- School has and continues to be VERY difficult for me
- I always worked really hard and got decent grades despite my disabilities
- I did well not only because I worked hard but because I also received appropriate accommodations (extended time on tests, a decreased distraction test environment, NO Scan-trons!, spelling and grammar were not always counted against me)
- I saw a tutor once a week from 1st grade through freshman year of undergrad! They taught me study skills that I still use today!
- I have an ‘imposter’ complex that makes me feel like I’m tricking people into thinking that I am doing well despite regularly feeling stupid. So I learned to study really really hard (sacrificing FUN along the way)!
- I constantly battle feelings of inadequacy in my academic life.
- Science is a place where I feel most comfortable.
Schooling the imperfect perfectionist
Because of my brain-associated disadvantages I learned to try really hard very early in life. Since grade school, I was the student that did all his homework and studied almost every night. I was the fifth grader that NEEDED to get A’s: studying all night for spelling, grammar, history, science and English tests. I was a perfectionist with an imperfect brain. I had to get A’s. I needed to keep up with my ridiculously smart older brother and incredibly smart twin sister. I never felt like I was competing with them I just wanted to be as good as they were. So I hit the books…
To be as good as my family I studied really hard. A little too hard if you asked my 7th grade social studies teacher. One day in social studies one of the best teachers I have ever had asked the class if anyone was studying more than 2 hours a night (every night) for her class? I was the only one raising my hand, not because I was a teacher’s pet, which I was, but because I actually studied closer to 4 hours a night (for all of my classes) when I went home. She told the class that we were not allowed to study that much for her class and if we were in the middle of a chapter when 2 hours ticked by we should stop what we were doing and go play. Although everyone else in the class thought that Mrs Roberts lost her mind, “how could anyone study that much?” I thought, there is no way I’m going to stop reading halfway through a chapter.
This gotta-get-smart mentality took me through high school and undergrad. Even though I always got A’s and B’s, it wasn’t until college that I finally started to feel good about my academics. One of the reasons I did well was because I saw a tutor once a week to go over homework and to learn study skills. These study skills allowed me to work effectively on papers and really helped me optimize my studying. I guess I could say that I was a very serious student… Always studying… Always trying to make myself better. This desire to be better was my way of proving that I wasn’t as stupid as I thought I was. I constantly thought I was tricking people in to thinking that I was smart.
When I went to undergrad I literally studied every day for most of my courses, but it wasn’t until I took my intro to biology course that I took my studying up a notch. I highlighted my book, transcribed what I highlighted on my computer, highlighted that version, then I made flash cards of all the information that I didn’t remember (I also did this with my notes from class). I studied at breakfast, between classes, at lunch, before and after cross-country practice and at dinner. I was “that guy.” I was putting in about 10hrs of studying every day. I actually saw multiple tutors more than 5 hours a week for calculus and chemistry my freshmen year. Since I saw a private tutor for so long every week the athletic direct actually called my coach to tell him that I was taking advantage of the athletic department because they covered 100% of the tutoring fee for athletes. When my coach confronted me I told him the directors were being obnoxious and that they offer free tutoring to athletes! They shouldn’t say that I’m using too much of it! My coach was on my side and he told me to just take it up with the directors. So I actually had to fight with the athletic director to keep paying for my tutoring even though I was promised FREE TUTORING when I joined the team. Anyway, I won, so they continued to have to pay the 21ish dollars a week worth of tutoring I was using (Bradley university actually gave everyone on campus 2 free hours of private tutoring so the athletic dept was only on the hook for 3 hours worth!). Side note: A university that offers 2hrs of free private-tutoring to every student on campus is pretty sweet, right?!
I was studying this much so I wouldn’t look stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to learn, but the real reason I studied like this was that I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid. I needed to believe that I belonged! I had to get A’s and B’s to prove to myself that I deserved to be in school. The joy of getting an A on a test didn’t last long. If I got a good grade, I’d tell myself, “Alright Collin, you tricked them! You’re pretty stupid though, you can’t possibly get that lucky again!” This mentality forced me to study more, however, it took the joy out of succeeding.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year, that I decided to become a scientist. I joined an animal research lab and absolutely fell in love with it. I finally could spend less time studying and more time in lab doing experiments. The project that I worked on really fueled my love for science. It guided me to become a PhD student and really become completely immersed in science. Working on scientific experiments really allowed me to think creatively. All of a sudden I didn’t just have to remember facts and figures and regurgitate that information. I finally was able to learn why something happened and then critically think about how X, Y and Z occur. It didn’t matter that I thought and read more slowly than my peers because it was the specific ideas I came up with that mattered. Science is wonderful because you don’t have to be a genius to be good at science. You just have to be able to think critically and be able to work hard and design and execute experiments.
I worked in that research lab for another 2 years. I loved (and currently LOVE) that in a research lab you get to ask a question about a specific event that no one on the planet knows the answer to. You then get to develop an experiment that allows you to answer that question. If you design your experiment well, with the appropriate controls and use good techniques, you can actually answer these unknown questions. If you answer enough of these questions (and have pretty enough figures) then you may be fortunate enough to present your work at a scientific meeting and publish your findings in a peer-reviewed journal.
I was fortunate to have presented my work at 2 national scientific meetings my junior and senior year of undergrad. Imagine this: a kid who reads between a 6th and 9th grade level (15th percentile), has the processing speed within the bottom 14th percentile of the population and a diagnosed learning and reading disorder was presenting a poster of his data at a national meeting. It was that moment, the moment I was standing in front of my poster in San Francisco at this meeting that I realized this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was going to be a scientist! I was going to get my PhD!
I was so naïve.
Little did I know how horrible the application process was going to be applying to grad schools. I didn’t realize I was going to get rejected from all but 1 school I applied too. I didn’t realize how inadequate I was going to feel every day my first and second year in grad school. I wasn’t prepared for the doubts, anxiety and tears that overcame me when I was alone, thinking about how everyone at school would finally figure out that I was a huge stupid imposter. I wasn’t ready to fail the oral part of my comprehensive exam in my second year. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of work and self-sacrifice that was required for me to become successful in grad school. I had no idea how much READING and WRITING I would be expected to do (don’t these people know I read at the bottom 15th percentile of the population?).
Despite the short list of negative things that happened to me in grad school the one thing that really helped me through all of the nonsense and self-doubt was my list of goals. Before my first year of grad school I made a list of goals. The list covered long and short-term goals covering a variety of topics (i.e. school, career, running, relationships, health, etc). These goals helped me look past the current discomfort and self-sacrifice that was occurring to really see that all of this sadness had a purpose: to make me a better scientist and more importantly to make me a better person.
The list helped because it demanded that I pass all of my classes. It screamed that I pass my comprehensive exams (I did this on my second try). The list required that I publish 2 research articles and a literature review as a first author in grad school. This list of goals has been on my desk at work for over 5 years. I look at this list every day. Everyday I smile when I see all of the accomplished goals. I also smile when I see the unaccomplished ones because they’re not so far off.In my next post I’ll talk about how I’ve overcome my disabilities to become a successful graduate student.
I’d also like to note that I really feel like I am an example of an LD student who received the appropriate help and accommodations (from elementary school and all thru grad school) I needed in school and out that really has made me the person I am today. I truly believe that all of us LD people out there can be successful. I want to make my dream of every LD student and person getting all the help they need to become the best people they can be a reality.