school

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.

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.

Grams per Mole, And Other Things I’ve Learned

Allison here, your future chemist.

Every Friday in chemistry, my professor gives the class a quiz. The questions are often much more complicated than anything we’ve covered in class and most students walk away with discouragingly low grades. We complain collectively at the torture of Friday quizzes, fifteen evil questions standing between us and a promising Friday afternoon. I have taken to frantically studying on Thursday nights, trying to make sense of the messy handwritten notes we receive each week in lieu of a power point presentation or even references to chapters in our seemingly helpful textbook. (Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be capable of knowing how helpful the textbook actually is, as I haven’t be assigned any reading from it, nor do any of our chemistry lessons correspond to sections in the book. But it does seem like it’s glossy pages and colored diagrams could be of assistance.) So ultimately, I am on my own to make sense of what little I can. I cram as many equations into my frazzled mind as I can handle but, quite simply, the quizzes are always harder than anything I’m prepared to take.

Two weeks ago, I begrudgingly made my way to Friday’s chemistry class, knowing a quiz that I couldn’t possibly score an A on awaited me. However, as I made my way through each question, I found that I knew many of the answers. I left class pleasantly surprised at how well I felt I had done; I let myself feel a moment of joy, believing that my hard studying might finally be paying off. The next Monday I strode into class, searching for my name on one of the quiz papers that the professor had laid out on a desk. I pulled mine from the pile, the gleam of an A written in red pen across the top of my paper already forming in my mind. But a B was the only thing staring back at me.

I frantically scanned through the questions. How could I have gotten anything wrong? The first question was marked with red pen. I was startled. It was by far the easiest question on the quiz. The red pen, however, was not marked through my own writing, but the typed question on the page. The professor had written the units for a given number incorrectly in the question. The pen marked the units incorrect, striking a red line through his own mistake. My work was counted incorrect because I, too, had used those units.

I was indignant. I had done all the work correctly, I had simply copied the mistake the professor had printed.

I looked to the girl next to me, asking her if she had gotten the question wrong as well. She also has a red mark struck through the question itself, but the professor hadn’t take off points. I laugh and show her my paper; she shakes her head in frustration. Another day in chemistry. I approach my professor after class, expecting a reasonable answer for this absurdity. Surely randomly marking some of the students incorrect for his own work doesn’t make for a fair grading system.

He put a shaky hand on my shoulder and told me he expected that I would know the correct units for molar mass, even when it wasn’t written correctly on the test. I do not tell him that I, in fact, also expected him to know the correct units for molar mass, considering his PhD in chemistry and some fifty years of teaching experience. But instead I smile. Of course.

And he’s right, I do know the correct units for molar mass. And I suppose next time, I’ll write down the correct units, even when my test paper is littered with typos, and even when my professor tells me the units include Joules instead of moles.

College has been difficult, filled with challenging essays assigned with vague prompts and math problems that force me to take the 80th derivative of some obscure equation. I know, regardless of how difficult my assignments become or how impossible my workload seems, I can give my all and will continue to find success. But, of course, I will always have the absurdities of chemistry professors and their interesting grading choices to keep me humble.

From a Class of 63 to a Class of 8,000

by Erica

It’s been exactly a month. It’s been exactly a month since my mom and sisters said goodbye to me and disappeared out my dorm room. It’s been exactly a month since I sat in this chair for the first time, listening to the faint laughter of dozens of strangers trickling in through the cracks in my door.

These past four-and-something weeks have both flown by and dragged along, leaving me mystified that so much time has already gone by but also slightly discouraged that only so little has already passed. The 450-people chemistry lectures, the 100,000-people football games, the masses of people swarming the sidewalks to get to their classes, this is a far cry from what I was used to as a homeschooled kid.

I’m still in a state of wonder. I still haven’t entirely digested the fact that I’m in college and this is not a summer camp, that I’m here for four years and not four weeks, and that this is where I live now. Only ten percent of the students at UT are from out of state, and whenever I refuse to say “y’all” or in some other way indignantly remind people that my home is in California, my new friends remind me that this is my home now.

And I guess they’re kind of right.

Texas, with its red-roofed academic buildings and disgusting weather, with its beating sun that has blessed me with a cute shorts and sock tan and the need to slather my body with sunscreen every morning, is where I now live.

The other day I passed the spot beneath the giant shadow of the stadium, where I stood back in March and had my very first “wow, I could actually see myself going to this school” moment. This time, six months later, I was decked out in burnt orange, going off to my very first football game as a Texas Longhorn.

