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.
Juri Miyamae (Earth and Planetary Sciences)
I imagine like many people who first arrived on campus as tops of their class in high school, I believed I was prepared for college. But I quickly proved myself to be an extraordinarily mediocre student. The transition to higher academic rigor and the lack of structure was difficult. There were a lot of distractions, too! Now I suddenly had free access (thanks, Quakers) to concerts, movies, dance classes, beautiful libraries full of more books than I had ever seen, and clever conversations with clever people. However, a lot of times, I felt like I could not fit in with my totally brilliant and sophisticated classmates. They were so much more well-read, well-traveled, multi-talented, intellectually confident, and motivated to do great things for this world. I never once thought that my colleagues had the advantage of being the children of academics, having lifelong access to high quality education, or the financial means to comfortably develop their interests. However, there was never a feeling of being in competition with my classmates, but rather a sense of competition with myself. Surely, I could reach that level too, if I only worked harder and had more self-discipline. But I never could. My grades were not great. My professors were kind, but not particularly impressed. It was a struggle just to keep my head above water with the basics, much less to have the energy to launch into passion projects. All I could feel was heavy shame and the burden of disappointing the high hopes of everyone back home who had supported me for so long. I wasn’t going to become this amazing squid scientist. I lost my identity and my purpose. And when I told my professors that I wasn’t going to graduate school, they simply accepted the verdict and never questioned me further. By the time I graduated, I had no idea it would be possible to enter a graduate program later in life, what non-academic STEM jobs were available, where I was going to live, and how I was going to make a living.
I may not have been always happy, but my alma mater is a wonderful place. I admit a deep affection for the beautiful arboretum campus and gratitude for the exceptional people I met, the important values of academic rigor and ethical intelligence I learned there, and the incredible undergraduate research opportunities that were presented to me. Maybe because of all these privileges, it did not feel like I had a right to complain or reveal I was having a hard time. It felt egocentric and rude to burden others with personal problems. I could not fathom how my parents would grieve at my failures after sacrificing all their comfort, financial security, and even their marriage to send their only child across the country to chase some wild dream. So, I did not speak to anybody. I never did overcome these college obstacles. Almost twenty years later, I still feel shackled to these exact same feelings of inadequacy and intense frustration at not having the focus to realize my goals. But there is a slight difference now: I am more willing to talk about these difficulties. And the people who listen are the people I befriended in college – professors and classmates – who are now my best and most supportive friends. We are all at different stages of our STEM careers now, or on a completely different path altogether, but this has given us all mature perspectives that we share to encourage and cheer each other onwards.
Martha Muñoz (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)
Yes, I was lucky enough that I wasn’t the first person to go to college in my family. I had a very education focused family. Even though my grandparents never got past grade school, my mother had a bachelor’s degree, and my aunt was the first in my family to earn a PhD, which was in Hispanic Literature. I was the first one to sort of venture outside of the known in my family and go into STEM. The value of an education was imparted on me from a young age. One of the major dimensions of my childhood was getting the best education. To this end, my parents really indentured themselves with really steep mortgages in the best possible school districts in NYC, which are, of course, drawn along socioeconomic lines. Correspondingly, my sister and I were among of the few Hispanic students in our schools because these were all in high-income districts. We just had to get into the right zip code. We had really good public education, and if I’ve lived up to anything, then it is a testament to what investment in public education can produce. I went to a public elementary school for one year and attended free summer programs in STEM literacy, receiving the training I needed to be competitive for NYC’s magnet schools.
I went to the Bronx Highschool of Science, a high school that has produced STEM Nobel laureates. I had people with PhDs teaching me. I took organic chemistry in high school. My school offered 27 APs. I had some measure of college readiness when I left high school. I had gone through the trials of learning how to study and learning that, if you don’t focus, your grades will suffer. All of those lessons people go through in their first year of college when they receive the freedom to study for themselves, I had already lived in high school. When I got to college, I was very determined, focused, and ready. I had a lot of family support reminding me of the importance of doing so. I entered college with maturity in that dimension and hit the ground running. I was a very studious student.
At first, I felt like a total fish out of water because I had never encountered college culture. My expectation of college culture was that everybody was straight laced and studious, that college culture was centered around studying. Whoops, that turned out not to be the case. Likewise, a lot of students came from environments where it was expected that they would be able to go to college financially. As a first-gen student for whom this opportunity meant everything, that this was the culmination of my parents’ efforts, I felt a lot of pressure to live up to what they had sacrificed to put me there. So, I took it extremely seriously. It was only on a rare occasion that I even went to a party. I was at college to learn and grow. That didn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it was very rare.
