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Student Story One

Chinese-American Female Student, Class of 2022

If you could tell a first-year student one piece of advice about studying STEM, what would it be?

You are not the small fish. Ask for help. You will not seem stupid. You are brave and you can do this. There will be times when you feel small and inadequate and perhaps slighted, but trust the process of hard work and smart work. You got this.

How prepared did you feel coming into Swarthmore?

I did not feel prepared at all coming into Swarthmore. Although I had graduated top of my class in high school, Swarthmore presented a whole host of new encounters and challenges. I had attended a public high school that has been struggling with funds in the past decade or so. I initially was largely unaware of the extent of privilege and backgrounds that I would meet at Swarthmore. I come from Philly, and throughout my childhood had lived in an area which was largely working class. Some of my high school friends went straight to work, while many opted for community college, the military, or a trade school. I felt relatively excited to have the opportunity to attend Swarthmore but soon realized that high school in no way prepared me for the academic rigor and social/economic limitations I would experience at Swarthmore.

What are some differences and commonalities between your STEM experience in high school and at Swarthmore?

My experience with STEM in high school was more accessible. Mostly everyone came into courses with relatively limited knowledge of the subject taught and left each course with some new piece of knowledge. In high school, I could feel a more productive class engagement and collective improvement. Swarthmore differs dramatically in this sense because many students came into Swarthmore with more extensive knowledge in particular subjects. Rather than equal and sustained growth, I could definitely feel that those with the privilege to attend more rigorous middle school and high school programs  and those with parents who have had access to higher education excelled more readily in various STEM classes.

I remember having this conversation with one of my close friends at Swarthmore in freshman year. She had attended one of the best boarding schools in the U.S. We were comparing our high school experiences and the amount of rigor and expected collaboration within STEM courses. Her school focused intensely on individual achievement, and many students competed with each other academically. That environment was largely absent within my high school STEM experience, where friends and classmates were very willing to collaborate.

What are some ways in which you struggled with STEM classes at Swarthmore, and how did you find support?

I struggle a lot with STEM classes at Swarthmore. I think mainly the feeling of inadequacy plagues my subconscious because I see how easily certain concepts come to those who have had a better educational base than I have, or those who have parents who are more educated than my parents who only graduated middle school. This feeling of inadequacy crushed my self-confidence in several of my early STEM courses, to the point where I felt unable to speak up and ask professors for help when I so desperately needed it.

What resources were most helpful to you in navigating STEM at Swarthmore?

Speaking with friends, professors, and CAPS were most helpful with to me in navigating STEM at Swarthmore. First and foremost, friends who are FLI (First Generation/Low-Income) like myself who are also pursuing STEM were critical to structuring and becoming my support system. I just feel more comfortable with talking to friends who share my same struggles and background. When I finally did manage to reach out to professors and express my struggles with STEM, I found the breathing room that I was so desperately seeking. The fear of speaking up and asking for help has been something that I struggled with intensely throughout childhood and early adulthood. I have been getting better at asking for help when I need it.