By Alia Smith

A Portrait of Me as a High School Student

I was never what anyone would consider a “good student.” I barely did my homework. I didn’t study for exams. I didn’t get involved in any extracurricular activities. Like many teenage girls, I had other things going on outside of school that consumed all of my attention. I sometimes tried to study but was immediately discouraged because I couldn’t grasp the material. Additionally, the voices of those surrounding me were anything but supportive. Freshman year, a teacher told me that I wouldn’t pass my AP exam (which I did end up passing), let alone make it to college. Another told me that girls don’t usually understand physics so he didn’t have high expectations for us. Those who were supposed to support and encourage me had nothing but discouraging things to say. So why would I believe in myself? 

My inner monologue began mimicking the voices of those I heard but quickly became the harshest. You don’t get it because you’re stupid. You’ll never get it, so stop trying.

Breaking Point

This image shows someone who seems excited but is stressed about the possibility of failing high school and the impact that will have on her future

Alia, ready to drive herself to school for the first time

It was 6:15 a.m. one Monday morning. I picked my friend up, drove through Starbucks for a heinous amount of caffeine, and we made our way to school. I parked but couldn’t move. I couldn’t get out of the car and definitely couldn’t go into that building again. I’d finally come to the hard realization that I would fail my classes and didn’t have any prospects or plans after high school. Moreover, I realized that I didn’t want that — I wished that somehow I could go back and be a “perfect student.” I thought I’d ruined my life. 

“You go ahead, I’ll be in soon,” I told my friend. I watched her walk inside before driving to my mom’s office. I stood in her doorway, crying, and told her I couldn’t go back. She immediately pulled me out of the school. I finished high school online through a virtual homeschooling program. I struggled through these classes much like I did in a traditional school setting, but without the social pressures, I was able to pass them and get my diploma. 

Indecision

College was never an option in my family, so after barely scraping by in high school, it was time for me to start applying. When submitting my applications, I was considered a homeschooled student. By some twist of fate, they only looked at SAT or ACT scores for homeschooled students, instead of GPA. I did well on my SAT, and was accepted to a local university with a full academic scholarship. 

This was the beginning of my confusion. How could I receive a full scholarship when I couldn’t pass high school classes? Despite this significant accomplishment, I still didn’t see my potential. I began with an undecided major, and by the end of the first semester, I still didn’t know what I was doing. I had always been interested in ecology and conservation, but knew I couldn’t do science. I wasn’t smart enough. 

You couldn’t even pass a high school science class. What makes you think you can get a science degree?

I took two anthropology classes that I enjoyed and decided to declare that as my major. It was as close as I could get to science without having to take the classes I knew were too difficult for me. When I looked at the other students, however, it was clear that they were passionate about the field in a way that I wasn’t. But what else could I do? I couldn’t pursue the major in which I was truly interested, so I was stuck with a major I knew didn’t feel right.

The following semester I had to take a biology class. It was coined the “science class for nonscience majors,” and I was terrified. What if I couldn’t pass it? Could one class keep me from getting my degree? 

A Big Decision

This image is to represent the stress of high school and the fear of failing that many students experience The biology class was divided into lab and lecture sections. During the first lecture, I remember the professor telling us that she simply wanted us to have a basic understanding of the world around us. She wasn’t here to confuse us. This was the first time I felt like my teacher wasn’t trying to make things difficult. She truly wanted us to understand basic biology.

The labs were even better. We got to work on a citizen science project collecting and culturing soil samples to be sent to a large cancer research database.

“This is science. You guys are doing research!” she announced as we wiped toothpicks across Petri dishes, trying not to poke the agar. This was a shocking realization for me. 

This is research? 

I went home that day and began to reevaluate everything I thought I knew. If this was science, I could do it. Not only could I do it, but I could be good at it. I could be a scientist.

As quickly as the hope formed, I tamped it down. You can do a basic experiment, but you haven’t taken an exam yet. Don’t get too excited. 

For the next two weeks, I dedicated myself to studying in a way I never had. For the first time, I felt that studying might be worth it. If I could pass this exam, maybe I could take the real science classes and even get a science degree. I took the exam and pushed it as far out of my mind as possible. I constantly distracted myself, refusing to allow myself to become hopeful.

A few days later, the Canvas notification popped up. My grade was posted. I had earned an A.

A New Outlook and New Beginnings

I immediately switched my major to what I knew I truly wanted to do: Biological Sciences. From there it was smooth sailing–every class was a breeze. 

That would have been nice, wouldn’t it? 

I did well in some classes with relative ease, but others made me work for my grade. Using instructors’ office hours and earning extra credit (barely) got me through organic chemistry. I struggled, but I finally saw a reason for struggling. I knew that the work could pay off in the end. I learned and grew and eventually got through it with a newfound understanding of my abilities and a confidence in myself that I never thought possible.

I graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences. By the time I graduated, the voice in my head sang a different tune.

If you can get a bachelor’s degree, what’s stopping you from getting a master’s degree? 

This image is to show how someone can go from failing high school classes to doing real scientific research

Alia in the field documenting pollinator species

From there, I pursued a master of science in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability from Colorado State University. In the summer of 2023 I successfully defended my thesis focused on the use of citizen science to research pollinator decline in National Parks.

How Did I Get Here?

I wish I could tell you exactly what took me from failing classes in high school to earning my bachelor’s degree with honors and my master’s thereafter. There was definitely a distinct moment where I let myself believe I could do it, but the small moments leading up to it allowed me to reach that point. The change in my environment was a huge part of the shift. I learned how to believe in myself.  I went from hearing that I wouldn’t make it in college to being shown that I was capable and intelligent.

I had better people in my life who not only helped me believe in myself, but also helped me develop the confidence and conviction to never again listen to anyone who tells me I can’t do it. 

If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be to never decide who you are or what you’re capable of based on one set of circumstances. At the time I couldn’t picture a life after high school. It seemed like the end of the world. But having seen how much life I have left to live after graduating, I know that who you will be is not determined by who you are now. It’s not too late for everything to change.

Don’t give up on yourself.

Author Bio

Alia Smith on her graduation day, holding her diploma from Colorado State University

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alia Smith is the programming associate for Pretty Brainy. She recently graduated from Colorado State University with a master’s in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. For her thesis, Alia studied the use of citizen/community science to study pollinator decline in National Parks. She is passionate about science communication and connecting people with science.