From Computer Screen to Lecture Hall

Erica.

6:20 alarm. Two flights of stairs. Desk. Laptop. Log into online classroom.

For more than seven years, this was my Monday to Thursday routine. For more than seven years, my class was a webpage, the teacher was a webcam, and my classmates were microphones. It was a school, yes, in the modern sense of the term, but it was no physically-established school with halls swarming with students. There was community, in the technological sense of the term, but it was some chaotic dichotomy of distant yet personal relationships that spanned counties and countries.

Every day, for four days a week, I’d sit at my Ikea-bought desk, gazing into a computer screen from 6:30am to 12:30pm, typing into a chat box and talking through a mic. When my six-hour stint was over, I’d get up, eat, sometimes shower, sometimes nap, only return to my laptop again, working on whatever essay or Latin homework I had that day.

Those seven years flew and dragged along, some years going better than others. But eventually I completed all my classical language requirements, eventually I finished six years and twelve classes of great texts, and eventually I wrote the final sentence of my 40-page senior thesis. And less than three months after donning a cap and gown, I tumbled into the world of four-hundred-people chemistry lectures in a school 200 times larger than the one I left.

There are the obvious differences. Having to change into presentable clothing, pack a backpack, and walk to class is a routine I had never adapted before. Class material was no longer presented on a PowerPoint on a screen a foot from my face, and instead during every Differential Equations class I sit, in the very back row (due to my constant just-in-the-nick-of-time arrivals), on the edge of my seat, blinking furiously, begging my brain to decipher what Greek letters my professor is scribbling down before he erases it and starts a new proof.

But while getting ready in the morning takes longer and reading whiteboards has become harder, the general thrill of school has increased. While high school was engaging in its own right and while discussing Greek epics and studying organic chemistry over Skype calls was undoubtedly unique, the end of high school brought along triteness and the longing for something new. The move to UT certainly provided the shift in atmosphere and sense of vibrancy that my life needed.

There are the friendly faces, always willing to study together, to argue over the humanistic architectural factors of the student union, and to share in frustration about not knowing how to calculate the eigenvectors of matrices with repeated roots. There are the many study spaces, from the main library, to the gym, to the picnic benches, to the coffee shops along the river—no longer am I confined to my desk and dining table and local Starbucks. There are the classes that only spur on my excitement to become a civil engineer—while I appreciated the seven years of Latin I took growing up, my excitement about my upcoming classes in concrete materials, reinforced concrete design, and advanced concrete design is incomparably greater.

Admittedly, I don’t know how to be anything but a student. While the setting of my academic career has changed from being at home to the internet to now a public university, the themes are still the same. Classes, homework, and tests have ruled my priorities since as long as I can remember, and school has always been one of the few loves in my life. But learning feels more personal, more tangible, more exciting, and more relevant to my aspirations than high school was. Maybe this academic high is only temporary, and maybe I can only tell myself so much that being an engineering major will not demolish my morale and happiness until it turns into reality, but until then, here’s to the next 3 (4? 5? 6? 7?) years of school.

To Become A Scientist

By Allison.

This is monumental, sacred almost, a holy moment of convergence. Years of waiting, years of believing that I would one day become a scientist merge into this moment. I stand before an NMR machine. This is a thing that has been relegated to textbooks, to exams, to hypothetical situations of scientists and lab coats and latex gloves that were so unlike my experiences up until this moment. The machine is some seven feet tall, a massive metallic cylinder, crisp and new like it had landed in this room mere moments ago.

NMR is a qualitative assessment used to determine the identity of an unknown compound; its incredibly common in organic chemistry research. The machine takes a minuscule amount of compound and spits out a squiggly readout, not unlike an EKG of an erratic heartbeat. Each spike in the readout correlates to protons in the compound; a skilled reader can determine what compound they’re working with from the NMR test. I knew of NMR from textbooks, I had answered questions correctly on exams about these spectra, clinging to the hope that one day my life would be filled with organic chemistry, real organic chemistry in a laboratory filled with beakers and acids and whirring machines. My hope to be a chemist has long inspired me to take science classes, but my love for science was always a distant thing, like a language I was in love with but couldn’t speak. I read about chemistry but I never touched the compounds I spent so long learning about; I knew the six strong acids and I memorized mechanisms for countless reactions, but everything remained distant, theoretical.

I spent my junior year of high school studying the basics of organic chemistry and my love for the subject carried me to this very moment, where this tenacious love transformed into something real. My professor and I are running NMR on a compound we made together from hours of reactions and planning. It is a trivial thing in research to run this spectra, a pitstop to make sure a reaction has progressed well. But still, something like relief washes over me as we wait for the readout to show up on my professor’s computer. I am just as in love with this as I always thought I would be; I am just as obsessed with this science when it correlates to a day spent in a laboratory instead of hours pouring over a textbook.

