Humanities. Nora served for eight years in the Army as a medic and still serves in the Army Reserves. She is also a volunteer firefighter/EMT for South Bay in Thurston County. Additionally, she is the mother of four-year-old Aislinn and newborn Garrett. She took time out of her extremely busy schedule (which includes commuting to UW from Tacoma) to talk to us about her studies in philosophy, her goals for post-graduation, balancing a family and college classes, and how her experiences have shaped her educational lookout.
How have you balanced being the parent of a 4-year-old with a full college course load?
I have been fortunate enough to have a great deal of support from my family, both emotionally and logistically! My family is very supportive of my goals and they do whatever they can to enable my success.
I think the greatest challenge I endure as a parent and student is to effectively divide my time and attentions between school work and my daughter. It is heart-wrenching because I sometimes feel like I am unable to give 100% to both school and parenting at any given time, and I harbor a lot of guilt over that. I can only spread myself out so much and it is often rather thinly. However, I find that I value the time I spend with my kids and family more so because it is so precious when I only have so much time to give. It is difficult to make the hard decision to spend time with my children and sacrifice much needed study time, but this has forced me to be creative and resourceful with my time. It has also made me value my free time more and I find that any moment I get to spend with my family is all the more rewarding and enriching because of it.
On top of that you had your second child this past November. What adjustments did you make and were your professors accommodating?
I made arrangements with the Disability Resource for Students (DRS), which was a very positive experience. Counselor Britt Neff was great and gave me all the information and advice I needed. I was extremely surprised at how accommodating the university and my professors were regarding appointments I had to attend. My son decided he wanted to be born a week early which somewhat threw off my plans for finals, but my professors have still been extremely accommodating despite the challenges I am facing and I can't thank them enough.
I had my first child while I was in the military, and I found that there are a lot of programs and "help" that exists on paper, but if you don't have leadership that is on board with the challenges parents face or are unable to be empathetic to each individual case, it can be very difficult. Something I really appreciate about the DRS at UW is that each case is treated individually, where I felt like I had to fit and adjust into what was made available in the Army. This is just my experience, I can't speak for everyone, but I definitely feel like I have more support in school than I did in the military as a parent. Many factors contribute to this personal assessment. Being a very young first-time-mother at the time, I had no idea how much help I needed and I should have asked for more. I definitely know better now (hindsight is always 20/20), and was more aggressive in seeking what I needed to help me succeed. It is difficult to compare the two experiences as they are two completely different walks of life, but it is interesting being able to look back on both experiences and reflect on what an accomplishment it truly is to be a parent and a soldier or student, and how much I have learned and matured because of it.
Why did you become a philosophy major?"
I believe the only way to make a lasting, positive impact in the world is to appreciate how and why the world is how it is. I think the best way to begin to understand an appreciation as ambiguous as that is to start asking questions. To do this, the right questions need to be formulated. If you come out of philosophy with anything worthwhile, at the very least it will be a conceptual understanding in how to ask a question and an idea of how to answer it; or at the very least how to evaluate a given answer to the question. Learning how to ask the right questions results in more questions, and this is exactly how change can be enacted - by digging up the right questions that haven't been, but ought to be asked!
What has been your favorite philosophy class?
So far my favorite philosophy class has been Medical Ethics with Sarah Goering and Michelle Pham. I did not at all like philosophy when I was a freshman and took an introduction to philosophy class. I honestly loathed it! Before coming to UW, I went to Pierce College in Tacoma, where I ended up taking an introduction to ethics class, and discovered an insatiable interest in ethical theory and ethical dilemmas. I was thrilled to discover UW has a slew of ethics and bioethics courses. Gina, the department advisor, rightly assumed I would enjoy medical ethics and suggested I take it during my first quarter at the University. What I love the most about this class is the discussions. I really enjoy hearing the perspectives of others on the readings as it helps me develop my own thought process on what I read and how I decide to think about the presented arguments. The discussions are carefully led, but not so much that opposing or unpopular opinions aren't given fair time or voice, and these dissenting opinions are the ones I enjoy hearing the most.
What class are you looking forward to taking?
I am very excited to take the advanced topics in philosophy class that focuses on existentialism. I see that there is also a course offered in agnotology, which would be very interesting to take after having taken epistemology. Unfortunately, it seems I have to choose which one to take next quarter and I am completely torn between the two!
Has being a veteran changed your philosophical outlook?
My experience in the military definitely guided my attraction to philosophy as I had many unique experiences that raised many questions about the world and my place in it. It inspired me to pursue what I would like to do with my life, which is to advocate for change in the way society perceives some of our more pervasive social issues, such as gender disparity, and aiding victims of social/cultural injustices. My medical background in the military and fire service has kept me drawn to the health field. I have chosen to dual major in Philosophy and Public Health and minor in Bioethics. I feel that cultural and social issues that result in physical or mental harm are matters of public health that need to be addressed.
How has it been taking classes and discussing philosophy with our more typical 18-20 year-old students?
It has actually been a surprisingly insightful experience. I have worked with a wide spectrum of age groups as the military is more or less a sampling of society, and have been surprised more than once by the insight and maturity some young people display, and the same has happened in my classes here at the University. I am amazed at how mature and aware of the world a lot of these younger kids are in my classes, and I love discussing the issues raised with them because their perspectives are fresh and seemingly unjaded. It seems a bit churlish to say that, but I think people who have experienced more life are more resolutely decided in how the world is and are less willing to change their opinions as opposed to those who still have a lot to experience. I'm sure some older people will roll their eyes at me as I say that since I'm only 25 and do have a lot of life left, but I think I have quite a few life experiences that have jaded my perspective.
What are you plans after graduation?
While applying to medical schools, I would like to travel to the Philippines and get involved in a medical aid program. I hope to be able to take my kids with me as I think that would be an amazing experience for them. I would also like to do more volunteering in the fire service since I will have more time to do so after graduation.
What would you like to do after medical school?
Sleep! And maybe reintroduce myself to my family since I doubt I will see very much of them during that time.
After medical school, I would like to work with low income communities and focus on primary care and community medicine. My ultimate goal is to work with communities in the Philippines that lack primary care and women's health and build a program and clinic that aids victims of human trafficking.
How do you see your studies in philosophy helping in your career?
I am hoping that philosophy will make me more sensitive to the state of world. My desire to work with victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse puts me at risk of becoming very judgmental of certain societies and cultures where this behavior is prevalent, and I am hoping that philosophy will help my approach to this be more objective and empathetic. I am hoping that it will help me be more systematic in my evaluation of states of the world, and to effectively and compassionately carry out my job as a health care provider and victims' advocate.