school

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.

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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.

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.