William and Mary
Erin Spencer
Erin Spencer

About  Posts

Hometown: Hereford, MD
Class of 2014
Majors: Ecology and Marine Science

What I want to be when I grow up.

March 5, 2014 by

There are three questions every college senior gets asked.

  1. You’re a senior?! How does it feel?
  2. Do you know what you’re doing in May?
  3. What do you want to be when you grow up?

#3 is my personal favorite, because it instigates a sense of inescapable panic while simultaneously making me feel like a six year old. Typically I fire a generic response (“I’d like to pursue a career in marine science blah blah blah”). But Spring Break is here, meaning graduation is closer than I’d like to admit, and I can’t rely on generic responses forever. What do I want to be when I grow up?

The last time I knew exactly what I wanted to be, I was 8 years old. I wanted to be a country music star. I grew up listening to greats like Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans, and Reba McEntire (let me clarify: this was pre-Taylor Swift), and I was convinced I would get discovered, move to Nashville, and pursue a lifelong career in country music. My friend Katie and I would camp out in my basement, taping “demos” on her sister’s cassette recorder and speculating what we would do once we made it big. The closest I got to Nashville was my 4th grade talent show, where I sang a Dixie Chicks song while decked out in a cowboy hat and boots.

In many ways I envy 8-year-old me. I have never been so certain of my life plan as I was in that basement. But I grew up and my plans changed, especially after I learned it took more than the ability to hold a tune to make it big in the country music business (plus, my parents refused to move from Baltimore to Nashville).

In college, I made a great breakthrough when I decided I wanted to study marine science. Although I’m unsure where my studies will take me, limiting job options to a single discipline is a big feat. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to experiment with many fields within marine science, and have subsequently narrowed down what I don’t want to do (I loved marine ecology, but marine geology was the absolute bane of my existence). But that still leaves me with a generic answer to question #3.

But I came a little closer to answering the question last week. Over winter break, I decided to apply for a fellowship that would take me abroad for nine months next year. It was up to the applicant to design a proposal—the only restrictions were that the research had to employ a method of digital storytelling and apply to a wide audience. The rest was up to the applicant. Inspired by my work with The Lionfish Project, I chose to study community-based invasive species management on islands.

I worked on the proposal for six weeks. I spent many late nights researching topics, often pushing aside piles of homework I’d have to scramble to make up later. There were even a few nights I chose my research over going out with friends, opting instead to stay huddled at my desk, reviewing research papers and writing hurriedly in my notebook. Piece by piece, my proposal came together. I spent the week before the due date meeting with professors and analyzing every line of my proposal, writing and rewriting until it was perfect. The night before it was due, I was up until almost 5am reviewing every tiny detail (no typos, all margins 1”, 12 pt Times New Roman font, all biographical data correct, etc).

I submitted the document at 11:17 on Friday morning, February 28th. As soon as I clicked the “Submit” button, I was flooded with a mix of pride, panic, and relief. But there was another feeling too.

Excitement.

I hadn’t been so excited about something since I wrote the proposal for The Lionfish Project in 2012. Never once did I mind the research—I looked forward to crafting, writing, and editing the proposal, and I was truly passionate about the topic. As I stared at the submission confirmation screen, I realized it didn’t even matter if I got the grant (although let’s be real, it would be awesome if I did). What mattered was that I had pursued a topic that made me truly happy.

So maybe I haven’t figured out exactly what I want to be when I grow up (although a marine biologist studying invasive species is definitely on the list). But that’s ok. This experience has shown me that no matter what I do, I want to be so passionate about it that it keeps me up at night. That might be a stretch, but maybe not. I have the rest of my life to find exactly what it is that makes me that excited.

For now, at least I know how to answer Question #3.

When I grow up, I want to be happy.

 

This could change your life.

November 18, 2013 by

Have you ever faced a moment that might change your life?

Do you remember the feeling? It’s a lot of nervous anticipation combined with excitement and cautious optimism. There’s also a lot of, “how did I get here?”

