Six Years Ago I Couldn’t Divide

Admittedly, I am getting older and so is my memory but I remember walking into the Belmar Jefferson County Public Library six years ago like it was yesterday. Why? Because I was confronting my biggest fear head on, math.

I was a horrible student in high school, stuffed into a box, whispers around the small community I grew up in, “she should be smart, her father is a PhD mechanical engineer who runs an entire research laboratory at General Electric and her mother is a teacher.” I failed geometry, I ended up in summer school, I had to retake my New York state regents examination three times … the list goes on. I struggled and no one was there to guide me. I was lazy and no punishment from my parents was going to change that. Repeated failure and a negative label as a “challenged” student shaped my strong belief that I was stupid. I squeaked out of high school with an overall “C” average and went on to a small college in New Jersey where I was accepted on the condition that I take all remedial courses my freshman year. I was ashamed and dropped out before my second semester was over. I ran away to Philadelphia and flushed my turd of a life right down the toilet.

But this is not about the “lost years” as I like to call them, this is about walking into that library in Lakewood, Colorado thirteen years later…….

“Where are the how to learn math videos?” I asked the librarian. “What do you need to learn, algebra?” she responded. “No…….. I need to learn how to divide.”

She walked me over to the children’s DVD section and placed me in front of the elementary school level “how to” math videos. Once she was out of sight, I took a deep breath, tugged at my bangs, and grabbed the entire stack. I decided to go back to school and if I wanted to get into Red Rocks Community College (RRCC), I had to take a math placement test.

I spent the next two weeks watching cartoon animals do long division, fight about order of operations, and get caught in prime number storms, yes prime numbers rained from the sky above. I returned proudly to the library beating my chest – I now have the mathematic capabilities of a 5th grader. I took out the next series of videos which dove into the wild world of algebra. Another week, and I took that test and I placed into college level algebra. It was my first victory. But it was so much more then just a “W.” Today I look back and see that as a defining moment in my life. It took thirteen stinking years to remove the cage of self doubt that I allowed others to build around me. I was still the same Kim, the only thing that changed was I believed I could. And so the cage began to break down, one bar at a time.

I had tremendous success at Red Rocks Community College. I went through algebra, trigonometry, and calculus I. After receiving straight A’s, I became a math tutor through the school. I did common hour tutoring but my favorite was tutoring one on one because I was able to relate and help those who simply thought they “could not do math.” *(I hate that saying, you can do math, you just need to learn it like any other skill in life)* I became a teacher assistant for a biology 112 class. I ran the laboratory and wrote exams. I continued on in math, taking calculus II, calculus III, and differential equations – earning straight A’s. I took organic chemistry I and II and placed in the top 10th percentile on the nationwide exam, one of the best scores to come out of RRCC. I designed a cooling tower that would save the school 10% water usage and my design was implemented after I graduated. But most importantly I decided to shoot for the stars (even if I missed) and become an engineer who solved the oil based plastic packaging problem. I love this planet and I want to make a difference. I want future generations to have clean oceans, clean rivers, and clean air. I care. But I don’t just care, I do. It became my driving force. I worked like a crazy person and I was accepted into Colorado School of Mines (CSM) one of the best engineering schools in the United States.

But life is such and my transfer into CSM was anything but smooth. My tremendous success in community college gave me the necessary credits and the confidence I needed at 34 years old to step foot onto a traditional college campus full of 18 year olds. That is about all it did. There is nothing in life that could have prepared me for how difficult Colorado School of Mines would be, except maybe mountain climbing, because my motto became, “no matter how hard, how uncomfortable, and how scary, one foot in front of the other is the only way to get to the top, how bad do you want the summit?” This is what I say to myself when I am on the side of a mountain and this is what I said to myself nearly every day at CSM.

This is not a place for unnaturally gifted people. My peers were all top of their high school class and it showed. If they studied 5 hours for an exam, I studied 10 hours for the same exact grade. I immediately began having flashbacks to high school *** I am not good enough *** This is engineering school. You are not coddled. Your hand is not held. You are responsible for learning things like quantum mechanics, steel properties, and matlab on your own. YOU must figure out how it all works. And if you do not swim…..and swim hard, you will sink…. and fast. This is a school where sometimes a 56 is an “A” on an exam and you have to be okay with never really knowing what your grade is until the end of the semester. You cannot stop until the semester is over, there is no rest, there is no break, there is no free time; there is only never ending homework problem sets, weekly 30 page laboratory reports, and a stream of exams that are way too long for the time you are given. Everything about this system wants to break you, sink or swim, the choice was mine.

