by Casey Berger
It was hard not to laugh at the look on her face. Her eyebrows shot up and she leaned forward in her chair:
“You?” she asked, her voice rising in pitch.
My high school physics teacher and I were catching up – I had just moved back to Ohio from the West Coast and stopped by my old school to visit. In the midst of the pleasant chitchat, I casually mentioned that I was back in school to get another bachelor’s degree, en route to a PhD in physics. That was the cause of her shock.
“You?” She repeated, her eyes still wide. “You are the last person I would have expected!”
She may have been exaggerating, but not by much: her surprise was genuine, and to be expected. In high school, I was very intimidated by physics, and while my grades were always good, my confidence never caught up. As a child, I had been fascinated by the sciences, but by the time I graduated, I had been discouraged by the subtle voices telling me it wasn’t the field for me. Fortunately, I had other interests and talents, so the idea of pursuing a career in the humanities was also a comfortable fit. It was easy to let go of the idea of physics as a career, but I never let go of my love of science. I just believed I was destined to read about the advances in physics, and never to be the one making them.
I admired my high school physics teacher, a diminutive Pakistani woman who more than made up for her tiny stature with an abundance of personality. She would tell us stories about her days at Caltech, about being the only woman in her PhD program. I admired her strength of will, but from a distance. I wished I had what it took to do what she did – to pursue something I loved despite hardships, despite discouragement.
It turned out that I did have “what it took,” it was simply hiding behind my fears. I went to college, studied film and philosophy, and graduated with honors. My fears followed me across the country as I packed up my life and moved to Los Angeles. I wanted to tell stories. Mostly, I wanted to reach people, to make them think and yearn and listen. But I never let go of my love for the sciences. That little, quiet voice in my heart kept encouraging me, until I finally made the best decision of my life to this day: to go back to school.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that it was the right decision for me, but in that moment, it felt anything but certain. I had a job as an executive assistant in Hollywood, and a career path to film executive laid out neatly in front of me. I had other options – I didn’t have to return to school. What ultimately allowed me to make this decision was a question asked of me by a mentor of mine. We were discussing my options, and whether or not I should make a drastic change to my life, and he asked me to set aside any concerns about money, the opinions of others, or logistics and just say what I would want to do with my life next year, if I could do absolutely anything in the world.
“Go back to school to study astrophysics,” I said, the words out of my mouth much more quickly than I had expected.
Over the next few weeks, I did some research. I found ways to answer all the questions about how I would pay for it, when I could start, and what I might “do with that,” as they say. What drove me those weeks, and in the weeks and months that have followed, was that sense of certainty I had when I cleared away all the material concerns. In my heart, I knew what I wanted. And to be frank, physics is not the only thing I want to do with my life, and that’s okay, too. Scientists are not one-dimensional beings who inhabit laboratories and rarely see the light of day. I am still passionate about telling stories, and I hope to find ways to tell stories about science.
In my first semester at Ohio State, my decision to return to school was validated. After spending time away from school, I had the energy to dive back in. When you are where you meant to be, it’s like the stars align. That’s not to say there were no difficulties – returning to school brought with it financial challenges, required me to dust off old skills that had been sitting on the back shelves of my mind for years, and I have many years of school in front of me. However, my studies give me energy as much as they take away. After days of homework, classes, and working various jobs to pay tuition, I found myself exhausted. The difference is that my exhaustion now comes with a smile, and when I go to sleep, I can’t wait to wake up and start all over again.
What I discovered from this experience was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned: follow your dreams, no matter where they lead. It’s okay to change your mind, and it’s okay to be pulled in different directions. When you start to feel confused, and you start to feel like you’re just going through the motions, clear away all those logistical questions and listen to your heart. You can trust yourself – it’s a surprisingly hard lesson to learn for some of us, but you always can trust yourself. Be who you want to be, and don’t be afraid to revise your goals when you need to. There’s always a way, and if you are following your passion, it will always be worth it.
Believe in yourself now, as early as possible. But also remember that it’s never too late to start.
About Casey Berger
I recently returned to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, after a few years working in Los Angeles, California, to go back to school at Ohio State University. An eternal student, I am pursuing my love of knowledge all the way to a PhD. I hope to use my experience in the media and my education in the sciences to bridge the gap between science and pop culture.