school

2017: Life’s Surprise Roundhouse Kick

by Erica.

2016 was life’s forecasted left hook, with the expected difficulties that came along with graduating high school, saying goodbye to home, and moving halfway across the country for college. But 2017 felt like a surprise roundhouse kick to the face—a surprise because I didn’t know life even knew how to kick—followed by a display of the phrase “kicking him while he’s down”, as if I needed an explanation of what that idiom meant.

After an uneventful start to my year, a number of unaddressed issues in my life decided to coalesce, dragging me to the ground, leaving me flailing on the floor (sometimes literally) from March to May. I had never really cried before college, but there I was, crying in front of a priest I had just met five minutes before, mopping up my tears and mascara with the box of tissues on his office desk.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I hit summer, where peace was promised, and where I could sit and reflect on the past few months of emotional Inferno in solace. But the quietness became crippling after day one and the emptiness only provided room for more stress and breakdowns in the void that school and tests typically filled.

So I breathed another sigh of relief when summer ended and school began again. But even then I was not content, reverting to a period of feeling depressed again, some days unable to get out of bed, some days refusing to function. Then, as if I wasn’t already miserable enough, the one thing I had managed to hold on to the entire year—my grades—faltered too, with a string of really bad test scores making me wonder if I was still the same human being that I was in high school.

People kept telling me that “GPA isn’t everything”, and while that is true, it became difficult to let that comfort me when these same people were excelling in their own classes and didn’t just fail two midterms and a final like I did. It felt like the one thing I had to cling on to while struggling to mitigate the damage in every other aspect of my life—emotional, spiritual, physical—was my ability to do well in school, but after my fifth bad grade and my sixth week of feeling mentally numb I could only shake my head and wonder what’s next, Lord? because I truly did not know what to do next.

But this past year has been filled with realizations of the ways in which I need to grow, not despite these lows but because of them. There were many slow nights this summer that I sat on the Liberal Arts building patio, sometimes journaling, sometimes praying, sometimes crying, sometimes all three, relinquishing any idea that I ever had total control over my life. It admittedly has been a long, slow struggle to understand that God’s intentions for my life and the ways in which He works are something that I may never fully grasp, but no matter how painfully slow life seems, He is still moving me.

And while there were some lows, this past year had the highest of highs in the smallest of moments—eating at that beachside seafood market in California, dancing at that Jon Bellion concert, sitting outside with Allison at 1am—whenever I was hit with an overwhelming gratitude for the moments and people I have been given.

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The Flu and Finals

By Allison.

I spent the weeks leading up to finals with one fervent prayer: could I not, just this once, be entirely stressed out during finals week? Could I take these tests in peace and keep them in perspective, could I please remember that they’re just tests and that they’re going to come and go?

I shared this with my boyfriend, who nodded his head in understanding. Being nineteen is just like that, he had said. There’s something about the hormones and the stress, but things will change over the next few years. Hang in there. 

I’m not sure why finals week was so bad in the past, why I couldn’t seem to just get through it like a rational human. But something about the flurry of too hard exams and too close grades teetering between minus and plus signs threatening to ruin my GPA just created the perfect storm.

And so I prepared to hunker down for another end of semester typhoon: struggling under hours of studying, spending more time rolling around in bed thinking about failing all of my classes and trying to recall calculus theorems than actually sleeping, and dragging my body to the library instead of the dining hall each morning.

But then on the first dead day, the beginning of a two day hiatus in which the university gifts students a full 48 hours to study before the onslaught, I woke up with the flu. At 8 am I staggered out of bed, telling my roommate I felt a little funny, but passed it off as nerves. At 9 am, I opened my online homework and tried to study. By 11, I was shivering uncontrollably. I think I’m gunna go back to bed. I staggered back to my dorm room and slithered under a pile of blankets. I woke up a few hours later considerably worse. My head was spinning and I was sure I was running a temperature. I tried to open up my calculus textbook, but I spent five minutes staring at the page before I accepted reality: I was in no position to study. I was too weak to feel guilty- normally I would feel a twinge of embarrassment over my apparently weak work ethic. A better student would be able to study through the pain. But when my roommate returned to the room that night and told me that I just needed to tell myself I wasn’t sick, I knew this was more than just the common cold that I could power through. I slept through the next two days, waking up to take the maximum recommended daily dose of acetamenophin, falling asleep, and waking back up to throw up the aforementioned medication.

By Thursday night, I revived myself from my fugue state long enough to compose coherent emails to my professors. “I’m not well enough to take your final, how do I handle this situation?”

Their replies were overwhelmingly unsatisfactory: It turns out handling having the flu during finals week means taking finals with the flu.

So I took exams, half shaking, half coughing, sitting in the classroom until I could circle an answer for every question on the test, leaving as soon as my Scantron had fifty penciled in bubbles. I was the first to leave the room. When I made it back to my dorm, I crawled into my bed and fell into uneasy sleep.

By Monday, I made it onto my flight home to New York in some semblance of order. My symptoms had largely dissipated other than an unrelenting, hacking cough. I had taken all of my finals but one, which had been pushed off until January by a merciful professor. And with vague feelings of uneasiness about the probability of the flu having just ruined grades which I had been working hard all semester to maintain, I realized with a weird feeling of satisfaction that during this whole ordeal, I hadn’t succumbed to unsurmountable anxiety. In fact, I had felt almost none.

