The Student Became the Teacher…And Is Now a Student Again

I loved teaching. I’ve had many different roles over the past eleven years: undergraduate student, master’s student, research assistant. But my favorite was teacher.

My first job was more than eleven years ago; in fact, it was when I was thirteen. I used to ride horses and my parents decided to lease a beautiful thoroughbred for me, but part of the deal was I had to work at the stables in exchange for a lower lease rate. Honestly, I was more than thrilled, even though the work was far from glamorous. Have you ever taken care of sixty horses?! Just one horse to look after is a big job, especially considering the messes they make.

Tip: If you ever take care of a horse, one of the things you have to do is clean out their hooves with a pick. To do that, you have to squat down in a somewhat compromising position because if that horse decides to go to the bathroom (regardless of what it’s coming out of), it’ll get all over you if you don’t jump out of the way in time. If the horse starts to urinate, it’ll lean forward; jump FAR back. Horses have the water pressure of a fire hose and it will ricochet off the cement floor. If the horse has to do anything else, it will lift its tail. And if you’re cleaning the back hooves, you definitely need to keep an eye out for that.

My work included feeding and watering every horse, cleaning their buckets, sweeping the aisles, cleaning the tack and observation rooms, and overseeing students tacking up and cleaning their horses for lessons. It was grueling work, especially at thirteen, but I loved being around the horses. They were so beautiful to watch; it was almost like seeing a painting come to life. And I was lucky enough to spend my time with them and to learn how to ride competitively.

The point is that we all have to take jobs that aren’t the best paid or the most rewarding. In fact, after I finished my master’s degree, the job market was horrible; the only people hiring in industry were looking for engineers with at least 7-10 years of experience. I could only get a part-time teaching job, which meant I was getting paid less than what I was receiving as a graduate student; but it was even worse: I had no health insurance, something I desperately needed considering all the medical problems I was having. So I decided to do what I had always done before: I made myself invaluable.

Even though the job was part-time, I put in more than 40 hours a week. It was grueling and frustrating. I had just finished seven years of bachelor’s and master’s studies. I had been paying my dues and employing the whole “sweat now or bleed later” mentality. At that point in my life, I thought I would be reaping the rewards of my labor, not working even harder for lower pay. Then I received an offer to teach at the Naval Academy…and another offer to work at IBM. When my boss found out I might be leaving, he started working double time on creating a permanent position for me.

Within a few months of my graduating and taking the part-time job, I was a full-time lecturer with all the bells and whistles, something not normally heard of for someone my age (and without a Ph.D. to boot). But in spite of my newfound success, I still made myself invaluable. Eventually, I became the lead instructor for most of the courses in my department; developed the curriculum for said department; ran a program for at-risk students; taught, managed, and mentored over 200 students each term with a 20-person instructional staff; held a grant for a new pedagogy I implemented; and was second-in-command to my supervisor, a Ph.D.-holding, fully-tenured professor.

And now, I’m a student again. I’m back in the grad school game. To many, it might seem like a step backwards, and in a way, it is. When most people change jobs, it’s either a lateral or upward move; it doesn’t usually come with a demotion. But sometimes, taking a step back is a good thing. No, I don’t get to do the same things I used to. And as much as I loved my job and miss it, I’m really happy with where I am. At my old job, I was focusing on education, an area about which I am still passionate and in which I want to further develop my abilities. But I also felt like I was missing out on science. I was teaching it, but I didn’t feel as if I were a part of it.

Now, I get to focus on research and my own education. And I can develop more skills that will lead to many more opportunities.

One thing I try to keep in perspective is my mother’s Greek family. In the early twentieth century (and even into the 60s), Greeks were considered an undesirable group (just like the Italians and the Irish and, unfortunately, so many others). They had darker skin; their accents were strange; their native language was even more strange. They were loud and boisterous and very expressive, which ran against the grain of a typical socially-acceptable American family. My grandfather didn’t speak English until he started school; he didn’t finish high school and decided to join the Navy. He married young and started having a family right away; by the time he was my age, he had three children. Both he and my grandmother worked to make ends meet; in fact, many times he had to work three jobs. Eventually, though, he worked his way up and became a plant manager, one of the most respected in the company.

That’s how my mother was, too, when she was younger. She worked two jobs until she landed her dream career, and even then, she worked constantly. Both she and my grandfather believe that hard work is a blessing and that no honest work is beneath you when you need to take care of your family. That survivor mentality they carried over from their ancestors who immigrated here is what shaped us.

Sometimes you won’t be in the position you want. And it’s a horrible feeling to know that you’ve worked so hard for so long only to feel as if you’re not making any progress. But that’s where our minds can play tricks on us. By facing whatever challenges us and continuing to work as hard as we have been, eventually someone will take notice of how valuable we are. And anyone who applies her- or himself whole-heartedly to an honest job regardless of the circumstances is valuable indeed.

“The Devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.'” – Anonymous

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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