My roommate currently plays the role of the "disappointed mother figure" in my life

My roommate currently plays the role of the “disappointed mother figure” in my life

The process is slow. Every Snapchat from my sisters and text from my mother and email from my dad reminds me of two months ago, when I was in California and not Texas, in my bedroom and not my dorm room. But while I find joy in these little pieces of home, in the California avocado that my friend mailed me and the Snapchat stories from back in SoCal, I begin to realize the empowering community and the myriad of opportunities waiting for me outside my dorm room.

This is what I had been aching for all throughout senior year and all throughout high school: the clubs, the student orgs, the food and the freedom. I graduated high school solely for the Chick-Fil-A that is now only a couple hundred steps away. I didn’t have Chick-Fil-A right outside my door in California.

And while I still have a couple months to go until I go back home for Thanksgiving, it’s comforting to know that a little piece of my old life, of high school, and of home rests at Baylor with Allison, just a bus ride away.

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For my Teachers.

Allison here. This post is going to be ironic because it’s partially about grammar and it’s undoubtedly filled with terrible grammar mistakes. Let me live.

In fifth grade, my teacher handed out glossy orange books, the words “Sadlier Grammar” written across them in a distasteful comic sans font, announcing that we were beginning a unit on writing. Filled with the rules and idiosyncrasies of the English language, the book was a wonder to me as a young writer trying to flourish into a novelist; in my mind, this book ranked somewhere between the beauty of the flowers that bloomed along the sidewalk on my walk to school and the vastness of the Grand Canyon I had peered down into a few years prior. I had struck gold. If I knew everything in this book, I thought, surely I could learn how to write a short story, an art that had recently been introduced to me. Equipped with my orange book and my teacher’s lessons, I spent the year shaping a story about a hamster chasing the elusive treat of a carrot. When the year was over, our short stories submitted for grading, the class returned their books back to our teacher. But when my turn came to hand over the sacred text, my teacher pushed the small volume back into my hands. “Keep it,” she told me. “You can write novels one day.”

Writing a novel was a distant goal at the age of twelve, but my teacher’s words made my silent dream to become an author feel valid. The hundreds of books I had poured over well past my bed time, those very stories that I adored, became attainable pursuits, they became the model for something I could someday produce if I so wanted. Suddenly I, equipped with my Sadlier Grammar Workshop practice book and my teacher’s support, could become the next Roald Dahl or Lois Lowry.

By eighth grade, studying biology had pushed my desire to become an author into my peripheral as I became entranced with genetics, dissections, and lab reports. My biology teacher told me to take the SAT subject test even though I was 13. She pushed me to read Richard Preston’s novels and she handed me extra labs when I couldn’t stop talking about how much I loved the previous one. I adored sitting with my textbook and learning about something I had never heard of before, science. I stayed up reading about the Human Genome Project and my teacher told me I could work on countless projects in the science fields. She stayed with me after school nearly every day, discussing the lesson she had taught earlier in the day. My biology teacher made my future feel unfettered; she seemingly handed me the entirety of the field of science and promised me I could explore any of it.

My algebra teacher kept in touch with me even after I had left middle school and he gave me textbooks when I wanted to learn precalculus on my own. When I started my advanced physics course, my previous physics teacher demanded to look over my course textbook so he could be certain I was learning everything I needed to know. He gave me topics I should learn to supplement the course and wrote down a list of books I should read to help me learn the math I would need to know for higher level physics.

Today, my junior year writing teacher travelled over an hour to visit with me after flying in from Asia, just so we could grab lunch and I could tour her around Manhattan for a few hours. Between our conversations about friendship and writing and college, she encouraged me to continue to pursue my future intentionally and to maintain strict priorities, even when it seemed like others were achieving more glamorous goals than I. When I mentioned how difficult it was to be attending Baylor in the fall instead of some ivy covered institution, she talked about my maturity in picking a school that was right for me, even when other people didn’t appreciate my decision.

Year after year, I have encountered teachers that have worked far above their job descriptions to inspire me to grow into a independent learner and creative thinker. Teachers have supported me through my transitions from middle school to high school, and again from Tech to home schooling. They have endlessly encouraged me to become someone I am proud of, both as a student and as a person.

Yesterday, my mom laughed as I listed off the math courses I plan to take before I graduate college.

“Well there’s the rest of the calculus sequences, and then differential equations and linear algebra, and of course I’ll need to learn plenty of statistics…” She interrupted my ramble with a laugh. “You’ll be a math teacher before you know it.” She was right; I have long been considering the option of becoming a professor and teaching math is a passion of mine. Just like my dreams to become an author morphed into a desire to be a scientist, so I know that my ambitions will likely change as I enter college, where I will undoubtedly be influenced by new professors and encouraged by adults willing to speak into my life.

Maybe one day I will stand before my own throng of helpless students seeking guidance, or maybe I will work in a quiet lab with nothing but Bunsen burners to keep me company, but whatever my profession, I will always be indebted to those that chose to use their careers to pour into my own.