I know the feeling, because it’s exactly how I feel right now.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop just one block away from the National Geographic headquarters. In one hour, I’ll pack my bag and walk into the lobby, where I’ll be met by a stranger. She will lead me through the building into a conference room where there will be more people I’ve never met. I then have ten minutes to present my research from the summer and try to convince this group of strangers that they made a good investment when they decided to give me a grant. Oh, yea, and this group of strangers consists of some of the top leaders in the field—they are archaeologists, zoologists, writers, photographers, conservationists and anthropologists.

No pressure, right?

So as I sit here, between obsessively practicing my presentation and downing cups of coffee (but let’s be real – it’s not like I need more caffeine), my mind wanders to all of my senior friends who have experienced this exact feeling. That feeling your life is about to change.

When I was a freshman, seniors seemed in a league of their own—the three-year age difference felt like an unbreakable barrier. Although I had senior friends, our friendship was relatively superficial, as there were few that I found I could really relate to. It didn’t bother me much, I had plenty of underclassman friends to occupy my time, but I never quite understood the difference between the seniors and myself. Yea, they’re about to graduate, but we’re all college students, right?

Now that I’m a senior, I see things differently. As underclassmen, you may not know what you’re doing for the summer, but you know that ultimately you’re coming back to W&M. For the immediate future, you’re set. As seniors, we’re staring down a path with a “Road Ends Here” sign, and a great, empty void beyond it. Some view this void with great anxiety, but I find it unbelievably exciting (although ask me again in March and see what happens).

Our last year at school is dedicated to filling that void. Weeks consist of information sessions, job applications, Career Center appointments, and stressed conversations with friends to commiserate about it all. And within that are dozens of tiny moments where you get that feeling. You feel it in that moment right before you hit the “Send” button for that cold email to your dream employer. You feel it right before you drop the application for that fellowship you’ve been dreaming about for months into the mailbox. You feel it as you’re straightening your tie in the waiting area, right before the interviewer calls you in. And although you know there were hundreds of moments that led you to this point, this is the big one. Could this be the moment that changes my life?

Of course, there will be our fair share of rejections and dead ends. But we have no way of knowing, and that uncertainty keeps us pushing forward with each application and interview.

This presentation could be nothing more than a chance for me to practice my public speaking. They could be uninterested or preoccupied. They could be perfectly pleasant, but forget me as soon as I leave the room.

Or, not. I’ll have no way of knowing. I can only focus on putting my best foot forward and hope for the best. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do anyway?

For now, it’s time to go! Fingers crossed!

Reflections of a Senior

August 12, 2013 by

I was on the phone with my advisor yesterday talking about my upcoming honors project. Somehow the conversation turned to the incoming freshmen and Orientation. He chuckled and asked, “When you were a freshman, did you have any idea you’d be where you are now?”

I was speechless. I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or break out in tears. Because exactly three years ago, I had absolutely no idea where my time at William & Mary would take me. I was conflicted with both excitement and doubt, worried deep down that somehow college wouldn’t be the life-changing experience everyone had promised it would be.

I was wrong.

I’ve experienced more in the three years at William & Mary than I ever could have imagined. I’ve known both love and deep, shattering loss. I’ve learned the importance of asking for help, even when you’re terrified to admit defeat. I’ve seen people I love struggle through unthinkable hardships and learned what it means to be a true friend. I’ve broken the rules and certainly procrastinated more than I’d like to admit. I’ve stayed up all night for absolutely no reason at all. I landed my dream internship after being denied from a slew of others. I’ve spent late nights with friends debating politics and religion, even though sometimes we had no idea what we were talking about. I’ve had a class kick my butt, and I learned to fight back. I’ve discovered research I’m passionate about, and successfully applied for my first research grant. I’ve skipped class simply because the day was too beautiful to go inside.

The Dupont crew- friends to this day!

The Dupont crew- friends to this day!