At the beginning of this semester I approached an organic chemistry professor at Baylor and practically begged to be let into his lab. I didn’t have any laboratory experience, I hadn’t yet taken organic chemistry in college, and I was barely clinging onto an A in my general chemistry course. But still I asked. And after a moment of hesitation and a skeptical glance at my nose ring and messy ponytail, he agreed to work with me. And so, twice a week, chemistry became real. My love for science blossomed into beakers and pipettes and acetone. It is a difficult transition to have only known organic molecules as geometric drawings on a piece of paper. In real life they are mostly orange and yellow liquids, sometimes they are white powders. Hexane is no longer only a string of six squiggled lines in my notebook; it is a clear liquid that cleans beakers incredibly well. Yet, I love hexane all the same.

And so, standing before the NMR machine washes me with excitement for my future. This is it. This is what I’ve always wanted. For me, science has finally become more than theoretical knowledge, as the NMR machine seems to lift it from the pages of the textbook, transform it into a tangible and practical thing.

The semester is almost over now and I have spent many hours in the lab with my professor. We’ve completed frustrating experiments and failed experiments, but I have learned much and I have fallen in love with the quiet moments in a lab, the distinct smell of organic compounds, and the promise of a future in a white coat. What I have always wanted to love has become what I truly do love: the laboratory, protective glasses, and the orange tint of organic molecules swirling in a beaker.

Where The Heart Is

by Erica.

The skyscrapers of downtown LA twinkled on the left, Universal Studios on the right, and the houses below us flickered like fireflies as the people inside them headed to sleep. As my friend and I leaned against the guardrail, our eyes flitting around the valley below, we talked about leaving the city we grew up in, the food that we’d miss, the people that we’d remember, and every other memory that filled the ten years that we’d been friends. As the people in the valley below were only ending their days, here we were, on the side of the mountain, preparing to end a period of our lives that we held dear.

It was 1am on Wednesday, August 17th, and my flight to Texas was in 5 hours.

My summer before college went, in many ways, exactly how I’d imagined (and better). I went on a spur-of-the-moment road trip with one of my closest friends, drove around southern California with my cousin, ate at my favorite SoCal restaurants, all-in-all taking a plethora of good pictures and making a bevy of great memories with the people whom I loved the most.

Leaving California seemed, at the time, impossible. Leaving California was a decision that I questioned during every goodbye last summer, during every tight hug and drive away from the people and places and communities that I treasured the most. I loved the beaches, the traffic, the weather, the palm trees, and every place I had set foot in in the past seventeen years. I loved home.

The first several weeks in Austin were undoubtedly rough. The classes were interesting and the friends were nice, but the comfort of home seemed so absent in the fifty-thousand-student campus I now lived in. But just as VPSA was about finding ways to build friendships that transcended state lines, soon I realized college was about finding ways to ensure that home lives on from a thousand miles away.

It’s a process. It takes small moments, like my middle-school best friend—perhaps one of the people I associate ‘growing up’ with the most—coming to visit me at my new school, where I introduced her to my new friends, city, and life. As she sat and chatted with my college friends as if she too was a part of my new life, I began to understand that the geographical location did not matter as much as the people and memories that were attached to it. As the blend of the old and new continued, I began to find pieces of my old friends in my new friends—in the way they laughed, the things they found excitement in, and their shared love of endlessly roasting me.

But it’s still a process. It takes FaceTimes, Skype calls, texts, Snapchats, and every other form of interaction possible to bridge the distance that college has so brashly established. Some days I feel more at home in Austin than others, some days I wish I was back in Los Angeles more than others. Choosing to stay the summer in Texas instead of at home is a decision I pray I won’t be saddened by too much.

Making the trip back to LA will only continue to become harder. After this summer is sophomore year, then studying abroad, then who knows what kinds of internships, jobs, and opportunities will come my way. Perhaps they will land me back in California, perhaps they will keep me in Texas, or perhaps they will bring me to places I couldn’t even imagine. And so, life chugs on, ever moving forwards and upwards, occasionally making space to fly home for a moment, only bringing me back to Austin again.

 

During my last weekend at home this past summer, on the night of my going-away party, the overwhelming number of well-wishes and sentimental gifts drove me to text Allison and beg her to reassure me that everything was going to be okay.

“It seems like you’re leaving behind a lot,” she told me, “but that’s also because you can’t even imagine the things you’re going to experience in Austin. You literally can’t think of all the opportunities, the internships that will ignite passion in you, the friends that will stick by your side for the rest of your life, and the memories that will undoubtedly be some of your greatest.”

Freshman year is coming to a close, and I am over a thousand miles from where I was a year ago, but somehow, I feel at home.

