Alumni Advice: Don’t Be Afraid to Chart Your Own Course

Dr. Mara Sweeney’s stock advice for young people is simple: Don’t be afraid to chart your own course. It’s a maxim she came by following two pivotal episodes in her own life.

The first occurred when she was studying political science as an undergraduate at UC San Diego. In her junior year, she realized she wanted to pursue medicine, and abruptly began making plans for medical school.

“Once I knew what I wanted to do professionally I just changed gears,” said Dr. Sweeney, a Santa Barbara native who attended Cate School in Carpinteria. “Here I was studying political science, and I think there was an expectation that I would continue in that direction. But I was also minoring in chemistry, and that opened a whole new world for me.” Dr. Sweeney attended New York Medical College, and in July 2001 began her first-year residency in the trauma wing at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. Her next life-changing event arrived barely two months later on 9/11.

As the first tragic images flashed on hospital television screens that morning, she remembered that her husband was at the World Trade Center interviewing for a job. Several anxious hours would pass before she learned that he was safe.

The experience prompted her to seek sanctuary in her hometown.

“As soon as I could, I transferred my residency to Cottage Hospital. Some said my career would suffer, the assumption being that I would receive superior training in New York. But I knew it was the right decision for me and my family, and it ended up serving me very well,” she said.

Two decades later, she has a thriving primary care practice for adults at the former Caldwell’s Pharmacy building on State Street in Santa Barbara. She remains happily married, now with three children. Having received Scholarship Foundation support during medical school, Dr. Sweeney now donates to the organization. “I don’t think I could have scripted my life any better,” she said.

Learn more about the impact of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara and donate to support students in our community.