When I Wanted to be An Astronaut… [part 4]

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less traveled by" -Robert Frost

(This is part 4 in what’s turned into an ongoing series where I reflect on my career aspirations through the years. Part 1 here | Part 2 here | Part 3 here)

So I’m in Copenhagen, recovering from my mental breakdown and trying to figure out what’s next. Ultimately, I decided to continue with my English degree, but look into either adding some sort of science-y minor or adding a double major in Neuroscience.

Problem: Cal Poly doesn’t offer a major in Neuroscience.

Okay, fine, I’ll graduate and then go somewhere else to get a second Bachelor’s degree. All my general ed credits should transfer and I’ll just need to catch up in science and math, but that degree should only take a couple years, right? Then I look into master’s programs. Oh look! UCSD and Santa Cruz both offer undergrad Neuroscience programs! Sweet!

I started telling friends my new career goals. Most were puzzled but supportive. Some weren’t quite sure what neuroscience was or what I’d do with it. “But why finish your English degree? Why not just switch?”

Because I still love English. Because I didn’t go this far into the program to just abandon it. Because I’m not going to give up that part of my identity. (In truth, I was kinda relishing this new “rebel” identity where I defied the boundaries between creative and logical thinking and careers.)

I went back to Cal Poly in the fall of 2007 and promptly signed up for basic chemistry and calculus 101.

Guys, I was terrified of calc. I’d admitted to myself by now that chemistry had always been pretty cool, even in high school, because blowing stuff up. But physics? Which is essentially what calculus is? No. Hated it. Couldn’t get it. Nothing but awful memories from that class in high school.

Luckily, I had a pretty cool instructor for that class and did pretty well. It was hard. I was basically learning a whole new way of thinking that just didn’t come naturally to me. But really? Math isn’t as hard as I always made it out to be. If I was really honest with myself, I was always good at math. If I was really, really honest with myself, a part of me…well, didn’t enjoyed, but was contented with the process of solving homework problems in high school. In those classes, it was mainly doing the same thing over and over again, just with different numbers. It was really no different than, say, taking a bucket of balls to the driving range and hitting them, one after the other after the other, to perfect your stroke. Math homework was about repeating a process — solving for x — until you were comfortable with it and could recognize when that particular process could be used.

I just told myself math sucked and I hated it and I was never going to use any of this anyway so it was all stupid and worthless. Well, I still don’t really love calculus or math in general, but I no longer hate or scorn it.

And chemistry was awesome. Even organic chemistry! Oh, that class kicked my ass but it absolutely fascinated me. And I think I loved it because it was all abstract visualization — just like thinking and talking about Big Important Concepts in my English classes. My mind couldn’t fathom these little molecules, too small to comprehend, doing all this stuff to combine and break apart and react and turn into new molecules.

I was excited. I was researching neuroscience programs and looking up transfer requirements and also figuring out what classes I still needed to graduate with my English degree.

Then I started getting unfortunate replies to my emails to various admissions departments.

We’re sorry, but if you already have an undergraduate degree, you will not be able to enroll in an undergraduate program. Please consider looking into our master’s programs…

Derrr-what? Your master’s programs require extensive upper-division coursework in science and math and lab experience! What now?

It was a frustrating few months. I talked to a friend of a friend who advised me not to even bother switching majors or careers right now (oh yeah, now we’re in late summer/early fall 2008, when the economy was going all ker-blooey). I only had two quarters left before graduating from Cal Poly. I had switched to taking the lower-division science and math courses at the local community college because they were cheaper. I was working on my senior project (sort of like an undergrad thesis, a “capstone” project representing your undergrad work — mine was a 20-some page work of fiction). And I was getting tired of being broke.

I also knew that Boyfriend (now-Husband) still had a year to go before graduation. He had spent the first year we dated in Washington, D.C. and I wasn’t crazy about going long-distance again. So I reluctantly took a step back from neuroscience, graduated, kept going to classes at the community college (so I could keep my health insurance) and picked up a part-time job (also, my parents generously agreed to keep supporting me while I figured things out).

to be continued…



One thought on “When I Wanted to be An Astronaut… [part 4]

  1. Pingback: When I Wanted to be An Astronaut… [conclusion] [finally] | The Ponytail Diaries

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