PART IV: FRESHMAN YEAR

We’re talking 2012.

I, uh, did some things that I will gloss over here. Let’s just say, I had a few tiny minor run ins with law enforcement when I was 18. But hey – I did my time! I volunteered for over 50 hours to a women’s shelter where domestic violence victims can begin to escape their spouse’s abuse. Many times children are involved. That was a very real time of my life. I honestly couldn’t stomach it and regrettably I admit that after only officially helping out at the secret shelter for a few days, I quit. 😦 I’m a quitter.

I really do have so much respect for people who work in social work and similar for having the stability to help calm people and bring them to a slightly better state. We did over 20 hours of training, learning methods when being on the suicide hotline; I knew what I needed to do and I did it. Oh, but the emotions of not knowing what happened and if they were okay after they hung up the phone. 

So – freshman year, I had no idea what I was doing! I began my first ever college semester with an ‘Undeclared’ major. I remember when I moved into my first dorm. I lived on the first floor of Tyler Hall in a dorm clearly designed for differently abled people. It was much larger than the other dorms with a large bathroom and large shower (with a foldable chair installed!). I woke my parents up legit at 4am like a kid on Christmas morning on move in day (Radford U is a good 4 hour drive from my hometown). I was both excited and terrified but let me explain – I was grounded pretty strictly that last month of the summer before heading to college because of my first underage drinking offense. So, at this point, I would do anything to get out of the house and away from my parents’ control (and back in trouble, apparently!). So we had the truck loaded with dorm accessories and necessities and headed from the coastal plains of the eastern coast of Virginia to deep into the Appalachian mountains.

Since I made my parents leave at 4am, we got there by 8am. And, since my dorm was on the first floor and close to Tyler Ave, we had a way easier time moving me into my dorm than most of the other parents who had to haul trip after trip of dorm goodies as far up as thirteen stories in the biggest (and oldest) dorm on campus, Muse Hall. We spent a few hours moving into my dorm and then explored town a little together. My dorm mate wouldn’t arrive to move in until about 10pm that night. She was a sophomore so it wasn’t that unusual. Most of the time freshman move in first because they are eager to explore and settle in.

When it was time for my parents to leave, I was really, really sad and scared and felt really alone. It started to dawn on me that for the first time ever, I was being left alone to my own devices in a strange town with strangle people (even though over a dozen of my high school class mates also moved in that day). I felt really alone. I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I guess I just realized how scary this new chapter could be for me. I hope I do okay in my college classes, I hope I am able to make friends, I hope me and my dorm mate get along, I hope I don’t walk into the wrong class room or get obviously lost on campus (by the way I do have a funny story on that topic) were all fears now running through my mind. 

As soon as my parents left, I texted a girl I almost roomed with, but ended up being switched into Tyler Hall at the last minute, to see if she wanted to hang out. I wanted to not be thinking about how terrified and alone I felt. I’m sure Brynne and her dorm mate felt the same way. And so, we met up. We became very close friends until she decided Radford wasn’t for her after her sophomore year, and went to Midway University in Kentucky to pursue Equine studies. We remain in touch to this day! I think fondly of our years at Radford together.

Halfway through my first fall semester at Radford is when I declared my major in physics.

I was doing well in my first college classes because they were all easy general education classes like Art 100, University 100 (freshman seminar), etc. I wasn’t taking any challenging courses at this time. No math, no introduction to astronomy, no physics 100. In fact, I did consider taking introductory astronomy with Dr. Brockway but the Quest guide they had at freshman orientation told me not to! She said, “Oh, yeah, if you’re not good at math then don’t take that course. It’s a lot of math.” I really regretted listening to her. Because of her remark, I did not take astronomy my freshman year. It didn’t hold me back but it certainly didn’t push me towards physics

My toughest class turned out to be philosophy 100. This was the class that kept me from getting straight A’s my first semester and I WAS SO UPSET. Especially because the class had no grading structure and I hadn’t the slightest idea I would earn a C in her class until, well, when I earned a C. I strived for straight A’s after that and to this day, I have never made straight A’s. Lol, it’s like I cursed myself somehow.

