Weed-out courses scared me away from science, and i'm not the only one.

I’ve been thinking about transcripts a lot lately. It’s internship application season for grad students in the UX field, and I have proudly sent my unofficial University of Michigan transcript to anyone that asked. This bizarrely-formatted document represents years of effort and hustle and hard work. It’s a PDF that lives on my desktop and reminds me that I’m exactly where I should be.

My undergrad transcript tells a very different story, however, one that I’m only now beginning to really wrap my head around. It’s a story that makes me mad. It’s also a story that I am learning is incredibly common, and, this being International Women’s Day, I wanted to share it.

I graduated from Boston University in 2009 with a BA in English literature and a minor in Art History, two subjects that forged a path that led to where I am now. I had amazing professors; I learned to write; I read (and loved)Moby Dick. I don’t regret it one bit, because I found out about UX and realized that human-centered design was my true calling. But did you know that I actually went to school to become a doctor?

Yeah, yeah, so does everyone. True, sure, fair point. But I loved taking care of others, and I really wanted to work with people to cure what ailed them. I come from a family of talented artists, and I was interested in prosthetics and figuring out new ways to help people heal. I was smart and empathetic, but I wasn’t self-aware and I certainly wasn’t confident. My skin was thin, and when I walked into my 100-student Chemistry 101 lecture that first week of freshman year, my gut was telling me to turn around and leave.

And, unfortunately, so was my advisor. I excelled in the lab, but I wasn’t doing so well on my exams, which required us to calculate the Mole using only pencil and paper and which I rarely finished. I felt lost, so I went to see my advisor, who asked me point blank, “What are you good at?” I was a good writer, I told him, and I excelled in art courses and creative thinking. “Hmm,” he said. “Come back and see me again when you decide to be an English major.” Three months later, with my tail between my legs, I did exactly that.

Why did I do that? I don’t blame my advisor, because I’m sure he’d seen it all before, but he expected me to fail. And he taught me to expect it, too. On the day that my Chemistry professor returned an exam that I had earned a 27% on (the class average was a 31%), all I could think to myself was, “He was right.” I didn’t belong. This wasn’t for me. I spent years digging my GPA out of the hole the two C minuses I earned that first semester had made. I thought I could be a doctor, but I was too stupid to succeed in the weed-out courses.

Truth be told, I’m not stupid, and I just wish I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self that. In my current fellowship, I’ve had the privilege of working on a tool that provides undergraduate students in large, introductory courses with tailored feedback to help them succeed and, ultimately, minimize gender performance differences. This project has taught me so much about behavioral science and educational trends, but it has also opened my eyes to how common my story really is and how dangerous it can be to play into a young person’s self-doubt, be it related to their gender, their race, or their economic status. And I’m frustrated, because it shouldn’t be. I’m frustrated with an educational system that plants seeds of doubt in young people’s minds, reassuring them that surrender is par for the course instead of pushing them to fight for what they want.

It’s taken me a long time to figure all of this out, but now that I have, I’m determined to work toward creating a better system for others. Frustration leads to dedication, and dedication leads to change, and I refuse to stand idly by while capable, intelligent students fold their hands and walk away from their dreams. When we can all recognize how common stories like mine really are, we can make real moves toward meaningful change.