65: First Failure

65: First Failure

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

First Failure

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

~Thomas Edison

I leaned my head on my hand and stared with large, blank eyes at the overhead in Professor Chang’s physics lecture for electrical engineers. I was completely lost. There were drawings and equations, all in pretty colors, but all complete gibberish to me. I had no clue why semiconductors worked, nor did I care to know. Was this what engineering really was? My mind swirled.

As I sat in class scrunching my eyebrows and rubbing my temples, I became more and more stressed by the fact that I did not understand a single sentence leaving Professor Chang’s mouth. How could I not understand these equations? I had always excelled in math and science in high school, and now, as I looked around the lecture hall, I seemed to be the only one drowning in the material. The other students asked intelligent questions that raised good points with the professor, while I sat back attempting to scribble everything down from the slide before we moved onto the next topic I would surely not understand.

As a freshman in college, I was actually failing a course for the first time in my life and I didn’t know where to turn next. Did I really want to be an engineer? I knew they designed systems to make things work. What things? Apparently everything. Did I care why my microwave, cell phone, or car worked? No, it just worked, and I didn’t care why as long as it wasn’t broken.

I picked my college major back in freshman year of high school. I excelled in math and science, knew I wanted to make a difference in the world, and discovered the profession of environmental engineering with the help of my guidance counselor. I was entranced by the fact that it was an up and coming field, great monetary potential, and would help save the world, but I didn’t realize what engineers actually did... until now.

Throughout my eighteen years of life, I always had a goal and I always worked hard until I achieved that goal. Because of my AP credits from high school, I was already technically at the sophomore level in the engineering program. How could I throw that all away? I would have to start at ground zero. Did that mean I would need an extra year of college? What would my parents think? And if I wasn’t going to be an engineer, what was I going to do? I felt my whole world crashing down around me in that lecture and began to feel like I was going to hyperventilate.

I left the class and immediately ran over to my advisor’s office. I let her know that I simply could not be an engineer. I had to drop the physics class immediately. She informed me that I was too late. I was too far into the course to drop and no matter what, the grade would be going on my permanent GPA.

Oh dear God, I was going to have an “F” on my pristine report card. An F. An F! F for big Fat Failure! I knew I had to go home and call the only people who could possibly make me feel better, my mom and dad.

As I dialed the number, I felt the tears welling up in my eyes, debating how I would tell them that their perfect straight A student was failing a class!

The phone rang and then my mom answered. With my throat tightening from the tears I was holding back, I managed to squeak out “Hi, Mom.”

“Honey, what is wrong?”

“Mom,” I sniffled, “I’m failing physics and I don’t want to be an engineer anymore.”

“That’s it? Oh dear, sweetie, you almost gave me a heart attack. I thought you were pregnant or something... which, if you ever are, we will work through as well. Okay, what happened?”

I explained to my mom about how lost I was and how engineering was not what I expected. She explained that I was being harder on myself than I needed to be. It was okay not to be perfect all of the time, and she and my dad would support me in whichever career path I chose. She recommended I go to the career advising center on campus to take some career tests to give me ideas on other options.

Feeling like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders, I followed her advice. I took a few career tests and realized that there were jobs out there that I never even knew existed. I wondered how seniors in high school could possibly be expected to mark a box on their college applications signifying what major they were choosing, when we truly hadn’t been exposed to more than a quarter of the possible occupations that existed.

Each test actually pointed me in the direction of teaching, a career I thought was an easy way out before. I pondered the fact that I still enjoyed math and sharing my knowledge with others. I liked the idea of helping high school students realize their potential and I could also coach swimming, which I loved.

A few weeks later, I journeyed back to my advisor to inform her of my decision to switch majors. Unfortunately, she reiterated the bad news that I would still have to finish the dreaded physics course and it would stay on my record. I started utilizing the physics tutor lab on campus and even thought about visiting my intimidating professor during office hours. I was afraid he would think I was stupid and would not understand why I was so far behind, but my grade was on the line, so I swallowed my pride and timidly showed up at his office one day. Although at first he seemed perturbed to be taken away from his research, he warmed up to the fact that I was making an effort to succeed in his class.

After a grueling semester, with every spare minute devoted to my physics homework, I passed with a C. I began my second semester of freshman year on course to become a math teacher and graduated on time, three and half years later, on the dean’s list.

Surprisingly, after one year in the “real world” as a teacher, I discovered that wasn’t the profession for me either. I went through the same breakdown as I did in college, not knowing what I wanted to do next. Over my summer break, I took a part-time job at a local radio station and decided radio was more fun than teaching. I realized that failing is part of learning and that it’s okay not to have your whole life figured out, as long as you work hard and rise to whatever challenges you face. I’m now in my third year as the human resources manager at the radio station group, wondering where my career path will take me next.

~Emily Ruffner

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