Written By Christa Cheung, CSU STEM VISTA 2016-2017 San Jose State University, Jay Pinson STEM Education Program
I began my VISTA position after taking a gap year after graduating from University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). I worked tirelessly during university; only taking a couple of weeks in 3 years off, having a full course load every quarter, working a part time job, participating in two on campus organizations, and working in a research lab. I was thoroughly burned out, and I didn’t want to pursue a graduate education in my field after my undergraduate research experience. I even lost the confidence that I was a competent scientist/engineer and believed that maybe I was an impostor. I needed to take some time off to really recover from all the stress and doubt that grew throughout my undergraduate career. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a gap year, even if it wasn’t idyllic. My parents would continually ask about what my next steps were and would judge my choices regardless of what I said. I took about six months to relax and recharge. I wasn’t able to find what I wanted to do, but I did get some desperately needed self-care in the form of not having to stress about school and spending time to clean up all the papers and things I accumulated over that last four years. In early 2016, I started to be more proactive in my daily life like looking more seriously for jobs, researching classes I might take, and doing some freelance work for a short time.
Through my job search I came upon the CSU STEM VISTA member position. I was really excited about this position as it combined volunteering, STEM, and education. In the past, I thoroughly enjoyed volunteering and being immersed in the field of STEM. I also dabbled in educating others while I was teaching social ballroom for the UCSC Ballroom Team and during an outreach for Society of Women Engineers, and I enjoyed those experiences. Throughout the interview, hiring, and even on-boarding training, it really reaffirmed my choice and gave me more confidence in my ability to do great work. Even so, I didn’t really know it would be a good fit, but I persevered through the unsure feeling, because I felt like there could be something I might enjoy. After the whirlwind of the first couple of months, I have found I really enjoy working in the Jay Pinson STEM Education program here at San Jose State University. I have learned so much about K-12 education, and how I could fit into that field.
During one of our Community of Practice events that we host with The Tech Museum of Innovation’s Tech Academies program, I was able to gain a unique experience. Our program was facilitating an activity, and we prepared a presentation that covered equity in the classroom, and why it is important (especially here in Silicon Valley) to provide students with the opportunity to learn computer science. For a segment of the presentation, I had the chance to express my personal opinions, thoughts, and experiences about learning programming in college. I was so afraid that I would fail, that I made an unreasonable ultimatum that if I couldn’t pass the computer science course, I would switch majors from bioengineering to another subject. I did well in that class and completed my major in bioengineering, but I shouldn’t have rested my whole degree on one class. I was fortunate to have had an education that provided me with a solid foundation in critical thinking and perseverance, which allowed me to pass the class. I believe my fear of failure and setting an unreasonable ultimatum could have been minimized if one of my teachers had told me it wasn’t much more difficult than the course I had already taken in high school. My talk really inspired some of the teachers, because during a follow up event, one of the teachers made it a point to tell me that it was impactful when I discussed my experience. I am glad to see that I can still use what I learned and experienced in college to create a more realistic perspective of STEM to students and teachers.
Lastly, if you are in a time of transition or don’t know what you want to do next, don’t be afraid to explore. It is hard to not follow the crowd, but I truly believe that while you can, try and find what you love. This cohort of VISTAs and the work I do, is really something that makes me happy and excited to wake up every day. The struggle is real, but it is worth every second for the amazing experience I’ve had over the last several months.