Our freshman seminar was meant to help us adjust to this new life and to learn to take advantage of various resources like club fairs and local town festivals and deciding what to major in. The town and region has a rich culture and they have many celebratory festivals and holidays – I really loved that about Radford. I even took an Appalachian studies class my first semester and I learned A LOT about the region. It is very interesting and inspiring but also sometimes sad and heartbreaking. This is where I started to truly appreciate the heritage of the South, of bluegrass and other music genres, of the hardship of the Appalachian peoples and minorities in the region. I treasure the knowledge I learned in that class to this day!

Though, the most I got out of my freshman seminar, University 100, was declaring my major in physics. My instructor for the course was encouraging, supportive, and helpful when I told her what I wanted to do. She walked me to the office of the department chair of Physics, Dr. Jaronski at the time, to get him to sign off on my major declaration. She was so happy and proud for me! I, on the other hand, was like

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I hope I made the right move?

Declaring my major in physics was not a pivotal moment, however. It was just the beginning.

And this is where shit gets crazy. I guess University 100 helped me more than I realized at the time because after declaring my major in physics – I wanted to immerse myself in that life. I went to the club fair (that we were graded on attending in University 100, lol) and signed up to join the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Then, I made my appointment with my new advisor, Dr. Brockway, the advisor for physics majors who want to concentrate on astronomy, to register for spring classes. He almost convinced me to pick up the second semester of physics without having taken the first half and having zero background in physics or calculus or math, really. I decided to wait to begin physics courses for the fall semester of my sophomore year and that turned out fine. Meeting with Dr. Brockway, I learned that Radford had their own state-of-the-art OBSERVATORY with a TELESCOPE! That sparked my interest and I would attend the public Friday night observing sessions whenever possib
le. This was truly the beginning of learning to not only make a decision to pursue something but also to go BIG with it; to immerse yourself in that subject and everything it has to offer. 

I believe this is how you can increase your chances in being successful at something. Commit to it, immerse in it, and work at thriving in it, in any way possible. Throw yourself into it. Throw your back into it. Jump off that edge and dive into it. Whatever metaphor you need to hear to convince yourself, just do it!

In the spring semester of my freshman year, I took my first ever calculus course. I studied. I did the homework. I emailed the professor and visited his office hours when I didn’t understand something. I was surprised this strategy actually worked – I got an A. But, the rest was not history

The fall semester of my sophomore year, I was in algebra-based physics, semester I. We learned vector addition, the kinematic equations, and Newton’s laws. Now, this stuff seems totally trivial to me but back then, I had no idea what was going on. In fact, I failed my first exam in the course, hard. I believe it was a 54. I remember the smelly guy next to me who had little interest in the course got a 55. That pissed me off. I’M A PHYSICS MAJOR, I thought, I SHOULD BE DOING BETTER THAN THIS GUY. I can be pretty competitive sometimes – it’s a blessing and a curse I think. But in this particular instance it motivated me to do better. I started studying. A lot. This is when I realized that I actually never knew how to study in high school. I never sat down and just practiced problems and concepts in high school and, for the first time ever, I was doing it for this physics course. I realized it’s not that I’m dumb and can’t understand physics, it’s that I was learning, for the first time, the tools I needed to succeed in physics. And only then, was the rest history. 

Part III: Radford University

Radford University was the best decision I ever made.

I may be a Clemson Tiger now, but I’ll always be a Highlander at heart. Yes, our mascot is a highlander: a dude in a plaid kilt playing the bag pipes, representing the Scotch-Irish heritage of the western part of Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. I love that town and the school. 

This is the place where I discovered physics. 

I remember starting my senior year of high school not really sure what I wanted to do. Go to college? What were my other options? It didn’t really occur to me to start thinking about these things so far in advance. Soon, into the fall semester of my senior year, everyone is talking about college applications. I’m just like

I guess I should at least apply to college too? Idk. What else would I do? So I applied for Radford, Longwood, Virginia Commonwealth, James Madison, and George Mason. I got into all of them except for JMU and GMU. GMU waitlisted me but I never heard back. I visit Radford, Longwood, and VCU. Radford was by far my favorite. The campus was beautiful! We visited in April I think, over my spring break my senior year. I fell in love with the campus and the town. I loved that you could walk from one end of campus to the other in fifteen to twenty minutes AND the University sits in the Appalachian mountains where, at the top of Jefferson street, reveals a horizon of mountains. This is where I wanted to be! At this point, I hadn’t a thought about what I would study. I simply knew this is where I could see myself living and studying for four years. The rest can be figured out later. 