I spent the week in bed, sweating and crying, and I hadn’t had the energy to really care about finals. I took my exams without studying, I did what I could, and I moved forward, because it was really the only option. So here I was, sitting on a plane, waiting to finally be back home, but feeling oddly satisfied, because, after all, we don’t get to choose how God answers prayer, but He will answer, and sometimes, in the weirdest of ways, getting the flu can feel like an answered prayer.

Iced Hazelnut Lattes

Erica.

When I was thirteen, the local Starbucks sat on the perimeter of my accessible world. With no driver’s license and no reason to leave the house every day (homeschooling felt restrictive sometimes), it was the most exhilarating escape from school and home. Walking a mile just to sit at a table and drink a strawberries and cream Frappuccino was an adventure, and at age thirteen, my life needed adventure.

As time went on, Starbucks served not only to put distance in my life but to bridge it. Becoming friends with Allison in high school meant a 3000-mile friendship filled with copious texting and seeing each other only a few times a year; this scarcity brought along the sense of responsibility to fill every minute with excitement, but the frantic darting from museum to museum in New York and Los Angeles drained even our eager souls. And so we often dipped into the local Starbucks, sitting down with green tea lattes, charging our phones, and talking about the more serious things that never came up while paddle boarding or mini golfing.

But as college rolled around so did friends in closer proximity, and instead of going to coffee shops to chat, I spent Saturday mornings studying with them, together, but separately. Three cups of coffee and a few bagels on the table, we pored over textbooks, each listening to his own Spotify playlist, on the coffee shop patio as Lake Austin lapped on the boards beneath our feet.

I, on occasion, expanded my limits to outside Austin: one Tuesday morning last semester, my cousin and I ended up in a coffee shop in Waco, Texas, a hundred miles from the physics class I was supposed to be in at the time. Fatigued by school, we had impulsively bought bus tickets the night before, hit the road at six am, and there we were, drinking iced chai and planning out our adventures for the day.

As I write this, I am in my seventh coffee shop in the past couple of weeks, and as you read this, I may very well be on my fifteenth. This summer, in all its quiet, uneventful glory, has brought about mornings of opportunities to find the best coffee in Austin. My Moleskine journal is slowly filling up, Jack Johnson’s music has made more frequent appearances on my Spotify, and here I am, scouting out more new coffee shops to house the adventures and memories that this next semester holds.

 

I am continually in awe of the ability of coffee shops to provide an escape from reality amidst reality—the bustle of conversation between cashier and customer not breaking the peace but rather facilitating it. There’s something to be appreciated about these forty different personal bubbles existing at the same time; those typing away on their Macs and those eating their bagels and those sitting with friends and those scribbling away in their journals not infringing upon each other’s space but somehow calmly coexisting.

If these coffee cups could talk, they’d tell of my lightest chats and heartiest laughs, the my rawest conversations and most-appreciated company. They’d tell of the best first dates, the most productive studying, the calmest journaling, and the most tranquil breaks from this harried life. They’d tell of the times I sat with an iced latte, baring my soul to another human, and the times I sat with the same type of latte, baring my soul to a piece of paper.

It’s amazing how much can come along with a cup of coffee.

The Quiet of Summer

Erica.

The last time I was on this yellow-brick road, I was dodging my way through crowds, swimming through the rush of students that poured out of every building at ten before the hour. But now it was barren—a single biker sped past me—and I could zig and zag all I wanted without a human obstacle in my way.

Here I was, back on campus for the summer, and everything was silent.

The most-coveted study spots on campus were devoid of human presence, and even the highly-populated stir fry line at the dining hall was only two people long. Compared to the bustling city within a city UT was between the months of August and May, summer here was a ghost town, and here I was, one of the ghosts.

If last semester was a mathematical function, it’d be a polynomial to the seventeenth degree—its haphazardly-fluctuating slope dependent on the number of lab reports and differential equations and chemistry problem sets due that week. It was sixteen weeks of half-finished to-do lists, running to and from academics, social obligations, emotions, and what have you, but it came and went, and like even the biggest of waves, after crashing, receded back into the sea.

I had spent the entire semester hoping for a break from the suffocating plethora of responsibilities and stress school had brought about. Summer, with my lack of concrete plans, was bound to bring it about, I was sure. And it did—my life did a complete one-eighty in the span of a month, but I soon realized that ironically, the complete stillness seemed even more suffocating than the busyness before.

The first several days were filled with sheer panic. My only class was at 3pm, and nearly everyone I knew had gone home for the summer—those who stayed were either working forty hours a week or slaving away in multiple summer classes. My once-filled schedule was now wide open, and my daily to-do list contained only a couple low-intensity items—a concept I was unfamiliar with. Where was the homework? The student orgs? The friends? The perpetual state of stress?

But here I am, halfway into summer, slowly adjusting to the slower pace of life that has been brought about. Every morning, every night, is a lesson in being content in the quiet, in finding a sense of fulfillment in every day without having written a lab report or slaving away in the library until three am. While the lack of constant human interaction is still often draining, my open days have provided more room for dredging up old hobbies and attempting new ambitions that during the semester I had pushed off, filing them under “things to do when I actually have time.”

For the next couple of months, being unable to hide behind the all-too-convenient excuse of “I’m too busy” means cracking open the C.S. Lewis book I bought months ago, filling out empty journals, and going to the gym more than once every two months. It means spending my mornings building the perfect Spotify playlist, and walking to the music building to play the piano for the first time since middle school. It means sitting outside in the warm night air, listening to the cicadas and hoping the raccoons wandering around the patio don’t carry rabies.

After a semester of running, literally and figuratively, from one commitment to the next, this summer I am learning how to be still.

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.