Looking back, I can say with certainty that I’m where I am today because of the people I met at William & Mary. Some of the people I met on the very first morning of Orientation would become my closest friends, and still are to this day.  I know I’m extremely lucky to have a group of people who love me even when I’m at my worst (and trust me, sometimes college classes will bring out the worst).  They have supported me and challenged me, and I am confident that our bond will last far beyond graduation day.

But there is more to my story than the influence of fellow classmates. There were professors who took even my most far-fetched ideas seriously, encouraging me to pursue them even when they seemed impossible. There were administrators who taught me the values of a good leader and alumni who showed me that my William & Mary experience extends far longer than four years. And of course, my parents, who while always supporting me in my exploits, never failed to remind me the importance of getting enough sleep and not over-committing myself.

There’s no way of knowing whether I would have had these same experiences at another college. But one thing is for certain – I have felt more love and encouragement at the College of William & Mary than I could have possibly imagined. I couldn’t be more excited to embrace my senior year alongside the people who have made the last three years so exceptional.

I can’t help but smile when I think of the class of 2017. In just a few short weeks, they will be starting their freshman year, just as nervous and clueless as I was. And three years from now, maybe they will be posed with the same question.

“Did you have any idea you’d be where you are now”?

I bet they’ll say no.

4 Things that Can only Happen in the Florida Keys

July 31, 2013 by

546839_10151832169947932_905481251_n-1The Florida Keys are in a world of their own. When you leave the Florida mainland and venture south into Key Largo, you cross an invisible boundary into a place where the air is saltier, the sunsets are brighter, and everyone moves just a little bit slower. After living in the Keys for just a month, I’ve fallen in love with the area and all of the little idiosyncrasies that go along with it. Here are a few of my experiences that could only ever happen in America’s tropical paradise.

1. Wearing sunglasses in a downpour
In case you’ve never been to Florida in the summer, let me fill you in. It rains. A lot. And I’m not talking a few sprinkling showers, I’m talking torrential downpours of biblical proportions. The kind where there’s no sense even running for cover because you’re going to be soaked by the time you get there anyway. But fortunately, Florida storms start quickly and end quickly. They come up so fast that you probably can’t finish the thought “it looks like it might rain” before the heavens open and you’re soaked to the bone, but chances are they will only last ten minutes or so. Therefore, I found it wasn’t uncommon to be getting rained on while the sun shone through clouds up ahead, causing the need for sunglasses. Sunglasses in a rainstorm…who knew?

 

1013121_10151826981432932_1124703875_n2. Finding a large parrot on your arm before dinner
This happened to me while I was standing outside of a dive shop in Key Largo waiting to meet a friend for dinner. I was on the phone, not paying attention to my surroundings, when I felt something sharp prodding my arm. I looked over and let out a confused yelp when I saw a large macaw sitting on my forearm, his beak about six inches from my face. I returned my phone conversation with “I’ll have to call you back,” and turned my attention to the grinning man in front of me, clearly the owner of the parrot. Turns out he just walked up and let the parrot climb onto my arm (because who doesn’t want to be surprised by a large bird…?) in an attempt to be friendly and welcoming. We had a nice chat and he took a photo before I politely encouraged him to please take his bird off me.

3. Never knowing what day it is
This actually became a serious problem for me. Anyone who has spent any time with me knows I’m absolutely glued to my planner and my to-do lists. If something isn’t on the list, it’s simply not getting done. In the Keys, I never used my planner once. Not once! Most of my interviews were last-minute anyway, so no need to plan far in advance (that’s another thing about the Keys, most planning is done a day or two before). There was nothing consistent about my day-to-day schedule, therefore one week kind of blended into the next. It was a rude awakening to get back to the real world (aka north of Key Largo) and remember that people expect you to know what day it is.

