By Mallory Molina
There are many demands to perform well in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, but it can be hard to deliver when you feel isolated. I have experienced this many times in my career so far, and so I want to address this issue by looking at my own experiences. Exploring a holistic view of my journey in isolation has been necessary in positioning me to realize that support systems are key to understanding and overcoming my challenging experiences in a STEM field.
I first fell in love with astronomy when I was four. I grew up in Texas, and that year my family visited the NASA center in Houston. From there, I explored the possibilities of studying space, and I decided I wanted to study astrophysics in 7th grade.
While I had many encouraging teachers who supported me, I had many issues as well. I was tested for English as a Second Language every year in elementary school, and was put in remedial classes solely based on my last name in high school. My parents even had to go to the school with paperwork to prove I didn’t need those classes. I was also the only girl seriously interested in physics in my year. I never felt like I fit in, and ultimately, I found myself really hating school.
In my senior year of high school, my parents told me I needed a full-ride scholarship if I wanted to go to a good school. I felt an immense amount of pressure to get that full ride, and when I finally got it, I hoped all the discrimination and loneliness would disappear.
My first year of college, I realized everyone else in my class had taken AP physics, and I quickly fell behind. I spent most weekends struggling to catch up and wondering if my dream was worth it. Then in my second year, I started doing research and immediately fell in love. My work was intriguing and exciting, and something I excelled at. I felt great about myself. However, since my scholarship was based on my ethnicity, I often heard comments like, “You’re so lucky you’re Hispanic; everything is just given to you.” I started to question if I deserved to be there and to lose confidence in my abilities.
In order to push through these issues, I would call my Dad. He is a professor, so he has contended with many of the same issues as he’s progressed through his education and career. I enjoyed that I could speak to someone candidly, but it was over the phone, and I felt like no one around me understood.
By the time I started to apply for graduate schools, I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone about my heritage. While I was still proud of who I was, I never brought it up unless I knew the person well. Eventually, I did tell my friends at my graduate program, but the comments began again. Since I was already struggling with my identity, I began to believe it. I was emotionally low and felt isolated for about a year during graduate school. I thought I was weak for letting this get to me. I spiraled for about a year—the same year I took my oral qualifying exam—which was so stressful I thought about quitting. The only thing that kept me going was my love of research, and the hope that I was wrong about myself.
After I passed my qualifying exam, I decided to talk to my advisor about some of the issues I was dealing with. When I told him, I was worried he would think I was weak or he wouldn’t understand. Instead he completely understood my situation and was really supportive. I know that I am lucky to have an advisor who understood and was willing to listen and help. The fact that I found someone in my department who believed in me and cared about my issues really inspired me to reach out to others and try to let people in, as well as to help other people. I am really grateful for that experience.
Through these experiences, especially those in graduate school, I realized that it is impossible to be unaffected by the environment in which you find yourself. I tried to ignore issues surrounding me, and it only made me feel more alone. I thought that since I had friends, I shouldn’t feel alone, but that is not the same as having a support system. Friends are people who you enjoy being around and while they can act a support system, they are not inherently the same. A support system is a group of people you feel safe talking about the issues you face. The ability to talk about these issues and know that you won’t be judged or ridiculed is vital to being successful.
It can be challenging to build your support system from scratch, which is why my Dad was my first person; I know he is always in my corner. If you are starting to build a support system, I recommend finding someone you know you can trust, even if she or he isn’t in your field. As you continue to progress, you may find more people who are supportive in your field, but don’t feel the need to have a large group of people immediately. It is more important to have a small group you can trust, than a large group you don’t. Remember this support system is for you, so you need to be happy.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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