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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Career

April 3, 2024

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Career

Once determined to be a coach, Avery Stilley is instead moving toward medical school, thanks to his own initiative and Texas Tech’s guidance.

There was a time when Avery Stilley had a clear vision about who he was, where he was headed and how it was all going to happen.

Turns out, he wasn't seeing the whole picture. 

And that is a very good thing.

In the original plan, one of his own design, Stilley would become a college track and field coach and spend his days influencing young athletes to chase perfection, capture excellence and never, ever settle for less than giving their all.

Then something else came along, equal parts disruption and interruption. Opportunity knocked. Stilley answered. And a new, maybe unexpected, chapter is being written. In the end, influence will become impact, and Stilley may serve a much wider community.

Avery Stilley
Avery Stilley

“I was coming off four years of running a business in athletics here in Lubbock,” Stilley said. “I wanted to be a track coach, possibly at Texas Tech, but really anywhere.”

This was 2019, and Stilley had followed earning an associate degree from South Plains College by enrolling at Texas Tech in the kinesiology and sports management program in the College of Arts & Sciences. One day in his anatomical kinesiology class, the instructor told class members they would have to “shadow” a health care professional.

Shadowing provides students with visibility into a possible career field. They watch, ask questions and learn. It is a front-row seat for the demands and expectations of a job and peripheral elements like work environment and people.

Stilley could have chosen from a panoply of options, but he wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity and observe a profession he might never get a chance to watch. He selected cardiothoracic surgery and perfusion, not the typical choice of a shadowing student.

“I went to UMC (Health System) and bugged them about it,” he said with a laugh. “They let me do it, and I was really grateful for what I found because in joining them I received an informal education on how cardiothoracic surgery works as far as what they are doing.”

The procedure is as delicate as it is complicated and in common parlance is referred to as a cardiac bypass. Stilley was captivated and emboldened enough to think to himself that he could do something like that because it was not only impactful on a human life, but it was also making life-and-death decisions in the moment with no margin for error.

“I felt like I could make a huge impact in the field if I were to go into it,” he remembers. “So, during my third year of college I started taking pre-requisites to medical school.”

It was time for an about-face.

And it was going to take a lot of effort along the way.

“From the moment you meet him, Avery strikes you as someone who is just so driven,” said Amy Perez Kranz, an academic adviser who helped Stilley navigate the demanding academic journey required in responding to his new calling. “I met with him, and he wanted to talk about his pre-med interests. Then I read his personal statement and found all of the remarkable things he was doing.”

For Stilley, his complex journey had already been quite arduous. His mother suffered from an undiagnosed health condition that she battled while still doing everything she could to keep her family together as they moved frequently when he was young. Stilley spent six years in Seattle before moving to Florida to live with a family member. Then it was off to Maine, where he finished high school despite struggling because his ADHD had not yet been diagnosed. Transience, at the time, had an additional effect when combined with the ADHD, plaguing his academics from an early age.

He moved to Levelland, home of South Plains College and its perennially successful track and field program. Dreams of Olympic medals danced in his head while he committed to putting in the work every day, fortified by a unique upbringing that strengthened his resolve.

“I wouldn't say there was one place where I grew up,” he recalled. “My family has been through a lot. From the time I was young, I knew something was wrong with my mother, although she was an incredibly strong person. That resulted in periods of homelessness, living in shelters and motels.”

Stilley had a good reason to anchor his hopes in athletics. His father was a successful Greco-Roman wrestler. It was the kind of example he chose to emulate, although his calling wouldn't be on a wrestling mat but on the track as an endurance runner.

He spent a lot of time logging miles and working incessantly to shave a few seconds off his time here and there. That was the difference between the ranks of the most elite runners and everyone else. And while Stilley was plenty fast and had plenty of want-to, it wasn't enough to reach the ultimate level.

“I knew I wanted a profession that would challenge me in a significant way, and throughout my youth, it was track and field that fulfilled that need,” he said. “I was trying to compete in the 800-meter run and had the opportunity to compete with some of the best athletes in the world.”

Stilley was inspired by the story of Fred Kerley, who had walked on at South Plains College (SPC) a few years earlier before transferring to Texas A&M and eventually going on to a successful career in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. 

Kerley told his teammates at SPC that he was going to do something great – and he did. Stilley wanted to pen the same kind of narrative.

