My advisor’s face goes from blank to gleeful in a split second. He says, “You got one?! Where?”
I tell him the name of the institution and the project focus. “Solar physics, huh?” he says. “I didn’t know they had a program. Oh, my god, you’ll love it there. My wife and I have been. Promise you’ll take pictures. What’s your project on? Can I read your acceptance letter?” I’ve been doing well thus far at containing my giddiness, but his is contagious. He’s full of questions and I do my best to answer them, my limited knowledge holding my tongue. I’m the first of his students to be offered a place in a summer REU program this year—a Research Experience for Undergraduates, funded by the National Science Foundation. I won’t be the last, but there’s something thrilling about being crowned the first victor, even if many of us will make it there in the end.
There’s something thrilling about it in general. When I applied for all of these programs I expected to be offered a position in exactly zero of them. It’s rare, in general, that they accept students right out of their first year in college—applications are competitive and carefully reviewed—and I did, indeed, get turned down by most of the institutions that I applied to. But that doesn’t matter anymore, not as long as I have the one.
My friends get their offers, their internships, their summer research with professors here on campus. It all feels so new that it’s hard to remember that this is just our life now. There’s no end to the work anymore and for some reason we’re all excited about it! It’s a weird feeling. “Giddy” is still the best word for it. Exams on the horizon seem small compared to the vastness of our futures.
Other things stay unresolved. My application to my college’s French immersion house goes unanswered, and so do those of my friends to other houses; we’re all biting our nails, trying to figure out where to rest our hopes for next year. Do we just assume we’ll all get our top choice? Do we forget that and gun for a quad? It’s impossible to pick sides because either way we feel like our hopes will be dashed. Our futures can only be planned in so much detail, apparently. I try to stay relaxed. If I miss out on this opportunity I’ll stumble along just fine with my French podcasts and an old novel I read in high school on my nightstand. But my current roommate gets stressed easily over these kinds of things, and that can be contagious, too.
The semester is almost halfway over and I already feel like I’ve changed even more than during the last one. Yeah, I mean, maybe I still spend my weekends secluded with homework and music instead of out on the town. But I’ve learned that I can hold my own in higher level math, and in research environments, and in an entirely different language. When things feel overwhelming I think of my French lab instructor saying, “OK, so you’re a first year and you speak excellent French—where did you learn this before coming here?” Or my advisor, relaying weird stories of his brief time spent at my REU home institution. I can’t count on everything going right, but some things do. So what’s the point in letting those off days crush me? ♦