Part II: The Awkward Years

That’s right ladies and gentleman, here we go with the most awkward time of everyone’s lives: middle and high school. My stomach twists to think about it! I was so weird! I succumbed to insecurities in middle school that drove a lot of what I did. That didn’t go away in high school either but high school wasn’t that bad I guess. I feel like I was a normal student but at the same time not. Most memorably, I met my best friend in the whole world in high school. Teresa and I were attached at the hip all through out high school and we have been close friends for over a decade now. While I’m studying in Clemson, SC she’s out in Colorado maybe snowboarding, building ice castles, teaching little kids how to snowboard, playing bass guitar, just you know, a regular Thursday for Teresa. But, if it’s the summer time, she’s in Alaska! She is an actual nomad and people should study her for secrets of the nomadic way of life (lol). But okay, that’s not why we are here.

We’re here because I am going to try to convince you that anyone can study physics for a living. I’m not special, I don’t have a gift, none of that. I was never good at the sciences or in mathematics. They were consistently my worst subjects in grade school; from middle school up until I graduated high school. By the time I entered my junior year of high school, I was in Pre-Pre-Calculus (Yes, two Pre’s), not understanding or retaining a lick and scraping by on a D in the class. I just barely passed the class by the end of the year and by senior year, they told me I finished all of my math requirements for the advanced diploma. So, I said, cool. Not gonna take math if I don’t have to, right? So, I didn’t. I didn’t take physics either. I took oceanography my senior year. All I remember from that class is how sweet the teacher was and how mean classmates were to her.

In 2012, I graduated from high school with highest honors and an advanced diploma. I had not taken any calculus or physics courses up to this point (I will realize in college that I had no study skills. How I got a 3.5 in high school still bewilders me). I was very good at failing math and science classes so when I entered Radford University as a freshman, it was not a thought at the time that I would pursue physics. I enrolled as “Undeclared”.

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Teresa and I at our first Badfish concert (we went to five!). This is circa 2013.
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Our 2012 high school graduation.
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Teresa’s 2016 college graduation.

Part I: Contact

First of all,

Greatest movie, book, author, and astronomer of all time. Contact by Carl Sagan. My dad and I watched that movie together a lot growing up. On top of that, Dad always had a telescope of some kind. We would look at planets, stars, the moon, whatever was out. If I’m being honest, Dad was the big nerd that made me the nerd I am. But really, these two things are what sparked my interest in those little points of light in the night sky. I idolized Ellie Arroway (main character in Contact) growing up. I wanted to be smart! I wanted to be that girl that had a book for every occasion: a “bus” book, a “lunch break” book, a “theater class” book, you know, like Rory Gilmore. I loved Rory Gilmore in Girlmore Girls, too. It’s a TV series following a girl beginning in high school named Rory. Rory is such a strong, smart girl driven to go to Harvard and her mother is very eccentric and quirky. I loved it. I wanted to be like that. And yes, I am embarrassed to say that I got all my inspo from TV and movies. But hey, I could spin this around to say something like: See? Even I didn’t know reality yet. It’s not like I was solving equations since I could talk or anything.  In fact, math and science turned out to be a pretty big struggle for me in elementary school and that persisted into high school.

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This was in Harder Klum overlooking Gindelwald. We visited several cities in Switzerland including Grindelwald, Spiez, and Interlaken. All equally stunning in beauty and nature.
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Spiez, Switzerland (ft. Spiez Castle) 🏰
The great Kirsten and Jacob Ruth! Belgium has been good to you but we are excited to have you back in the states soon!
This concludes Part I but, on another note: Look at Switzerland! I visited some friends this past summer (Jacob and Kirsten) and we explored Europe together. It was me and Noah’s first time traveling out of the country. It was absolutely lovely. Hey! This gives me a great idea for another post.