Are You Ready To Be A Carl?

On the first day of my visit to Carleton College on Accepted Students Weekend, I felt like I was on a reality show. I was one of dozens of accepted students, sitting in a large auditorium, waiting for my name to be called by one of the hosts. Whoever would call my name would give me their personal tour of Carleton, clear out a space in their dorm for me to sleep, and shape my perception of the school. Finally my name was called by Sasha, a freshman Quest Scholar at the time.

Sasha immediately made me feel comfortable; the pressure of the “Are You Ready To Be A Carl?” faded and I felt at ease. Having applied through QuestBridge to Carleton, I had dozens of questions: Should I consider non-QuestBridge schools? How will I know that this QuestBridge school is THE school? How do I weigh the importance of financial aid in my final decision? Sasha discussed her experience with the application process and answered even my most trivial questions. Besides mitigating the stress of the decision process, Sasha enabled me to fall in love with Carleton.Carleton College

In the evening, Sasha invited me to follow her to an Ebony practice, one of Carleton’s dance performance groups, open to dancers with two left feet, two right feet, or one of each. I sat in the front of the dance room with other accepted students and watched all of the Carls dance to Lady Gaga. Some Carls were on beat, confident in every move they made; others were lost two measures behind, hysterically laughing, making enthusiastic faces to compensate for their dancing. Carleton’s personality shone through ten times more than it had on the classic tours, the information sessions, and the student panels of other schools. And I adored its personality.

Before coming to Carleton, I didn’t quite understand what it meant to be a Quest Scholar once on a campus. Sasha showed me that it means you are finally allowed to dance; the stress of college applications and financial aid forms were over. As a Quest Scholar, you finally are given four years, at an amazing school, to spend dancing.

By: Margot Radding

Carleton College, Class of 2018

A Meandering Path

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It may not look too terribly glamorous, but this is how we replicated the Millikan oil drop experiment: we looked at a screen that showed what was going on inside the little oil chamber where we manipulated oil drops with electric fields. #PHYS228

Class at 8:30 is infamous in the winter, but it was fated that I have a class that time: Analytical Mechanics. It’s next on the grand sequence towards the major I am certain of declaring: physics. This past Wednesday, our professor brought up a couple pictures on the projector. One picture was a lone tree, pine needles and all; the other was an idyllic forest vista, a river meandering through it. Bill (we are on first names at Carleton) went on to reiterate a point on the syllabus, one that’s become much clearer in the past five years I’ve been exposed to physics in the classroom. Something like this: that the lectures and lessons and notes will focus a lot on single topics of detail, but in the end are all connected and part of a bigger picture. Or: we’re taking a look at a lot of trees – admiring them too along the way – but in the end we need to remember it’s all part of the bigger forest. Macro-perspective and micro-perspective. My eyes open at the realization, the revelation of the moment. I’ve found another reason to cherish what has been, like the river in the photo, a meandering path towards what I hope will be a worthwhile career and life in physics.

I’ve been on a river once: the end of June last year saw me on the Cannon, the river that passes by Carleton, and even if I did know the path of the river on the map, you wouldn’t truly know what to expect until you paddle your way to the points on the map. Maps don’t tell you what you’d actually see, from the two bald eagles we saw float above, or the old creaky metal bridge we passed underneath, faded and forlorn. Whatever navigation I had in life didn’t tell me what I’d see for sure. They sure didn’t tell me I’d want to study the things I’m studying now.

I was accepted to a high school with specialized offerings in STEM and vocational and technical trades, back in the ancient days – so far away, aren’t they? I was enrolled as a student in Engineering, an idea I didn’t also know I’d consider, or at least did so without enough complete thought. Nonetheless, I found myself in a physics classroom, with engineering applications, my sophomore year. And what a year that was. I could list so much, but I will simply say that our activities beyond note-taking and homework, and my teacher, got me thinking about physics that year. A defining moment for how we engaged with our lessons was a moment in our school’s indoor pool, testing latex-coated cardboard boats that had to be self-propelled. Besides the nice dip in the pool we got to do with our projects, the greatest benefit was that the time we spent there was to truly work on applying the theories, their relation to us as people and their relation to the world at large. Buoyancy never came more alive as an idea beyond just the Archimedes principle until that moment in the pool.

