In honor of Mother's Day, I want to celebrate the ways that mothers have blazed trails, knocked down barriers, and challenged expectations of what their daughters' lives can be.
When we're young, we don't always appreciate how important our parents (or other adults in our circle) can be as role models. Part of this, I think, is that a kid's world is smaller in some important ways. What you know of the world you know through school, through friends, through cartoons, and through your family. Lots of aspects of the wider world don't really pop up in your consciousness until you have to confront them as an adult yourself.
I would not be who I am or where I am today without my mom, Sally Stemwedel. Although I probably couldn't (or wouldn't) fully grasp it when I was a kid, when she went back to school in her mid-30s my mother opened up my understanding of the world of higher education and of science, and offered me a vision of a woman's work that the society at large did not. Given all the ways that her journey helped me to navigate - and even to imagine - my own educational and career path, I asked her if I could interview her for a set of posts here. I'm very grateful that she agreed.
Part I: What drives a suburban mother of four back to school?
By my reckoning, you went back to school when I was 11. What was the driving force that got you out of the house and into the physics classroom?
Four children -- you four children - could or would drive anyone crazy. (As you told me then, it was less of a drive than a short putt.) In college I had fallen in love with astronomy (which I took to get out of taking physics with a math major). When I had been full-time mom for over 5 years, the astronomy itch overcame any sensible judgment I had left. I decided I would rather try to be an astronomer and fail than always wonder whether I could have been one. I was blessed with a supportive spouse and a good friend (also with four children) who both encouraged me to try.
Didn't you have an astronomy-related internship/job at the Smithsonian lined up for after your Wellesley graduation? My recollection is that Dad's Navy posting got in the way of that happening. How hard was it to see that fall through? Did missing out on this opportunity add to your determination to go back later?
Ah, you were listening! A mother always wonders. I had landed a job offer to work for a Wellesley grad at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Dorothy Weeks, who at age 70+ was determining (and publishing) Fe absorption spectral lines that were finally able to be generated in the lab. (Absorption lines are what we have to work with in astronomical measurements.) Your father's ship was suddenly decommissioned and he was reassigned from Rhode Island to South Carolina. When I met with Dr. Weeks at SAO to tell her I could not take the job, I actually broke down and cried (and I am not a crier). From her vantage point of life experience (she had had jobs in many other areas besides physics, including as a buyer for Filene's department store), she assured me that if I wanted to do astronomy enough I would eventually get there. I hung onto her words.
About dodging the physics the first time around ... what were the main issues there? Was it not well taught? Were you psyching yourself out because of the hearsay and innuendo about physics?
I made a strategic error, and got bad guidance at college. I had started as a math major, and had to fulfill all the other requirements (the only thing I placed out of was the first math course). I took astronomy first year and loved it, but I guess I did not talk to my advisor about it. By the time my second year was ending, I needed to declare a major and have it approved. I declared astro, but had not taken any physics in college. My advisor insisted that I take physics that summer (although it was not offered during the summer at Wellesley, of course). So I took physics at a Big Ten school near home. The class was populated primarily with jocks who had failed it before and so was dumbed-down significantly. When I got back to taking physics at Wellesley I had insufficient prep (and a first year teacher finding her audience). I took some additional physics, but by senior year elected to stay a math major, complete all the astronomy, do a research project in astronomy, but not take the additional physics required for the astro major. I was getting married shortly after graduation and could not deal with digging my way out of the physics hole I had gotten into.
If you had a time machine and could zip back to give yourself some advice or information on the eve of going back to school, what would it be? (Of course, while we have the time machine checked out, you also have the option of giving yourself information or advice on the eve of your graduation from Wellesley ...)
Would that be advice on the logic/financial benefit/stress of this course of action versus just getting a job programming computers for a bank? We all know what that advice would be.
I'm not a big fan of the idea of knowing what will happen in the future (as your question might imply). But that opinion is grounded in life events a while after finishing my grad work, which I am sure I did not want to know about in advance.
I guess I would tell my younger self that stubbornness, channeled effectively, can be a major asset. It can help you get places that native ability alone cannot.