On I-35, Again.

By Allison.

It takes an even ninety minutes to reach Austin from Baylor’s campus. The trip is spent almost entirely on I-35, the highway practically slicing off the edge of my campus and continuing south, tracing a nearly straight line to Austin. There is little between the two cities, there are cows and trees and gas stations, little towns cropping up and disappearing almost as quickly as they formed. Fast food signs light up the highway more than lampposts in some areas. Traffic cones periodically slow the cars to a slow, steady rhythm, eighteen wheelers and pick up trucks crowd the lanes; otherwise the traffic hurtles past at 75 miles per hour.

Erica and I know distance well. We have waited months to see one another, we have spent hours on Skype, planning our next adventure in lieu of actually spending time together. Late night conversations were almost entirely restricted to text messages; we rarely got to stay up late together while in the same state, let alone room. We know distance because distance has formed our friendship. We have found frustration in the 2,000 miles that divide California and New York, we have felt impatience in the months that have created discontinuity in our interactions.

So it felt upsettingly familiar that college, too, meant different campuses and different experiences, bound together by the tenacious determination to keep our lives intertwined. Erica has established friends in Austin, she has made memories that I will never experience, she has a life carved out for herself 100 miles south of me. I, too, have my own life; professors she will never meet and friendships and laughter that she does not partake in, moments that occur without her.

But we have meet at this intersection of a Texan experience, unsure why so many people wear cowboy boots and love Whataburger. We eat In-n-Out when we are together; we are unable to cope with the stifling heat. We take buses to visit each other and beg friends to let us hitch rides so that we can see each other, just for a weekend, just for a short moment. Our friendship has grown to include Texas, though we are often foreigners in an unfamiliar place; our existence has been colored by this vast state, this new culture.

A hundred miles can sometimes feel like an eternity, but telephone wires and car engines seem to press the distance inwards, collapsing mile after mile until it takes nothing more than a few seconds, nothing more than ninety minutes, to travel the distance, there and back, there and back, and though we find ourselves apart, forever separate, dropped in the cities of Waco and Austin, we are never truly separated.

Road Trips, Airbnbs, and Dallas, Texas

Erica.
My friends and I started talking about spring break at the end of last semester, but compromising between four people only led to two months of disagreement. Flying was too expensive, the beach was too cliché, camping sounded too much like a Dante’s Inferno experience, and all in all, neither one of us had the same idea of what we wanted to do for a week in March. After finally settling on a camping trip and then me quickly realizing I would want nothing more than to not go camping, we settled on visiting the second-most exciting city in the state (due to already living in the first): Dallas.

We decided to leave campus promptly at 9am on the first day of break. By 8:45, two of the four of us were packed and ready in our respective dorm rooms, eagerly awaiting a “I’m outside” text from our friend with the car. But the minutes passed without evidence of life from the other two, so just before 9 we called and texted, only to be met with one “sorry, I just woke up,” and one “sorry, I haven’t left my house yet, but I’ll be there in an hour”. Eventually, only an hour and a half off schedule, we hit the road, the four of us eighteen and nineteen year olds and no parental supervision–truly a dream come true.

The drive there seemed eerily reminiscent of long drives with my siblings on family vacations: there was the same, if not amplified, level of bickering and name-calling, only the roasts were more well-crafted and the crying was less common. Without the safety net of the “I’m telling Mom” card, mutual dragging ensued, with everyone and the entirety of our seven-month-long friendships being fair game. Without parents to keep us on reasonable eating habits, we were excited to eat anything and everything we were craving, but by day 2 I was ready to break down into tears if someone told me I had to eat another donut. Maybe my sugar tolerance had dropped to a reasonable level or maybe donuts and kolaches weren’t actually good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but the reality of getting to eat whatever we wanted seemed less fun than the prospect of it.

Due to none of us being old enough to get a hotel room, we ended up at a charming apartment via Airbnb in the middle of downtown. There was something about the fifteen-foot ceilings and free range of the apartment that amped up the “look at us, we’re kind of adults” feel and made the problems stemming from lack of comfortable sleeping arrangements, poor window insulation, and lack of hairdryer seem minuscule. Apartments were more exciting than dorm rooms, and the full-size fridge and multiple couches made it feel like a luxury vacation.

At other times, it felt like a family vacation with four overgrown kids with drivers’ licenses and high school diplomas. The childlike enthusiasm was still rampant, but geared towards historical events and live music instead of carousels and ice cream parlors. One friend was giddy with excitement about spending hours at the museum on Kennedy’s assassination, buying a JFK shirt from the gift shop, immediately putting it on after we left the museum, and continuing to wear it to bed for the rest of the trip. Another friend beamed ear to ear about finding a restaurant with live jazz, sitting in fascination for hours and and basking in the music as the rest of us exchanged dying glances. It became routine to stop and stare in awe at well-designed buildings and remark on impressively-designed highway systems–cities were like zoos for the civil engineering majors in the group, the jungle-animal enclosure being replaced by a concrete jungle. Every time we’d come across some poorly engineered aspect of the city, someone would remark about how someday, somehow, they’d build something better.