Come to think of it, it was so amazing, I kept on thinking about physics all throughout the five years since. I still want to understand and want to do something with it, even with a few rapids on the river. My junior year was spent in a higher-level class that wasn’t taken seriously by either class nor teacher; the next year, I spent the next level online because nobody wanted to move on, mostly because of the aforementioned experiences. It did get tough – but by then, physics was what I was telling people I wanted to do with my life, though I knew not how.

Enter the Carleton days. I probably should have been done with physics because of how much more complex the concepts have become over the past year and a half. Some people may consider the following two experiences “signs” they should stop dealing with physics:

  1. Learning about special relativity in your freshman year. I’ve likened the effects of motion at the speed of light as “trippy” because it just is: it isn’t as intuitive for you to consider how things behave when they move that fast as opposed to those classic “football” kinematics problems lots of high schoolers and some intro college physics students may face. I remember leaving the final exam feeling very burnt, because I couldn’t understand everything.
  2. Modern physics. My fall term this year was spent cramming the last century’s discoveries in ten weeks, from Planck to Feynman, and many details in between, but admittedly too many bases to cover. Not to mention a few nasty experiences writing up lab reports and learning how to do laboratory work. Plus, the intuition was again, different, for this time now you talk briefly about quantum mechanics. And as before: I couldn’t understand everything.

I did understand a lot of things, actually. We replicated the famous Millikan experiment in the fall for my first laboratory experience, working with an apparatus that moved oil particles through an electric field. This process a century ago discovered the fundamental charge – essentially, how small you can divide an electrical charge. With precision! My lab group and I didn’t get that precision – we weren’t meant to – but I will remember this: just like that moment in the pool years ago, I saw physics at work. It was in the tracking of motion on a little screen of the smallest speck of oil we had to follow, and in the numbers we found after some mathematical and computational massaging. I saw how we understood the world just a little more, and – from a liberal arts perspective – the history and legacy we are left to work with and build upon, from Eratosthenes to Newton, Faraday, Heisenberg…

And who said the path was meant to be pretty? It was meant to meander some, in a good way. I’ll never forget the advice of a friend of mine who’s a physics major: you don’t have to necessarily get it right away. Not all of physics is immediately understandable. Schrödinger’s equation, relativistic mechanics… all of them we were meant to wrestle with. And there is no one “right” path anyway to learn, nonlinear, like a river.  Thankfully too, nobody ever has to understand it alone. You can see it in the culture: our physics department always promoted collaboration on homework and review, and I find myself learning more when I get a chance to try to talk about an idea from a lecture, or seek help from colleagues, who probably face the same straits I was in understanding. Maybe in a different way, but we all knew it was never easy. Yes, you don’t have to get it right away – although you do have to get it in time for the exams and projects! Working smartly is still the name of the game, but I know that the atmosphere here towards learning physics is just all the more conducive for me to keep on going.

I’m probably still wondering why I still want to pursue the physics major. I’ll definitely keep asking myself. At best, it’s a good idea to keep asking because I could always use a self-made reminder why I ultimately want physics. The same thread has followed, from the high school pool, to the labs, and hopefully in my Mathematica programming. It’s just that natural urge to make sense of it all. Not a very specific idea, but I know I want in, and when one can take a look at all the trees along the river path, all separate and together, details and the big picture – it looks like a very nice life to paddle through.

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17

Crossing Borders: Why A Little Trip North Mattered

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Winter term has begun, and I’m back in the frigid north. I’ve had syllabi to pour over, and Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” is on my desk, waiting to be read for a class discussion in a couple of days. My mind and spirit are totally invested in the coming term’s works. Except for the part of me that I left behind, which isn’t just at home. It looks like I left a bit of myself in Canada, in the sense that I still think about having been there just this past Friday. I spent a road trip with my family traveling north, crossing over the Thousand Islands to Ontario, and visiting my father’s distant relatives. My mother questioned the timing of the trip, given the onset of winter at a place definitely colder than home. But it seemed fitting, at least in a rough sense of what we now have the right to do as a family.