 

1004466_10151818012337932_1911455878_n4. Playing bingo with treasure hunters
This was one of my more unusual mornings. I had arranged to meet someone named Pat Clyne through a mutual friend, and I had expected to just grab coffee or something casual. Then somehow I found myself at breakfast with members of the team responsible for discovering the wreck of the Atocha, a Spanish ship carrying silver, gold and jewels that sunk off of the Florida Keys in 1622. Mel Fisher and his crew uncovered the Atocha in 1985, and the wreck is still being salvaged to this day. As it turns out, Pat was part of the original “golden crew” who uncovered the vessel. So like any normal Sunday morning, I found myself at a Key West restaurant, chatting over eggs and grits with Kim Fisher, President and CEO of all the Mel Fisher Family Enterprises and playing bingo with his wife, Lee. I then proceeded to hold over a million dollars in Atocha gold before lunch.

Just another day in the Keys I guess!

 

 

The Night Dive

July 16, 2013 by

Follow along with The Lionfish Project on my project websiteFacebook page, and Twitter, as well as the National Geographic Explorers Journal.

The sunset view from the dive boat.

The sunset view from the dive boat.

I was lying face down on the couch in the dive shop when Doug came up and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Night dive tonight” he said. “You coming?”

I groaned and peered up at him cautiously. Considering I had spent the last minute and a half calculating how to pick up my Diet Coke without adjusting my position on the couch, the thought of strapping fifty pounds of gear onto my back was particularly uninviting. I muttered something unintelligible.

He laughed. “What else are you going to do tonight? Sit on your couch?”

That was the plan, I thought to myself. I had been diving all morning in an attempt to set lionfish transects with researchers at REEF, and was only in the dive shop to finish the test to get my Rescue Diver certification. The last few days had been grueling; between interviews, travel, and late night edits, I was averaging about 5 ½ hours of sleep and driving up to 150 miles a day. But it only took a few minutes for me to realize I was had—there was no way I could turn down a dive, and Doug knew it.

An hour later I was loading my gear on the dive boat. Although I was still a bit groggy, I had to admit it was a perfect night for a dive—the night was warm and breezy, and the water was finally calm after a week of rough seas and horrible visibility. I closed my eyes and listened to the familiar hum of the engine accompanied by the clanking of weights and tanks as divers prepared their gear. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the site just in time to see the blood orange sun slip behind the horizon, the end of another dramatic Florida Keys sunset. Then, we grabbed our masks, jumped in the water, and started our descent.

The ocean transforms at night. All kinds of animals shake their shyness under the cloak of darkness, and the reef comes alive. Armed with only underwater flashlights, we started pouring over the coral, closely examining every crevice so as to not miss a single creature in our ecological treasure hunt. The steady shhhhhh…blub blub blub of our regulators was the only sound as we drifted along the reef, our flashlights haphazardly darting back and forth. Occasionally we’d hear a sharp tap tap tap of a metal clip against a steel scuba tank, the signal that our divemaster had found something of note. Our first find was a green moray eel wedged under a protective rock ledge, followed by a large barracuda zigzagging through our procession, hunting by the glow of our flashlights. We then found a loggerhead turtle resting by the sea floor, who then swam off lethargically as if he was more bored by our presence than scared by it.

I spent the next hour in a state of constant wonder—I couldn’t look around fast enough to soak in all of the underwater sights. A spotted moray eel struck at unsuspecting fish as a huge southern stingray glided along five feet away. Dozens of brightly colored brittle stars slink back into their coral crevices at my approach, like spiny-tentacled monsters from a child’s nightmare. Translucent squid drifted through the open water, transfixed by my light, as damselfish circled around each other in an elaborate mating dance. I had never seen the reef so vibrant and so alive.

After a while I shut off my light and turned away from the others towards the pitch-black territory behind us. I flipped onto my back and kicked my fins slowly, watching in awe as the sea lit up with the million tiny stars of bioluminescent plankton. Then I moved my hands in slow circles as tiny sparks seemed to shoot out of my fingertips. It was utterly hypnotic.

Taptaptaptaptap.

I was shaken out of my trance as I heard the harsh call of the divemaster. This call was much more frantic than any before, which meant either he had found something particularly amazing, or something was wrong.

