There’s a saying that the first 2 years of marriage are the hardest, and I think the same is true for college.
My Freshman and Sophomore years in college kicked my butt. I thought I was well prepared. I had done well in advanced classes in high school and even had taken AP calculus. I was living at home with my parents and I had a scholarship that covered all my tuition and fees, so I was able to focus on my studies without having to work during the school year.
Before the first semester started I went to freshman orientation and met a girl who would become one of my best friends through college. We sat by each other at an engineering pre-major meeting and immediately became friends. She was her class valedictorian and one of the smartest person I have ever met. We decided to sign up for a few of the same technical classes our first semester and I’m glad I had a friend and ally from day one.
The lower level STEM college courses are often called “weed-out” classes. They are large classes with no personal attention from the professors. My general chemistry class had over 200 students, general physics had a over a hundred students, and my calculus class size was about 30 students (which was still much larger than my small high school AP calculus class with just five students).
Professors would quickly flip through slides and write a few equations on the board expecting everyone to keep up. Often in the weed-out classes the entire class would fail a test so the professor would have to grade on a curve, just so people would pass. I had jumped in deep with an ambitious plan to get my engineering degree in four years. I was taking 15 to17 credit hours per semester and had to take several of the weed-out classes together in the same semester.
That wild and crazy fun college experience you see in movies and hear people talk about didn’t happen for me. I lived at home, so I didn’t get the dorm experience. My classes and schedule were so demanding I spent every night and weekend studying. I didn’t go to many bars or parties because I didn’t have time, and to be honest, I wasn’t interested in that anyway.
At the end of my first semester I met my future husband. He is handsome, nice, fun and outgoing and he was majoring in mechanical engineering. We had a lot in common and we knew right away that we were each other’s perfect match. He was ahead of me in school and helped me in some of my weed-out classes that he’d already survived. We also later took spanish and thermodynamics classes together.
General physics is the class that almost derailed my engineering career. I took it the second semester of my freshman year. Even though I had taken physics in high school, this class felt like a whole new language that I just couldn’t understand. No matter how much I paid attention in class and studied, I still failed every test. Half way through the semester I was at risk of failing the class.
My boyfriend and friends would help me study and help with my homework, and I started go see the professor weekly with questions. One day when I was in my professor’s office he told me, “You have to be able to do physics to be an engineer. If you can’t pass this class how do you expect to become an engineer?” I went home and cried.
I wondered if he was right, did I have what it takes to be an engineer? Was I smart enough? Did I even really want this? If it was going to all be like this class I didn’t think I did want to continue on. I almost gave up that day.
But I have an amazing family and supportive friends who encouraged me to keep going. I still liked my chemistry and calculus courses, so maybe it wouldn’t all be as bad as this general physics class. I buckled down and focused on my homework assignments, took detailed notes in class, studied in my free time, went to the free tutoring sessions in the library, and I went to the professor and TA’s office hours. I hoped all the extra time and hard work over the second half of the semester had helped me pass my last test and final exam.
I was shaking as I signed into the my college webpage to check my grades at the end of the semester. I scanned down the screen until I got to general physics: C+….Whew, I did it! I somehow passed and with a C+, which was a long way from the solid F I had at midterms. I didn’t know I could be so proud of a C on a report card until that day.
I took my first chemical engineering class the first semester of my sophomore year. This is when I found out what a chemical engineer really does (cue the jaw drop…). One day after a rough homework assignment I went home to my mom crying, “I’m going to be a glorified plumber!” The class was all about pipe design and tanks. No mention of mixing colors to make beautiful cosmetics.
After realizing I may not be able to have the career of my dreams, I had to give myself a pep talk to continue on anyway. I was already a year and a half in, almost half way done, I didn’t want to start over now! And I felt so proud every time I told someone I was studying to be a chemical engineer. Their faces would go from shocked, to impressed, to awe. The first words people would say to me were always, “You must be really smart.” But I didn’t know how to respond to that. Yes I had aways gotten good grades, but I was succeeding more so due to hard work than due to being “smart”. Anyone willing to put in the dedication and hours to studying that I did could also become an engineer.
I read articles that said chemical engineers usually only need a bachelor’s degree to get a job and have one of the highest starting salaries. All my new college friends were majoring in engineering too, so we were in this together now. If my friends could do it, then I could too. So I convinced myself it was worth it to continue on…
Did you struggle in any weed-out classes in college too? Did you have time for fun college activities while working on your engineering degree?
Check back for my next post on how I survived the final two years.
One of my most challenging engineering classes was first year physics, also. From 23 years in the future, I suspect that it was challenging because the material was not well taught. Someone once told me that if my boss makes the wrong decision, it is my fault for not presenting him with the information in such a way that he would elect to make the correct decision. Can you imagine how different your engineering studies would have been if instead of slapping around a few formulas on the board, the professors put effort into teaching the information? I had a few engineering professors that were very good teachers. These were the exception. In the rest of the classes, the reason we worked so hard was because we had to learn the material ourselves from various texts. My take-away from a four-year mechanical engineering degree was the ability to pick up a book and learn something on my own. It sounds like you had a similar experience.
I completely agree Florence! My next post is about my final 2 years in college, and how one great professor really helped everything click for me and I started to do really well in school. A good professor who knows how to teach the subject well is so important!
I just found your blog and it’s so nice to find someone to relate to! I am a civil engineer and also met my current boyfriend in college 6 years ago. I think the hardest part of the engineering courses for me was confidence. I struggled with believing I could do it. The guys in my courses constantly acted like it was the easiest thing in the world. Looking back I know I was equally capable and smart but too doubtful of myself. I was the youngest ASCE president in my college yet still had impostor syndrome even during my first job. I want to encourage young girls to believe in themselves and be leaders.
Thanks so much for sharing that story Susana! I completely agree that a lot of women (myself included) struggle with confidence and believing in ourselves. I still struggle with it, but writing this blog and looking back over my career has made me realize how capable I was (and still am). I hope that women will gain self-confidence in their abilities by seeing more women role-models in engineering. 🙂