The mere fact that we just got a chance to leave the country, and then come back to it was something we’ve been waiting for since a decade ago when my family moved to the United States. When we emigrated from the Philippines – my parents in ’03, and then my siblings and I in ’05 – we arrived with the papers and status that weren’t “multiple-entry”, a clinical way of saying that if you leave the U.S., you can’t re-enter the country. At the time, this was irrelevant. My parents wanted to begin their lives here, to raise me and my siblings with whatever our new country had to offer, and it was much more than what we had back then. My uncle Gale would remind me of this often when it came to education, job prospects when I grew up, pollution, safety.  So we’ll rough it out. Return would happen, just not right now. Finances aside, we couldn’t legally leave the U. S.

As time went on, we applied for permanent residency in 2007. This was the inevitable decision to let us continue our lives here indefinitely. And as expected, we waited – many who’ve experienced paperwork with immigration can tell you all about the time spent waiting. For us, waiting was, well… a trying time for everyone. Relatives had died back in the Philippines while waiting, and even if we did get the finances, we couldn’t leave the U. S., unless we wanted to leave for good. Meanwhile, to make a very long story short, we faced uncertainty as my mother’s job as a teacher, the reason we all moved halfway around the world, was in jeopardy (due to her school district); without her job, we would have no reason to live in the country. Our permanent residency papers had yet to come in then, probably the only secure thing that would help our family.

The bind my mother was in happened just as I was about to apply for college in 2012. I considered my position at the time to be awkward, since legally I was an international student if I were to go college here. With what happened with my mother, I felt the college applications process being a bit more of a vortex of despair than it would feel otherwise. The question of me continuing my studies for work one day became less a given, reverting to a question of “if”.

I’ll skip ahead in time to September 2014. I was about to return to Carleton in a few days for fall term. (I applied to Carleton as an international student, and became accepted and enrolled as one when all was said and done.) Our family was still secure in the country, temporarily, by some legal maneuvers my parents worked out. We picked up the mail after Labor Day, finding USCIS envelopes in the bundle that came in our home. I think we were never so excited for the envelopes like this before, because they were larger than usual, and more solid too. Opening them and peering in at the contents, we discovered a piece of plastic, a privilege, a long-awaited relief. They don’t call them green cards for nothing!

We took it calmly and happily, with hugs and kisses all around the family as we opened the envelopes. We all knew what the cards meant. Job security for my mother. The chance for my father (and the rest of us) to work without restrictions. The even greater chance to pledge allegiance as citizens to a country we already call home. The more desired chance for the freedom to move. It’s what allowed us to cross the Canadian border, for me to dream of study abroad, for the day that we might one day return to see old relatives again on the other side of the planet.

I think back on this now, seemingly petty that we were marveling how we lived under another flag for a few days. This ability to cross the border is a testament to the privilege we have as permanent residents (and future citizens) of America. To live here is a privilege for us. An imperfect privilege in an imperfect country, there’s no denying that, but it’s a privilege better than elsewhere in the world; better enough for us. We’ve gone through a lot of waiting, money, and stress to know we can settle here for the rest of our lives. The question now is what to do with the privileges we’ve had and will certainly have. Traveling to Canada invoked said privileges. But what next? We all have something meaningful, something good to do with what we receive, whatever it may be; making lemonade from the proverbial lemon. I’m pretty sure I don’t have a definite answer yet: I haven’t declared majors yet, and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’ll like out of physics for a career. I haven’t even decided what life will look like for me in ten years.

Whatever it may be, I know a few things: that my family and I have come a long way to have the opportunities for purposeful and decent lives; that with our residence in this country, I’ve grown up and I’ve been educated here; that I intend on pursuing something good not only for me but for society as a life mission; and that I have this chance to do good with my one life now, which I intend on living as best as possible. Wherever this life leads, I’m looking forward to making good on my chances. And chances are, with the right determination and balance, and the right sense of humanity, I might just make it.