“Me being me, I knew I was going to do something great as well,” he said. “I wanted to go to the Olympics and compete in the 800. It all came to an end, though, and I realized I might not be talented enough for this. I was fast, but not fast enough for the Olympic Trials and that level of competition.”

It was time to pivot, and Stilley turned his attention to coaching, which would allow him to help other athletes achieve their dreams.

However, he desired to be more than just a coach. He spent time researching what attributes contributed to elite athletic success. He had that two-year degree and a lot of knowledge about athletes and reaching their full potential.

Instead, Stilley eventually realized becoming a coach might deprive him of another, greater opportunity. A different path could also allow him to fulfill his professional destiny and have an even more significant impact on those around him.

“At Texas Tech, I saw nothing but opportunity and knew with a degree I could make my way into athletics,” he said. “But when I switched to medicine, I knew from Texas Tech, it's possible. That just echoed across my mind.”

He decided to check out Texas Tech's Pre-Professional Health Careers academic path, which is where he met Perez Kranz and many others committed to assisting him on this new and uncertain journey.

They began by talking about options, expectations and everything it would take for Stilley to complete the courses and put himself in the thick of the competition for medical school. It would not be easy. His GPA in high school had not been great, and while his 2.6 GPA at SPC was better, he needed to do some work to make himself a more compelling applicant.

“He changed paths and needed some help with advising,” Perez Kranz recalled. “We went over a lot of detail, and I kind of laid a lot out for him in terms of these are the hoops you are going to have to jump through. And he just looked at me and said, ‘How high do I jump?'”

Stilley says Perez Kranz and the people of Texas Tech encouraged him and not only believed in him, but also persuaded him to believe in himself. Never had he found himself surrounded by so many supporters pulling for him every step of the way.

None was bigger than Perez Kranz.

“She said, ‘Let's see how you do with the sciences, and let's keep on going,'” Stilley remembered. “She was my biggest cheerleader throughout this whole process, and I will always appreciate that.”

Stilley recalls just how many cheerleaders he had, though, from the team at UMC Health who originally let him observe the process to professors, counselors, instructors and lots of other helping hands. The impact is not lost on him.

“They changed my life,” he says simply. “They did everything they could for me. Being a good pre-med student means making sure I am worthy of this calling, and I am doing everything I can in my power to show that. There were a lot of hoops to jump through, but for me, they were all things to prove that this was something for me.”

Now, Stilley is waiting. He has been through a couple of rounds of med school interviews, which he described as intensely nerve-wracking. He is hopeful that he will hear from Howard University in May. He interviewed late in the cycle, so all the available seats were filled, but some percentage of students who have been accepted will give up their seats to attend another school.

Sometimes 80% of first-year students come from the school's wait list through this process, called “the melt,” so the odds are in his favor. He has other options, as well, including UNECOM (the University of New England College of Medicine) in Maine.

Academic work became less challenging once his ADHD was diagnosed. He did his own research in terms of how to manage it without medication and has successfully followed the advice. Through his 113 hours at Texas Tech, he compiled a 3.75 GPA en route to a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology with a chemistry minor.

The change of plan required an extra year of classes at Texas Tech, but he approached the challenge head-on and enrolled for classes every semester, including summer sessions, until he broke the tape at the finish line.

It has been a learning experience – in more than one way.

“My advice to others would be to keep your options open,” he said. “You never know what you might do down the line. I would also say to make sure you go to college because that will open up opportunities for you, and I would say specifically to go to Texas Tech if you have the opportunity, because it will open up so many pathways for you.”

Texas Tech taught him a lot about himself too. For instance, all those science courses were really right up his alley. He took classes in physics, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biology, molecular biochemistry, organic chemistry and others.

“I didn't think I would be a chemistry nerd,” he said with a laugh. “I love it and now wish I had gotten my degree in chemistry. Investing in your education is important because people around you and in your community are depending on you. They deserve your best efforts because every day you wake up, you should do something for somebody else.”

That is how Stilley sees life playing out for him. He believes attending medical school is the next step in his calling and that Texas Tech helped him channel his ambition in a way he might previously have thought was impossible.

“This is exactly what I was put on this Earth for,” he said. “I didn't know it until a couple of years ago, but I am glad to be here, and I am looking forward to all the challenges and all the rewards to come, especially serving my community – wherever I end up.”

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