Was going back to school harder than your first-run undergraduate experience? Was going back to school *easier* than your first run undergraduate experience?
Yes, and no. I haven't ever thought about this comparison, per se.
When I did undergraduate, it was my, and everyone else's expectation that I could do it, even though I put myself in a situation some measure beyond my preparation. Because of expectations, I had no choice in my mind but to succeed. By the end of undergraduate I had developed the wish to go on to do graduate work, even though I was deficient in the amount of physics I had mastered. After graduation I followed expectation (and my wishes) to marry and accompany my spouse through his last year of the Navy, have his children, and provide some level of support through his study of law. My grad school was put on hold.
When I went back to school 13 years after getting my math degree, I WANTED to do it, and HOPED I could succeed. My focus was much sharper, because I was only taking undergraduate physics to determine whether I could go on in astronomy. I don't think anybody (other than two aforementioned supporters) thought I could succeed.
I don't remember you actually asking us kids whether we thought you could succeed. I know that if you had, my answer would have been "Yes!" I thought you could do anything.
Besides, I could always return home and bake cookies like the good suburban mother I had been trying to be. I bake good cookies. I had a fallback strategy.
Think hard about this; I'm sure there were some important things you had figured out that helped you.
It was scary going back to calculus-based physics after not having though about calculus or physics for 13 years. Preparation is important; I did do some review in the couple of months before classes began.
I was focused on the task, and on the goal. They were real, and in real-time. The distractions were there, but revolved around family, and work. I did not go looking for all the other things that had distracted me in undergraduate.
I'm going to be very good and not ask about those undergraduate distractions ...
The driving force on this focus was that if I didn't I would end up back at home. Great motivation -- thanks.
But having that fallback, and lowered expectations all around me, reduced some of the anxiety. It was either that or the lack of time to worry about much of anything except getting through my schedule.
In going back to do what amounted to an undergraduate physics major, you were already looking forward to doing graduate work that would let you get into astronomy. But you were also working under some serious geographical constraints from the point of view of undergraduate and graduate programs. How did you choose the programs?
The geographic constraint I call "the mother's rubber-band radius: How far can you get and still be home in time to fix dinner? With a very understanding husband and 4 children ranging from 11.5 down to 4 years old, that radius was 50 miles from home at maximum. We were in a metropolitan area that offered a variety of institutions in that radius.
I picked the undergraduate program by going to the library (before the internet) and looking at college catalogs to determined who offered undergraduate physics courses most like the ones I had not taken (or had had trouble with) the first time. I then called the winning department, Rutgers-Newark (25 miles from home) and explained my intentions to the department secretary. Always trust the instincts of a good academic department secretary; she/he has generally been in the department longer than the chairman and knows all the players AND their ability to interact effectively with students.
Can I just interject that this piece of advice probably did me more good, in both my graduate programs, than anything else that was supposed to prepare me for graduate school?
In this case, the department secretary said: "You should talk to Prof. Charles Pine; he counsels lots of students." She was right. Dr. Pine met with me, encouraged me to start back a step, to secure the basics. I proceeded to take 1 or 2 courses a semester for the next four years, getting good upper level undergraduate physics firmly under my control. It gave me recent transcript credentials worthy of consideration by grad schools (4.0, all physics).
This also began an academic and work relationship with Dr. Pine that lasted for the next 8 years. He became my mentor, in physics and on his outreach program developing and implementing an elementary algebra curriculum. My definition of a mentor is someone who believes in you so visibly and incessantly that you have to begin to believe in yourself. The actions can take many forms in different circumstances, but each of us who has had a mentor can tell you ways that person's actions changed the course of our lives at the time, and with lasting effects.
Working for Dr. Pine taught me a lot more about my capabilities. I probably delayed my graduate work, but the project allowed me to be passionate about what I was doing, and kept me in reasonable proximity to home at most crucial times. It allowed the children to get older, gain responsibility, and work out how dinner gets on the table and clean laundry gets into drawers when mom is MIA some evenings and most days.