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17

We’ve All Got to Take Care of Ourselves

Tgaston_2here’s something about looking at a campus calendar that brings me excitement and dread. Or any calendar or event invitation for that matter. For one thing, I really love knowing about the coming guest concerts at the concert hall, that impending department social, or even a talk in the middle of the day. But I also hate knowing everything that’s happening, because I know I want to go to all sorts of events and activities, even as I also know I’ve got all sorts of deadlines ahead to meet.

For some Quest Scholars, I would imagine that finding the opportunities for life on campus outside of the classroom are enthralling. It was, and still is, for me. Dinner discussion on the Hong Kong protests? I’m in. Poetry reading from a veteran? Where do I go? Rosh Hashanah service? I’m not Jewish but I sure want to understand and celebrate! (In truth, I was there optionally for my work in the campus Chapel.) I’ve always desired to live socially, to engage with ideas and people outside of class, to enjoy what I know I haven’t always had in the high school days when it came to social or educational opportunities, or even back with my family in general.

All of this is great and all, though it seems now, as it was last year, that I find myself still at a point of imbalance when it comes to managing my time. The issue is in both the volume of time spent, and the kinds of involvement I have. This even includes my own extracurriculars that I lead, since I commit more time toward planning meetings and coordinating events. Sure, all kinds of the involved community life are great. But at the expense of schoolwork? Not so great. I have been searching for this balance between academic obligations, extracurricular obligations, and my free time being involved in the campus community, but it’s one I haven’t achieved just yet. I can’t seem to shake off that yearning to be everywhere at once.

And being all over the place just stretches you out… like stress on a rope. Oh wait, yeah, the s-word. Stress. My imbalances are the greatest contributor to my stresses in life at Carleton. And I’m not alone. Whatever kinds of commitments that we have, necessary or not, a lot of us Quest Scholars are deeply involved in activities and work (the paid kind). Sometimes the imbalances are too much. I know it’s getting to me when I’m more tired in lecture than I should be, and when I feel like I don’t want to talk to people much whenever I’m outside of my room or in study-mode.

Funny how it’s caught up with me, time-management. It’s a skill I thought I had worked out. I prioritized a lot in high school – studies and homework were always important and were always done. Sure, like a lot of high school seniors back then, I was overcommitted, but I managed by getting overall less sleep throughout the week – sound familiar? Nowadays that’s just too risky to do. Commitments aren’t really bad, nor are activities. Quantity and quality are just the only concerns. And even though I did get reminders on time management back then, I never really heeded them.

I may pay the price now, with the higher stress of college life, but it’s a problem that is still solveable – after all, if I innovated my way throughout life to this point, I’m sure I can balance things and manage my stress. Besides using the tools of organization like your calendars, and your planners, reach out for help. Friends are a great source for accountability: check up on them and their balance, and let them check up on you. When they say you look tired, it’s with the best intentions. Your friends do care – otherwise why would they tell you that! When it comes to official help, seek your academic support centers. I know I will very soon. There are coaches and staff trained to be able to guide you through time management, or any issue in the academic life.

The biggest thing I’ll have to solve coming up is challenging myself about my perceptions of time. Lots of assignments and projects will always take time; thus, I’ll have to plan accordingly and make time. It’s all in the awareness. And it’s what will save all of us from being overcommitted and without the time we need. We’ve all got to take care of ourselves, even our own time. Because time is the most finite of all things in a finite life. (And now it’s time… to get back to work…).

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17

Search for Yourself

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It’s October, and while the leaves are falling in some places, you’re feeling like falling down a bottomless rabbit hole. If I could reimagine the scene where Alice does just this in the Lewis Carroll story, I’d imagine you’re seeing what I saw in the hole two years: deadline after deadline for applications and essays, webpage after webpage with textboxes and checkboxes, and perhaps more of your time slipping away in whatever form you’d like to imagine. The latter of the things that descend and disappear in the rabbit hole is a reality all too real for students like you – more and more so each year.