I was the oddball out, an old lady looking for redemption, it took a full year and a major change (chemical engineering to materials and metallurgical engineering) but I learned how to navigate. I grew an extra set of arms and swam the quadruple butterfly stroke. My second semester junior year was insanely difficult and I pulled a 4.0 grade point average. My first semester senior year was even more difficult and I pulled another 4.0. I made the Dean’s list, one of my greatest achievements to date.

This is not a rant about how difficult engineering school is (okay maybe a little bit). My point: you do not have to be what society calls “gifted” to do math. You do not need to be a high school mathlete to learn how to problem solve. You do not need to be 18 to go to college. If you decide that you want to do something that other people said would be impossible or even more so, you think is impossible, put two middle fingers to the sky and prove them and yourself wrong. I fought with everything inside me to walk across that stage set up on the Colorado School of Mines football field. I bled for the moment the president of the school handed me my diploma, shook my hand, and congratulated me. Really, I once ground my thumb off in the physical materials lab.

On May 11th 2018 I became an engineer. I am an engineer, not because I was good at math, not because I did well in high school and it was the obvious path, not because I simply “applied myself,” I am an engineer because I wanted it and I relentlessly worked until I was.

I have been accepted into a graduate program at the University of British Columbia in Canada where I will research biopolymers. My dream has always been to become a researcher and resolve the worlds oil based packaging problem and now I have created that opportunity for myself. I am terrified to leave Colorado and everything I know, but engineering school taught me more than just division. Engineering school taught me how to accept failure and force success.

There is a little voice in each one of us, the voice of impossible dreams that whispers the outlandish things we truly want. There is another voice, the voice of self-doubt that feeds off insecurity, past situations and silences the voice of impossible dreams. “You can’t do that. That is too hard. There’s no way you can make that work. Don’t do it.” If there is one piece of advice I can lend; send the voice of self-doubt packing and let the voice of impossible dreams run rampant. You ARE capable of creating any reality you want. Hard work trumps all else. If you are willing to lay it all on the line for your dreams and goals, achievement is inevitable.

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the small world they’ve been given, than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact, it is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration, it is a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”


Six Years Ago I Couldn’t Divide — 13 Comments

  1. Fellow Mines graduate here (Physics/EE 2008). Just wanted to say congratulations and thank you for sharing your story. It is an impressive story!

    If you can find time between all the alternative-plastics research and endless mountain adventures in the PNW, I hope you’ll consider mentoring (in some context) other nontraditional students. From what I’ve read of your blog, I think you could have exceptionally meaningful and rewarding impact on the lives of folks who could use it.

  2. Congratulations! You wrote your story so eloquently and honest. Thank you for sharing your story, struggles, and successes.

  3. Kim,
    I read your trip reports for those years you were on 14ers,and marvelled at your courage and perserverance.I am again in awe of another kind of courage that’s involved in you climbing those internal mountains,and the doubts that often stop us from becoming who we can be. I have climbed some of the easier 14ers,and learned so much that has helped me face obstacles and fears in these last 30 plus years since that first climb,but the toughest climbs have always been the ones that come from those mountains within. I’ve been a counselor for over 40 years, and courage such as you have shown still inspires me.May you always find mountains to climb, and know that there are those who are with you from afar.

  4. I’ve always loved your trip reports on You capture the joy of being in the mountains perfectly! I’m a 50 year old who just got accepted to Mines after 2 years at Front Range (you’re not really an old lady!). I had been a nurse and had a back injury requiring surgery–in fact I had five surgeries while at Front Range. (Lack of mountain time was worse than the actual surgeries!) I may not be able to attend Mines because I’m having trouble getting funding. Seems a first bachelor’s is a no-no. Climbing up Antero yesterday I reminded myself that I’m a fighter and I’m not going to give up on this dream. Back in the real world today, the doubts again creeped in but you gave me some inspiration here–thank you!! Sometimes what we think is out of our hands just requires a little more creativity, I think. I’m going to keep fighting because dammit, Mines needs another old lady! Good Luck in fulfilling all your dreams!!

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