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Persisting in the Face of  Academic Challenges

Persisting in the Face of Academic Challenges

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“That was my reality. I realized it might take me longer to dothan some others, but since it was important to me, I knew I would have to work to get what I wanted.”

~ Alaina Bonilla, CUNY astronomy and anthropology student

 

By Mallory Molina

Sometimes a challenge can seem so insurmountable we will forgo pursuing our true interests to avoid them. Whether it’s struggling in class work or not knowing how to ask for help, we all have something that can discourage us from chasing our dreams. This week I sat down with Alaina Bonilla, an undergraduate student at City University of New York (CUNY). She is earning her B.A. in anthropology while simultaneously earning her B.S. in astronomy. She has learned to not let anything stand in the way of getting what she wants.

Alaina grew up in New York, and had an interest in astronomy at a very young age. She loved visiting the planetarium in her high school, and dreamed of going into astronomy. Due to family health challenges, she became financially dependent around the age of 18.

Challenges abound.
When she began attending CUNY, she went with an interest in studying astronomy, but found she excelled in anthropology and struggled in math. She decided to speak with a professor about doing research in astronomy and tried to explain her challenges with math. He looked at her scores, said she would never be successful, and then literally turned his back to her. Knowing that math is foundational to astronomy, she stopped trying to study astronomy and started pursuing her degree in anthropology.

Alaina found the professor’s words discouraging and was initially very upset. Although she switched her major, she never felt completely fulfilled in that course of study. In time, she decided to return to studying astronomy, while finishing her anthropology degree. She knew that she needed to be persistent in order to be successful, so she set out to be just that.

“That was my reality,” she explained. “I realized it might take me longer to do than some others, but since it was important to me, I knew I would have to work to get what I wanted.” She studied more often and harder, and asked questions in class; slowly her grades and understanding improved, and she found herself confident ground.

A hopeful trajectory.
Through the course of her studies, Alaina eventually met Dr. Charles Liu, a professor at CUNY and a member of the
Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) collaboration. He encouraged her to follow her astronomy dreams and helped her get more involved in both research and in the astronomy community. “He is amazing, and really understands and encourages my passion for the field,” she explained.

Last year Alaina was a part of the SDSS Faculty and Student Teams (FAST) and was selected as one of a handful of undergraduate students from across the country to work on astronomy research using SDSS data. She is continuing to work this summer in the SDSS Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) and is very excited to pursue that work. “This program and Dr. Liu will help me become the astrophysicist I want to be,” she concluded.

Alaina has endured many trials in her career so far, and knows the importance of not shying away from challenges. She encourages everyone to work with people who understand your reality, and can meet you where you are in your career and current understanding of the field you’re interested in. She is living proof that we should never shy away from pursuing our interests, no matter how difficult, if it means giving up on what we want to achieve in life.

 


Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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