“I guess no one ever said this would be easy,” I thought to myself as I stared at the notebook in front of me.
I was trying to make enough sense of the numbers and letters swimming in front of my eyes to complete my Physics homework. I was in the first year of college at the University of Virginia, a declared Biomedical Engineering major, and decidedly struggling. My classes were stacked — Physics, Calculus II, Computing, Materials Science, and Writing for Engineers — on top of the rigorous practice and traveling schedule that came along with being a Division 1 Track and Field athlete. Sometimes it seemed hard finding time to eat, sleep, and breathe, much less meet with other students, professors, and participate in the myriad of extracurricular activities UVa had to offer!
So, I strategized. I made an excel sheet that laid out all the classes I would need to take to graduate on time. I talked with my coach and explained how my classes conflicted with some of the practice times, and we came up with an alternate schedule. I brought my books with me during track competitions so I could study between my races.
And most importantly, I sought help. I asked questions to clarify confusing concepts. I met with my classmates and tutors to give and receive help with homework and other assignments. I found upperclassmen who were willing to be my mentors academically and personally by supporting and encouraging me when I wanted to give up.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, apparently it also takes an entire college campus to produce a student-athlete Biomedical Engineering student. By communicating with my professors, classmates, and coaches, and by taking advantage of the numerous types of support that college campuses typically offer, particularly for female minority engineering students (i.e., Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Diversity Office, etc.), I was able to successfully complete my degree and graduate with high honors.
I also managed to get involved in several organizations to improve my leadership skills and gain friends outside of my engineering and track bubbles, conduct research in a prominent Tissue Engineering lab, and even study the Mandarin language in China. Due to my research experiences and interests, I enrolled in a Chemical Engineering graduate program at the University of Connecticut and am currently working on my PhD in the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. Since I was overwhelmingly inspired by the numerous people who helped my along my journey, I teamed with Tiffany St. Bernard to start a nonprofit, ManyMentors, focused on using online and mobile tools to provide mentoring opportunities for minorities and female middle schoolers to working professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
Throughout my experiences in college I learned this — it isn’t easy. But it is definitely worth it. By challenging myself, I grew in ways I never anticipated. By visualizing and setting goals, I accomplished more that I thought I could. By surrounding myself with positive, encouraging, uplifting, and inspiring people and programs, I developed into a better-rounded, cultured, and caring person than I ever could have on my own. So take the risk. Do what seems hard and makes you uncomfortable. Because that experience might just make a world of a difference.
Written by Keshia Ashe. Keshia is a current Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Engineering at the University of Connecticut and the CEO of ManyMentors.