Science majors share their academic challenges, advice
A panel of science majors talked to students about how they overcame setbacks in their educations.
A panel of science majors spoke at a Nov. 21 event titled “How I Succeed in Science: Science Majors Share Stories of Facing and Overcoming Challenges.” The featured panelists were Neuroscience and Philosophy major Gabe Trevino ’20, biology and Health: Science, Society, and Policy major and Chemistry minor Herlyne Das ’18 and Psychology major and Education Studies minor Allison Lawsky ’16, as well as featured speaker Prof. Kene Piasta (BIOL). There was also a representative from each of the organizations sponsoring the event: Associate Director of Academic Services Julia Mani, Assistant Director of Career Programs at the Hiatt Career Center Jackie Blesso and Program Manager of Health and Wellness Promotion Leah Berkenwald.
Mani spoke first by defining resilience, which was a major theme of the event, as “an adaptive response to hardship or challenge.”
Piasta then shared his own experience with challenges he faced as a science major. He said, “It wasn’t easy and I had to struggle a lot to get here.” He said he was depressed after losing his emotional support networks when he moved away for college, but after seeking help, he said he ended up transferring so that he could be closer to home.
Piasta added that upon graduating, he did not have all A’s on his transcript. He said he noticed that students think that is the expectation, but it is not.
Piasta said the current college climate is an “Instagramification” of college, meaning everyone only shows “the good stuff.” He explained that it is okay for students to have more going on in their lives outside of their academics and recommended going to different campus resources for help.
“Going to use these [campus resources] is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength,” he said, adding that he wished he had used his campus’ resources earlier in his own college career.
Piasta said that “college is supposed to be about learning,” and that making mistakes is okay, especially given the support network of resources on campus. As for science specifically, Piasta said, “science is all about failure … every failure teaches you something, you just have to look for it.”
The other panelists followed Piasta by talking about challenges they faced while at Brandeis. Trevino said his biggest setback was failing an Anthropology class during his sophomore year. He was dealing with anxiety at the time and said that failing that class “destroyed [his] sense of self worth.”
After being put on academic probation, Trevino said his academic advisor reached out to him to help, suggesting group therapy for anxiety through the Brandeis Counseling Center. He said, “Being with that group, it really changed my mindset on a lot of things.” Trevino explained that he built a support network by learning to openly talk to his professors about his anxiety and by reaching out to his family.
Trevino said science is “very competitive” at Brandeis and “you can’t compare yourself to others,” even though it is hard not to. Trevino said that when reaching a setback, students need to find ways to move through it. He advised students to reach out for help, especially when dealing with anxiety and depression. “Everyone here wants you to thrive,” he said.
Das said her biggest setback was needing time accommodations on exams due to being partially blind in one eye. She said it was hard when classmates were not understanding of her disability, and that she did not do well on the Medical College Admission Test because she was not allowed extra time to take it. Having planned on going directly to medical school after college, Das said she felt particularly upset by this setback, which caused her to take a gap year before applying. In this time, however, she said she is gaining more experience in her field by doing a medical program at Tufts.
Das said her faith in God was important in overcoming her challenges because this helped her “understand that … what [she was] going through [was] not the end all, be all.” Das also found her support network to be helpful, explaining that when people are dealing with anxiety and depression, having people there to say “you’re on the right path” is important. She also said she was involved with extracurriculars on campus, which helped her relieve stress and connect with more people so “the science didn’t feel overbearing.”
Das advised having a mentor. Piasta added that “faculty here want to be that person,” but that students need to come to office hours in order to make that connection.
Lawsky said her difficulties started during the second semester of her first year, because her courses were harder than she expected. She sought help and decided to take delayed finals, but, due to anxiety and stress, was only able to take one of her finals by the end of the summer. Facing a similar issue the next year, Lawsky said she decided to take a semester-long medical leave during her junior year. She said, “It was a huge, depressing setback, but it was what I needed.” She said she learned that “it’s never going to be perfect [and] it’s never going to be the straight line that you imagine.”
Lawsky noted that it is difficult to both enjoy college and plan for the future. She advised “taking it day by day, even hour by hour if you have to.” She also said that “passion will get you further than you think,” adding that it is important to “give yourself credit and not sell yourself short.”
Berkenwald then gave a presentation on resilience skill development, describing four categories of resilience. “Social connectedness” is about identifying a support system and getting involved, whether that be on the Brandeis campus or in the Waltham community. “Self awareness and self care,” she said, is about having a growth mindset. She said, “even if you fail, if you learned something, you actually succeeded.” She added that “attention and focus” is about time management and recommended getting help from resources on campus if needed, as well as practicing mindfulness. Berkenwald explained that “let[ting] purpose be your guide” is about finding a larger purpose in life and that one should let that purpose guide them instead of their goals. This is because goals do not always work out as planned, she said, but one can still accomplish their purpose through a different goal.