The Magic of Chasing Dreams and Facing Fears

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. – Thoreau

Once upon a time, when I was young and stupid (though I’m still young and still pretty stupid), I had my whole life planned. I was in my senior year of college and had just been accepted to Cornell for my Ph.D. in chemical engineering. I was engaged to a man who had been my best friend since I was 14. Because I was leaving for Cornell in August and knew I wouldn’t have time to plan a wedding once I started, my mother and best friend and I decided to finish as much as possible before the summer.

We had a blast! I found a dress that my mother and I immediately fell in love with; my best friend found a bridesmaid’s dress that we both gushed over; we had a location for the ceremony and reception, the members of the bridal party, the flowers, invitations, and DJ. I even had the dress I would wear to my wedding shower. The only things left were some of the nitty-gritty details.

My plan was to start working on my Ph.D., and two years later, I would get married. My fiance, who lived in Michigan, agreed to move to Ithaca after the wedding and work from home. We didn’t want kids right away, so I would just focus on work and publish cutting-edge papers and present at dozens of conferences. Then I would get a position as a post-doc at an equally, if not more, prestigious institution and double my publications. After that, I would go on to become a world-class professor and hopefully join the National Academy of Engineering.

In my first year, I saw that whole plan go down the toilet.

The distance between my fiance and me put a great deal of things into perspective. Even though he was an amazing guy, I started to realize that we weren’t right for each other. Calling off the engagement was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I wasn’t just putting an end to the wedding; I was ending a part of my life.

My plan was starting to fall apart. And it only got worse.

I had been struggling since I arrived at Cornell. My adviser tried to tell me that was perfectly normal, and that Cornell only takes the top students. The first year is designed to stretch everyone to see who’s the best of the best, which means most of the students, who aren’t used to failure, struggle just to stay at average.

I didn’t realize for many years that my struggle stemmed from an undiagnosed health issue. While I was at Cornell, I finally went to the doctor and received one diagnosis. Four years later, I found out I had been misdiagnosed and the problem was actually more serious than anyone thought. Looking back, it finally makes sense why I struggled so much. As an undergraduate, I was a machine. My whole life revolved around my work. As a graduate student, I wanted more than anything else to continue on that same path; but my illness reared its ugly head and impeded my goals.

The most frustrating part is that I had no idea just how bad it was until long after I had finished at Cornell.

I desperately tried to make it work. I couldn’t explain why I had so little energy, why everything always seemed to hurt, and why things that I desperately loved to do became chores and cost me the very little energy I had.

My plan was unraveling. And the more it fell apart, the harder I tried to make it work…and it only got worse.

I finally approached my adviser and told her I needed to stop at my master’s degree. The Ph.D. would still become a reality sooner or later, but it was clearly not in the cards at that particular time. My work was still cutting-edge; no one else had done the type of work I was doing, and my data was published in two very high-impact journals. My time at Cornell was hardly spent in vain.

But I knew that the amount of energy required for a Ph.D. was just too far out of reach for me. I needed to go home.

I successfully defended my thesis and started pounding the pavement trying to find a job and was met once more with a boatload of discouragement. My plan had always been to stay in academia; therefore, all my experience revolved around working in a lab. I had never even worked as an intern at a company and so I lacked many of the skills the head hunters were told to look for.

But I ended up not having to wait too long for a job. Within three weeks of my thesis defense, my former professor called me and asked if I wanted a job teaching part-time, which I jumped at. Part-time work was better than nothing.

A month later, I received a full-time offer from the Naval Academy and a contract position at IBM. When I told my boss, he immediately set out to create a full-time position specifically for me, which I immediately accepted. Things were starting to look up.

Hindsight is always 20/20; I can see now that this series of events was supposed to happen.

Have you ever listened to “Something Wild” with Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon? This song resonates with me in a way that nothing else has because it felt like it was written with me in mind.

“You had your maps drawn.

You had other plans to hang your hopes on.

Every road they let you down felt so wrong.

So you found another way.”

I had my whole life planned and it fell like a deck of cards. For the longest time I judged myself based on my accomplishments (or lack thereof) and believed I was a failure. But once I started working as a teacher, I started to get back on my feet.

“You’ve got a big heart.

The way you see the world, it got you this far.

You might have some bruises and a few scars.

But you know you’re gonna be okay.

Even though you’re scared, you’re stronger than you know.”

I definitely have the scars to prove I was a Cornell graduate student. I felt like I had been torn apart and put back together in the most haphazard way. And because of that, I eventually learned a few things about myself, one of which is that I have a strength within me that I had never bothered to tap into before. And that was something I needed to realize when I started my new journey as an educator.

“Sometimes the past can

Make the ground beneath you feel like quicksand.

You don’t have to worry; you reach for my hand.

And I know you’re gonna be okay.

Even though you’re scared, you’re stronger than you know.”

For a long time after I finished, I wanted to forget about my time at Cornell. I felt embarrassed because I hadn’t finished what I had set out to do, and I worried that I was doomed to repeat that same “failure.”

“If you’re lost out where the lights are blinding,

Caught in all, the stars are hiding,

That’s when something wild calls you home.

If you face the fear that keeps you frozen,

Chase the sky into the ocean,

That’s when something wild calls you home.”

That line “face the fear that keeps you frozen” defines everything that I’ve had to do ever since I left Cornell. And I realized years later that I had done that even when I was at Cornell. Struggling as hard as I did scared me senseless. I had no idea where I stood with my health and always felt like everyone else was outperforming me; I didn’t think I belonged or deserved to be there.

But like I said, this was supposed to happen. I didn’t fail at Cornell; I was a success! I have a master’s in one of the most demanding fields from an Ivy League university and data published in prestigious journals. That can hardly be considered a failure.

This isn’t to brag. I’m no better or worse than anyone else. And that is the whole point of this post. I wasted so much of my time and energy comparing myself to other people and feeling as if I didn’t measure up. But once I changed my perspective, I made peace with my past and learned to be thanful for it.

I simply plotted a new course. And I have no regrets about any of it. I found a job that I fell in love with and quickly worked my way up; during that time, I realized passions and talents I never knew I had. And I became convinced that getting my Ph.D. and becoming a professor really are for me. It’s something that I want more and more each day, and now I have a tangible motivator to push me.

My illness is now my lifelong companion. I worried for the longest time about going back to graduate school, thinking I was only going to repeat my Cornell experience. But since I learned of my diagnosis, I have worked to turn this from a liability into an asset, and now I know that I can be successful because of it, not in spite of it.

Am I scared? Yes.

Have I wanted to pull out before I even start? Yes.

But will I? No.

It’s fine to have a plan, and it’s great to be ambitious. But it’s also ok for those plans to be fluid. Let them change with time. As you discover new things about yourself, you’ll see the things you’re meant to do. If the course changes, you haven’t failed; you’ve simply embraced who you were supposed to be all along.

Just don’t avoid going down a path because you don’t think you have the ability or the guts. That is giving up. And that’s when you fail.

What do you have to lose? A little pride? So what?! We’ve all fallen flat on our faces. Those are when some of the greatest learning opportunities come along and you build the skills you need to tackle the next thing that comes your way!

I don’t regret going to Cornell. In fact, some of my best memories are from that time. And that just goes to show that even a seemingly bad situation can actually end up being one of your greatest.

It is truly something magical.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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