College culture caught me off guard on several fronts. I had to work my way through college and a lot of my peers did not. It wasn’t until I moved into an all-female cooperative called the Harriet E. Richards (HER) house, which was designed to make Boston U. affordable for low-income women, that I found my niche. At the HER House, all of the women were in a similar boat. In order to get accepted to the house, you had to be financially underserved by the package you received from the university. Your need needed to extend beyond what was given to you, and that was the case for all of us. There were 24 of us who were undergraduates plus one graduate student who oversaw the house. It was a cooperative house, so we had subsidized living. We paid 230 a month for housing and food and, in exchange, we were a well oiled machine: we cooked, we cleaned, we did grocery shopping, and managed the house. All of the things that made the house run. It inculcated in me responsibility, community, and charity because we pooled our resources and often used our mass-cooking talent to raise money for charity. It kept us very grounded and connected to the community. It was the sort of thing we needed.
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.
Youngmin Shin (Computer Science):
Coming into yale I knew my grades weren’t going to be perfect and that I shouldn’t beat myself up. I knew that I could go to office hours every day for a course and still get a B+. Grades aren’t the final arbiter and I know that there are many people who aren’t doing so hot but we are still surviving and can still improve.
[the conversation shifted to how Youngmin dealt with the pressure and stress of CS classes] Yale WGICS was really helpful because I had a lot of friends that were similar to me and going through the same thing. It is so important to create a space for students who are on the fence or having a hard time in the major and even during the pandemic WGICS is still going strong. I’m so proud of the current leadership and they are doing so well! WGICS was definitely an integral part of my CS time at Yale.
Valerie Navarrete (Biology):
There is this notion, which I disagree with, that you should know everything by the age of 17. When I came here, I thought “Why am I studying so much harder than everybody else, why is it coming so naturally to everybody else?” Also, the classes themselves were large lectures so it wasn’t that intimate structure that I was used to. [There was one class in particular that stood out to Valerie]
It was difficult for a number of reasons: one, he was a little obscure of what he wanted from us. Two, he taught in a way as if we knew everything already. I remember buying a notebook 3 inches thick and filling that whole notebook up with notes, reading every page of the textbook, relistening to notes, etc. It was a lot of independent work but I took the chance. I saw people who didn’t come to class who were doing well and thought maybe this isn’t meant for me because it wasn’t easy for me. The one person who got me through that was my mom. I remember her telling me ‘dude you’re at yale that why things are hard, also there is an unfair field’. Her giving me that perspective helped me realize that I’m not inadequate and that the people I was with here were not the same people I was with in high school. In that class I may not have done as well as I would have liked but I learned a lot and future classes were easier because of it.
Maybe it is a process for everyone. Intelligence to me isn’t a talent, if you are really interested in something and put in the work you will reap rewards in some aspect.
Chika Ogbejesi (Neuroscience):
I assumed I would be below average coming in; I was a good student in high school but just assumed that the workload would be above what I was used to. In the beginning, I took it very slow, I took math 112 even though that was the last class I took in high school but I wanted to lay a solid foundation. Sophomore year I had a better grasp of what I could handle as I realized what my study habits were. Confidence came when I settled into classes I was interested in.
Nazar Chowdhury (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology):
“The missing piece is high school, where I studied science more and it was easily my favorite subject. My school had allowances for advanced science subjects like organic chemistry, medical microbiology, anatomy, all of which I really liked and confirmed my interests. I felt academically prepared to go into school. It was definitely ard in the first year but I felt like I was going at a good pace and it makes sense going along.
Socially, it was all about finding Muslim peers which doubled as finding peers in the fields. I found a lot of older members in the Muslim community who were able to support me in my path to medicine.
I felt a sense of belonging early on and was blessed to have that. For me, it became how do I forward that sense of belonging to other people who came to Yale. I found the person I call my best friend and brother in the first two days of school. I found mentors very early on. If I had an early transition, I then wanted to ease that transitions for others.
There were still obstacles. My Muslim way of thinking about this is that when we make dua, our dua is not for Allah to remove the obstacles, it’s to have the strength to overcome them. So, yes, it was difficult but I had really good friends who were in my STEM classes, so I had a support system, I had older people looking out for me during the harder parts of being pre-med. Very early on I had friends and study groups which really helped. My biggest challenge came in research. I did a little bit of research in high school and then got into research in my freshman spring. I thought it was going well for the first year or so, but I realize now that I was underprepared and that lab’s expectations were very high and I didn’t know that going in. What soured my relationship with that job and my mentor is that she was working on particular things and often felt she was spoonfeeding me experiments that were not important. I did not know anything about the trajectory of the lab, and I was fine with doing the work but I could sense that the long-term results of my work were not that important. That turned me off a little bit, and then when my mentor was working on her other projects and I was still learning, this led to a rift between us that was not repairable. This taught me that I needed to find someone who was at my pace, not someone who felt like they were doing me a favor. This really helped me in my sophomore, junior, and senior year where I continued with one lab the whole time and worked side by side with my mentor.
I felt really slit with my first lab experience. But I realize now that there are some reasons that happened that maybe I could’ve anticipated, maybe not, but it was better for me to learn that experience being able to know sometimes that labs blow up but you also have to have an understanding of what is expected of you. I was just thinking about what lab should I go into and I wasn’t ready for what was expected of me when I got in.”