I flipped on my light and swam briskly to his side. As soon as he saw me, he grabbed my arm and yanked me down forcefully while pointing under a small, flat rock on the sea floor. It took my eyes a second to adjust…then…

An octopus.

I was so excited that I started yelling into my regulator. This was my holy grail of diving, and Doug knew it. For five years I had looked for an octopus with no luck, yet here it was. It only was there for a split second, just long enough for me to see it’s creamy white skin and bulging eye before it darted under the rock and out of sight. Doug and I sat there for a minute, sharing celebratory high-fives and unintelligible but victorious grunts through our regulators.

We ascended ten minutes later and quickly returned to the boat. Divers swapped stories excitedly, talking over each other to share whatever unusual creatures they had uncovered. I stripped off my wetsuit and took apart my gear, smiling the whole time. I had just experienced the best dive of my diving career and had never felt more passionate about the ocean and the work I was doing to protect it. I spent the ride back to the dock trying to soak in every tiny detail of the warm Florida breeze, the salty ocean air, and the cloudless sky packed with stars.

And to think I almost missed this for a night on the couch.

And so it begins

June 28, 2013 by

Follow The Lionfish Project on my website, facebook, and twitter

It’s been eleven months since I first developed the basic idea for The Lionfish Project. I had been bouncing grant ideas off people for weeks, the only thing I had narrowed down was that I wanted to do something with lionfish. One night in August, right before a family vacation to Key West, my Dad and I were driving back from an Orioles game. He dropped me off to pick up my car, and in the 20 minutes it took me to drive home, I developed the outline of the project. It was one of those instances that ideas fall into your lap, and it turned out to be the start of something pretty incredible.

Larry the Lionfish is certainly ready to go!

Larry the Lionfish is certainly ready to go!

Now, almost a year later, I’m finally here. On Thursday I boarded the Auto Train in Lorton, Virginia for a 17-hour train ride down the East Coast to Sanford, Florida. The entire experience is absolutely surreal—it’s hard to believe that something that once seemed like such an unachievable dream is finally happening. The last eleven months have seen their fair share of tears, rants and doubts as I developed my first ever grant-funded independent research project, but thankfully I had a network of endlessly supportive friends and family to see me through. I owe them a huge amount of thanks, because I know it couldn’t have been easy (especially in February while waiting to hear the results of the grant—I’m surprised I have any friends at all after that! I was a total wreck).

But now the real work begins. I’ve spent the last two months or so focused on logistics—getting releases, contacting interviewees, talking with research stations and pouring over Florida Keys guidebooks. To date, I have eight interviews locked in and many more in the works. Every person I contact leads me to two or three other potential interviewees—to the point that my head is swimming with possibilities. Mostly, I’m humbled by how welcoming and supportive the Florida Keys community has been. Bound together by a common love of their native coral reef, these individuals will support any cause working to save it. I’m rapidly finding that these are some of the most innovative and passionate people I’ve ever met. My time in the Keys will hopefully result in a captivating story about the individuals who are eradicating invasive lionfish—after all, that’s why I’m here. My challenge is to discover and capture these stories in a way that truly does them justice. It will undoubtedly be a learning experience with its ups and downs, and I’ll certainly make mistakes along the way. But from what I’ve seen so far, the stories will ultimately speak for themselves.

Now I’ve just got to go get them.

The Young Explorer Grant

April 2, 2013 by

The month of January and February were particularly tough for me. After first starting my Lionfish Project proposal in August, I had finally turned in my final submission to the National Geographic Young Explorer’s program. Throughout January and February, all I could do was wait.

I first learned about the program while interning at National Geographic over the summer. I  became acquainted with some Young Explorer Grantees during the Explorer’s Symposium in June and became absolutely fascinated with their work (read more about the Symposium). In the coming months, I was on the Young Explorer’s site daily, pouring over the different research and exploration projects. There were experienced filmmakers, archeologists, climbers, anthropologists, ecologists, and photographers. I clicked from page to page in a state of awe, mostly thinking to myself, “I am so out of my league”.