So for several days we went around Dallas, visiting a bevy of museums, eating at the most Texas of places, listening to live music, sitting in pretty parks, and taking enough pictures to stockpile for Instagram posts and Facebook profile pictures. And every night, drained and finished with the excitement of the day, we’d get back to the apartment, crash on the couch, and watch movies and TV shows until 1am. And that was spring break.

Trips like this always seemed like a “when I grow up” kind of thing. “When I have money.” When I’m older.” “When I can do things on my own.” And even though we still can’t check into hotels or have a particularly large amount of money to spend, those ‘when’s are slowly becoming nows, with every school break and lump of money that comes along. Even though this spring break we could only make it several hours away from home, with more time and planning, soon our lives will point to bigger adventures in farther places. Maybe Chicago, maybe Boston, and maybe even overseas. More breaks are yet to come, studying abroad is becoming more of an option, and who knows where it will all lead.

There’s something about new cities, new skylines, and new places to be that makes traveling exciting–and with the addition of new friends, adventure seems limitless. This spring break wasn’t the family vacation I was used to, but nevertheless, it was a memorable sort of vacation with a different sort of family.

Headlights

By Allison.

It was two a.m., and I was sitting in my car outside Ben’s house, the headlights providing just enough light for us to see the silhouettes of each other’s faces. The ten minute car ride between our homes always seemed to provide enough time to delve into a deep conversation and we had spent countless summer nights stalling in front of his house and talking. We talked about college and our goals and the people we wanted to become. We talked about our messy families and our confusing friendships and our need to move somewhere new. We talked until the summer dusk turned to a dark night, fighting over who had better taste in music and who should control the radio, laughing over our endless inside jokes, praying that the moments we shared together wouldn’t end.

This had become a summer ritual, sitting in the car at some ungodly hour, Ben silencing calls from his mother so that we could talk for just a few more minutes. We shared things that we had never told anyone else, we talked about things we didn’t dare discuss with our other friends. It became a sanctuary, the car, the stillness of night, the knowledge that our lives were deeply, deeply similar and that whatever was said would somehow make our friendship more dynamic, more fluid. We weren’t afraid to share what was going on because the other person always understood, always accepted even when they could not empathize.

But then college rolled around, and Ben headed up to Boston while I flew to Texas. Our night time talks became relegated to Skype calls and long texts, but the endless demand of exams and papers threatened even that precious time. Ben ran from meeting to meeting every day and was caught in a cappella rehearsal while I slaved over chemistry problems and calculus. Our schedules turned our friendship into brief texts and intermittent phone calls. Thanksgiving break was a much needed relief from the strain of a long distance friendship. We quickly fell into our usual patterns; hanging out all day and testing the limits of how late we could talk before one of our parents would demand we return home.

We turned to talking about school, about the semester, how much we had accomplished, how much we still wanted to accomplish. Lofty words dripped from our lips, the names of prestigious fellowships and graduate programs floated around the in the darkness of car. Law school and medical school danced around us and PhDs seemed to wrap themselves around our laughter, the promise of growth and development both terrifying and invigorating.

And so we sat in the car, talking about grand futures, yet I felt discouraged, so far from the things that I wanted. I was dragging through a chemistry class that was a far cry from organic chemistry research. Ben, filled with hopes to pursue entirely different goals, couldn’t understand why I would so badly want to spend my life in a laboratory, but he encouraged me as if chemistry were his own passion. He told me to boldly pursue what I wanted; he told me doors weren’t opening simply because I wasn’t trying to find out if they were locked before I walked away. I wasn’t doing research, he reminded me because I had never asked anyone to let me work in their lab. He talked for almost an hour, reminding me how far I had come from my days of being at Tech, and how far I could still go, if only I started to take hold of the things in front of me.

The ringing of his phone and his mother’s pleas for him to come inside interrupted our talk and he slipped into his house; I turned on the car engine and pulled away from the curb, the sudden silence giving me room to digest everything he had said. The red glow of a streetlight flooded my car as I idled at an intersection, my thoughts suddenly filled with hope about how much I could accomplish in the short time left in my first semester, how I could set up my second semester of college to be what I really wanted. Inspired and encouraged, filled with the confidence that has always come from this friendship, my fears about the future seemed to fall out of my car, left scattered across the road under the blinking streetlight.