What’s amazing is that you could go on without realizing how far deep you could go down the hole and then forget to take care of yourself. And I’m not talking a matter just of taking your vegetables and exercise…

Tuesday after Veterans’ Day in 2012 was routine as I walked down the halls during our open lunch period. (I was a high school senior once upon a time, and you’ll have been one too!) It was earlier that morning that I had just gotten back from Hartford, CT on the Amtrak after a visit program at Trinity. Already I came to school with less sleep, and a research notebook lacking some pages. As I was about to turn a corner, my statistics teacher found me and proceeded to ask, “Hey! Are you considering coming to the Math Team meeting today?” To which I responded with no words, no gestures, save for me suddenly backing up against a wall and slouching down to the cold linoleum floor, sobbing. My binders and that thick research notebook that I was carrying all day weighed me down more to the floor. Mr. Cerutti did end up pulling me back on my feet, already knowing my answer to his question. I tried to walk over to his room to respond to his question more appropriately, avoiding the gaze of anyone in the hallway, and as I did so, I finally realized how far down my descent was in the rabbit hole.

I’m not sure if what I felt throughout some part that fall of 2012 was a college applications-induced depression. In fact, I would not be surprised if many students go through it. Everyone’s got different worries that can induce it, but as for me, it was just the nagging knowledge that I had virtually no financial backing to attend college then. For one thing, my parents’ finances weren’t up for investing in my education, by no fault of their own. Adding more stress was how I had to apply. At the time, I had to apply as an international student because of my immigration status. (Disclosure: I am not an undocumented student, but for simplicity, you could say I was in limbo waiting for my permanent residency status. It has only been two months now since I received my green card.) This spelled out having a smaller pool of schools to apply to, and not having federal and state funding since I was a non-eligible person. These worries compounded on top of the common concerns of being good enough for the schools I wanted to attend.

I sure did feel terrible for a while, crippled by worry. Thinking about that time in the hole, you could also say that I dug it out all by myself and then fell in. It was too easy to fall in, with all the things you could easily think about. Thinking about… everything. Too much. I thought too much. It’s a perennial problem, a habit that could get me in trouble like my time as a stressed-out college-apps-crazed senior. I can’t imagine, though, how it could get you in trouble, and I shudder at the thought. If only it wasn’t the case of falling down a hole, and more like bungee jumping into the college-apps hole, so to speak. I say this because in the case of bungee jumping, you don’t fall down completely, and you can get back up and out. That was something I didn’t attend to enough, this other way of taking care of myself emotionally and mentally.

But actually, I did have a few ways of getting out of the hole, more so than I thought. The trick is to find something to get out of the hole, to not think or to at least ponder something outside of college-apps. You’ll need to do it because you need a break every once in a while. Even if it’s just a few minutes a day, you’ll need a routine break. Taking care of your mind does help in the long run because you’re more productive that way for doing your college apps. But beyond the practical, you just need to take a mental break once in a while because it’s just good for you. Something that’s not a stressful commitment, something that you like to do. No, getting on the social media doesn’t count. Time with people counts. Video games with a friend counts. Exercising counts. Looking around you and reflecting on something appreciatively counts. This last idea goes along with something I’ve recently learned about mindfulness, about being more aware of where you are and meditating on it. It sure sounds like some strange wishy-washy sentiment but even to look outside and appreciate a tree is a good mental break and exercise. (Trees look beautiful anyways this time of year if you live far enough north.)

Turns out I did have my bungee cord out of the hole. I was already in my high school orchestra, which I did some rehearsal time with by myself at home. It actually was a commitment – and a high-priority one – but even if it was for a few moments, I could get lost in notes, a melody, a few repetitions on the viola to get better at a passage. It was liberating, and everything seemed somewhat beautiful for a moment. It’s these little things that can get you through the seemingly never-ending crazy times you’re going through. Search for them. Search for people too who can pull you up along the way, and their help. But above all, search for yourself, and check yourself. Besides getting enough sleep whenever possible and controlling your time, make sure you can find those moments to step out of the hole just for a bit. After all, life is indeed fleeting. Treat it preciously and treat some of it just for yourself.

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17