But I decided to pursue a grant anyway. I emailed the Young Explorer contact at Nat Geo with my idea to get some feedback, made countless appointments with professors to get advice, and read up on every Grantee I could find. For the next five months, my project shifted and grew constantly. I cold-called research stations and scientists in the Florida Keys and spent hours online trying to figure out the logistics of the project. The Nat Geo contact said that the top thing the review committee looks for is that you know what you’re doing, and I was hellbent on proving to them that I had thought this through.

After a few late nights and a fair amount of stress eating, I submitted my proposal and began the waiting. That month or so was torturous, and I know I wasn’t the easiest to deal with…my friends were counting down the days until I heard, just so I would relax. The email came at 1pm on a Wednesday, just before I had an appointment with a professor of mine. While waiting outside his office, I started yelling and crying and hyperventilating all at once as I read the words, leading my professor to bolt out of his office in a state of confused panic. I had never felt so relieved and excited in my life—mostly because I never remember wanting anything more than I wanted this grant.

Since I got the email, the real work has started. I went to DC to meet with my contact at Nat Geo, have spent hours working on designing business cards and my website, and have had to finalize the logistics of the project. Although it’s a ton of work, especially on top of my schoolwork, I couldn’t be happier. I’m pursuing something I love while being supported by an organization I’ve respected my entire life.

One year ago, as a starstruck intern at the Explorer’s Symposium, I told myself I wanted to be a National Geographic Explorer. And now, thanks to the help of my parents, professors and friends, it’s actually happened. I am unbelievably honored and grateful to embark on this journey with their support.

Want to learn more about the Young Explorer’s Grant Program? Check out their website.

Dreaming Big is Hard Work

January 7, 2013 by

I decided to do a research project next summer. At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted to do something. I’ve always had this romanticized perception of scientific research—I love the idea that you’re delving into a topic in a new and unexplored way. But mostly, to me, research means that you’ve found something that you care so passionately about that you can’t help yourself from wanting to find out more.

So…what am I that passionate about? Good question.

I toyed around with a lot of ideas over the next couple of weeks. I have a solid background in marine science and conservation, so I decided to tackle a project related to the ocean. But that was about as far as I got. There were certain limitations I faced—my project would absolutely require travel, and I couldn’t easily jet off to some far away ocean for a summer. I don’t have an overwhelming amount of lab experience, so I wouldn’t be comfortable pursuing a project solely based on lab work. I considered working in someone else’s lab for the summer to get more experience, but I decided that defeated the purpose. I wanted this project to be mine, not someone else’s.

The idea came to me at the end of summer vacation on the way home from the gym. As I cruised down the highway, a thought hit me.  Instead of stretching my skills to fit my research project, I need to design my project around my strengths. I have more experience with media than I do lab techniques—why not capitalize on that? I’ve blogged for W&M since my freshman year, and even blogged for the Admission Office when I interned there last semester. I’ve studied photography since I was 13 and learned basic film editing techniques last year. Lastly, I’m addicted to every form of social media (but who isn’t?). I decided to combine my love of media with my passion for the ocean in an interdisciplinary interview-based project in the Florida Keys.

I picked the Florida Keys because I’m familiar with the area, which is important for my first solo research project. I then decided to focus on a topic that has important marine conservation applications, specifically the proliferation of an invasive species called lionfish. Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean, causing extensive damage to the local reef fish populations. My project will consist of dozens of interviews up and down the Keys focusing on how the locals have adapted to the invasion, and how they are taking lionfish control into their own hands. This includes chefs that are using them on their menus, dive masters that are teaching their students to hunt and kill them, and non-profits that have formed to spread awareness about the problem.

