Manavi Chatterjee (Biology):
There have always been my teachers and advisors who saw my potential and guided me to pursue a PHD. They saw a wasted talent if I didn’t go there [to college].
Rajeev Erramilli (Physics):
Going into college, I think I had a weird combination of cockiness, insecurity, and feeling some sort of need to prove myself useful, which very much affected how I went through lots of things outside of STEM, such as participating in far too many extracurricular activities. Narrowly in the context of STEM, I really took a lot of risks by taking courses that maybe I wasn’t quite qualified for. This was partly cockiness but also really it came from a place of needing to prove myself, which in retrospect was silly of me. The first math course I took in undergrad was very intense and way over my head — to the extent that in the midterm I got the lowest grade in the entire class, a 25%. (Thankfully, the professor curved that up to a B-.) After that midterm, several of my friends in the course dropped out, but, again, out of some sort of insecurity I felt the need to power through. I was very lucky in that I made a really strong friendship with someone in the class who was much more comfortable as well as very non-judgemental and willing to help. So we would work on the math problem sets together and he would teach me all the math that I was missing and helped me pull out of the class with a solid B+. I don’t have any regrets for taking that course — it gave me one of my best friends and really inspired me to go into more mathematically abstract parts of science, where I’m at now. One of the weirder aspects of this experience I had is that at the beginning of the course I very much felt like I was obviously the worst student in the class, and by the end I felt like I at least could feel a little bit included. But after talking to one of my friends who dropped the course (after doing much better on that midterm than me), she was very surprised that I had had any trouble at all in that class: “But you’re one of the math people!” The lesson I took away from this is how invisible so many of our struggles can be as well as how surmountable they can be with the right support network. It took effort, but since I liked the subject so much, it was worth it for me.
Rowan Palmer (Engineering):
I was really worried about being “found out” as a fake upon coming to college. While I felt that I was prepared in my classes, such as in math and physics, I thought that people would have a particular expectation of what types of things I should know since I did robotics in high school. While I was engaged in robotics in high school, I took on much more managerial roles, and didn’t get as much technical experience as I would have wanted. I was terrified that my peers would think that I knew those hands-on technical things, and then judge me when they found out that they didn’t. This never happened, but I still often felt like there was a significant lack of experience between what people expected of me and what I actually knew. I was also nervous that I wouldn’t be “STEM enough.” I chose to come to Yale because I wanted to pursue engineering, but I also love art and the humanities and wanted ample opportunities to be a part of those spaces as well. I was concerned that the STEM community would think less of me because my whole life wasn’t STEM, particularly because my sister experienced this as a female engineer who played soccer and joined a sorority at a technical university (WPI). I’m lucky to say that that judgement never really happened to me here, although I still often worry about this in professional engineering settings.
Coming to campus, I quickly realized that a LOT of STEM people come to Yale because they want to be a part of the liberal arts college and experience more than just STEM, and that realization was really liberating for me to just enjoy those spaces fully.
Early into first year, I had to face the fact that I was struggling with my understanding and confidence in a lot of my courses – feeling that everyone else was far more prepared than I was. What really helped me through this was talking to classmates and realizing that everyone else was struggling just as much as I was, and also learning to speak up for myself and ask questions. I had to remind myself that asking questions was not a sign that you weren’t smart enough or good enough to know the material (a thought that I never had until coming to college. I used to be really comfortable asking questions).
Growing up, I didn’t feel like I faced a ton of challenges, but, looking back, I think there were a lot of things that I just didn’t notice. Senior year of high school, I took AP Physics, and I was the only girl with 10 guys and a male teacher. I thought it was funny, and it didn’t really phase me. But I also know that I watched my sister go through similar things and really struggle with them, whether it was just strange situations, or outright disrespect of people telling her she wasn’t good enough. So I often wonder if watching her unconsciously helped me know how to block out those things without realizing it, along with teaching me to adapt to carry myself with confidence to push back against those who tried to push me down. My biggest support systems were my parents and sister, as well as teachers and research mentors that went out of their ways to validate my abilities and my contributions to spaces that I was a part of.
In college, a HUGE support system that changed the way I viewed myself was a fellow mechanical engineering student that I took a lot of courses and did a lot of clubs with. I really respected his technological knowledge and his leadership, and I always valued his ability to understand material and help others with it. One time, when we were doing leadership things together, he told me that he looked up to my abilities, knowledge, and leadership. That shocked and comforted me that someone that I looked up to also looked up to me. And since then, we both work to validate and support each other. And the same goes for many of my engineering friends – we all value each other’s knowledge and experience so much, and go out of our way to remind and validate each other about it.