We all need to see girls and young women on the hero’s journey
I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to major in biomedical engineering, then go to med school, then design artificial body parts.
That’s how I started college – as a biomedical engineer.
I finished as an English major.
I know this is not exactly failure – so sad that I got to go to college, much less finish, but I abandoned my dreams because I didn’t think I could do it.
One of my roommates got the same grades I did freshman year in chemistry, calculus, and physics. She now has a PhD in comp sci.
I could have done it.
But I didn’t think I could.
There was nobody to tell me I could.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I should have pulled myself up by my bootstraps and all that. I should have known – I should have persisted – there are plenty of women who conquered these obstacles – etc., etc., etc.
But I didn’t.
I was weak. I was ignorant. I was scared.
My parents were first-generation college students. My grandparents didn’t go past 8th grade. Not because they didn’t want to but because their families needed them to work.
My dad was the first (and only one) of his siblings to go to college. He went on the GI Bill after enlisting in the Coast Guard. After he finished college, he joined the air force, which is where he spent his career.
That is, my dad risked his life to go to college. The military is great in peacetime (what is that these days?) but when there’s a war, being shot at is part of your job description.
Notice it’s the not the children of the affluent joining the military.
My mom was the first of her siblings (not the last) to go to college. She went to the University of Wisconsin on a full academic scholarship, but dropped out to get married. It was hard, she said, to be the poor girl in the dorm. Her roommate had a closet full of new clothes that still had all the tags. My mom sewed her own clothes and didn’t even have, she said, a dime to buy coffee.
My mom does not exaggerate. She meant that she literally did not have an extra dime to get coffee with her friends.
My parents didn’t know about the SATs or how to apply for college. I had a really good counselor my junior year of high school when we lived in the Panama Canal Zone, but we moved that summer and my new counselor was super busy and didn’t have time for me.
Fortunately, I had already taken my SATs and had already identified the college I wanted to attend, but a little more guidance would have been nice, such as when the recruiter from Princeton came to my high school and urged me to apply. I didn’t bother because I knew there was no way my parents could pay for Princeton and I didn’t want to pay the application fee. That’s where a counselor telling me about financial aid and the waiving of application fees might have been useful.
I started school as an engineer, taking the basic calculus, chemistry, and physics as a freshman.
All my professors were male.
Most of the other students were male. At the time, the male-female ratio at my college was about two to one.
If there were career support activities just for women, I didn’t know about them.
(Now, there is fabulous support for women at Rice, which makes me happy.)
I was too scared to ask for help because I didn’t know that was a thing. I didn’t know I was allowed to do that. I didn’t know that’s what office hours were. I thought office hours were the hours that professors worked, which made me think that being a college professor was a super-sweet gig: You work only a few hours a day!
Then there was that D in freshman calculus.
But an A in physics.
Physics was logical.
Calculus was not.
But still – a D.
I had always been an A student. Then I got to college and everyone around me was also an A student and I was no longer the smartest person in the class, which was so, so weird, but then I accepted that I was not the smartest person in the world and it was liberating.
But having been the smartest person in high school meant I had never had to study or ask for help and I didn’t know how to do so and I didn’t think that people who got a D in calculus could be engineers or doctors and I didn’t ask anyone and nobody told me otherwise so I just – quit.
Yes, I know a better woman than I would have persisted. I know better women did, including my roommate, the one who is now a college professor.
What was the difference between the two of us? Why did she keep going despite the bad grades? Why did I give up at the first sign of trouble? What does she have that I didn’t?
I honestly don’t know, but I was very alone on my college journey and she was not. Her parents were both teachers and knew how to encourage her in ways that my parents simply did not, just because of their backgrounds.
And I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in the places I wanted to be. I didn’t see female professors. I didn’t see female doctors. I didn’t know about other female students failing and then overcoming their failures and succeeding in the end.
Maybe I could have done it if I had persisted. I don’t know. Maybe I am just not smart or persistent enough to have succeeded in my desired career. I will never know now.
But for the girls and young women behind us: We can help them. If you know a girl or a young woman who is struggling or who is trying to do something hard, tell her she can do it. Help her find resources, like the Women in Tech groups. Show her the stories of Katherine Johnson and the codebreakers in WWII and Katalin Karikó and Rosalind Franklin.
They can do it.