Now that I’ve come up with the idea, the real work starts. I’ve applied for two different grants to fund the project, one through the W&M Charles Center, and one through the National Geographic Young Explorers program. All in all, this means pages and pages of project descriptions, numerous calls to contacts in the Keys, number crunching to fit my budget, and hours of background research on the topic. And this is all before the project technically even starts. On top of my other schoolwork, the grant writing often feels like a full time job. But because I found a topic that I am truly passionate about, every late night spent reading about lionfish isn’t a chore. Instead, I view it as one step closer to reaching my goal of producing a quality project.

I could keep going about the background of my project, my plan of attack, and my grant proposals, but I won’t (although there will certainly be future posts about it). The most important thing is that I’ve found a project that truly excites me. By allowing myself to take a different approach to the traditional research project, I’ve found a project that is perfectly suited to my interests and abilities. As a result, I’ve never been more engaged in my academics, and am genuinely antsy to get to work. And at the end of the summer, when I’ve completed the project, I’ll be able to look back and say, that was all me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back to work!

A reminder why I came to W&M…

December 3, 2012 by

The photo speaks for itself! I love Williamsburg in the fall.

The Benefits of Being Challenged

November 26, 2012 by

I spent the first half of this semester complaining. I’m not saying I’m proud, I’m just saying it’s a fact.

In my defense, my complaints weren’t exactly unwarranted. I was coming off of a fantastic summer and was facing my most challenging semester academically. It was one of those semesters many students face their junior year – when you try and cram in all the major and minor requirements that you have to take but don’t particularly want to take. To top it off, two of my closest friends and my boyfriend were all studying abroad, which definitely threw a wrench into my routine. I had been warned that junior year would be tricky, but I had kind of hoped I’d be pleasantly surprised and power through like any other semester.

It didn’t quite work that way. At least, not at first.

I had my fair share of breakdowns in the first few weeks of school. For the first time in my college career, I was in a class that truly had me stumped. It seemed that no matter how much material I studied, or how many late nights I spent in Swem, it wasn’t enough. I left my first exam in the class dazed and discouraged; convinced I was headed for failure. My other classes didn’t exactly help either – I was enrolled in two courses at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and was intimidated by the graduate students who were constantly talking about their research and firing questions at the professor. I felt like I was always behind in my schoolwork and I constantly worried about the impact on my GPA. My study habits had always worked for me before, why not now?

But as the semester progressed, I slowly but surely found my footing. Bit by bit, I changed my routine, met with professors, and tested new study habits.  I stopped taking notes on my laptop and stuck to notebooks where I could sketch lecture concepts. I cut down on my commitments and did my best to get eight hours of sleep each night. But mostly, I forced myself to stop worrying about my GPA. I realized that the pressure I was putting on myself to keep up a silly number was negatively affecting my schoolwork and my mental health. Before I even realized it, I was using my time much more efficiently, staying off Facebook and allowing myself to get behind on my television shows. Instead, I spent my free time at the gym, pumping away stress on the elliptical while catching up on English readings. Although my workload didn’t change, I found I was happier, healthier, and woke up in the mornings ready to take on my day. Even when I encountered weeks with laundry lists of tests and due dates, I didn’t lose my momentum.

And now, with only three weeks left in the semester, I can honestly say I’m in the best state I’ve ever been.  My classes have pushed me to work harder than I have before, and I’m coming out the other side more driven than ever. Although I probably won’t be making a 4.0 this semester, I’ll be able to look back and say I earned everything I got with long hours and hard work. I’ve also found that this drive extends far past my school work – I’ve been much happier in my research lab, my leadership positions, and my personal life.

I didn’t come to college to get off easy. If that was really what I wanted, I probably shouldn’t have picked William & Mary. I came to college to push myself, to gain an education I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. So why, when confronted with a particularly hard semester, would I back down?  Although it took a few weeks to gain my footing, this semester has shown me I can handle a challenge. In fact, I thrive when I am forced to test my boundaries. This semester has taught me that sometimes you need to stumble a bit so you can rise even higher than before.

Besides, that’s what college is really about, right?