A Piecewise Continuous Path

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A Piecewise Continuous Path

Life Doesn't Always Go As Planned


Toni Sauncy, SPS Director

My path to physics and, eventually, to teaching was not what most would consider "traditional." I went right from high school to the community college in my small hometown in West Texas, on a full scholarship and with a brilliant plan to be an accountant in the booming regional oil and gas industry. Fortunately, I dropped out of college in my third semester. After leaving school behind, I thought very little about what I wanted to be "when I grew up." Several years later, I decided that I wanted to be a teacher. In a convoluted way, that decision ultimately led me to SPS, because that's what this organization is all about: students.

I did not consider dropping out of college to be a huge catastrophe since no one in my family had even finished high school. I was academically clueless. Pregnant and suffering from morning sickness, and dealing with being a single mother, I stopped going to class and thought that they (the nebulous college authority, “they”) would realize I was no longer interested in college and simply remove my name from the class rosters. When I received failing grades at the end of the semester, I was shocked and made an angry call to the registrar's office. I was shortly informed that signing up for college courses is a sort of contract and that I was supposed to actually notify "them" of my decision to withdraw. That was academic lesson number one.

It was fortunate that I dropped out of college, not only because I missed out on being an unemployed oil and gas accountant (there was a big downturn in the industry a few months after I dropped out), but also because, frankly, my daughter saved my life. We grew up together. She taught me how to stop being a reckless teenager and start thinking about being an adult. A few years later I was fortunate to find a partner with whom to share my piecewise path. We grew our family with the addition of a son, and I landed a part-time job teaching arts and crafts. It was not until a high school reunion a few years later that I decided to try the whole college thing again. After telling my dropout story, I overheard a former classmate remark, "Oh, that’s too bad, because I always thought she was so smart." I cannot say for sure whether my response was anger or embarrassment, but that remark kick-started my return to higher education. I went back to the same community college and re-enrolled in the courses I had failed (except for economics, which is, to this day, marked with an "F" on my transcript). I decided to become a math teacher because I was always “good at math”, and teaching is a respectable profession that fit well with having a family. My kick start turned into genuine motivation to make a better life for my children. They watched me to go to school and assumed everyone’s mom did homework all the time.

To finish my degree, I had to transfer to a four-year school. Another destined-to-be-a-teacher classmate and I decided to share a daily commute to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, two short hours away (each way). At the suggestion of my classmate, I took on physics as a minor so our schedules would coordinate. I had never taken a physics course before. Ever. I scraped my way through the first two courses in physics, feeling lost and clueless most of the time even though I was an “A” student in math. But I stuck with it. I had a family who needed me to be a working mother as soon as possible. My path took an unexpected turn when I found my passion in an optics lab. Fascinated by the way physics caused me to view the world, I went from being dumbfounded about what the heck a flywheel is to mesmerized by light passing through a diffraction grating. Then someone advised me go to graduate school. I did not even know what that meant. I knew that my professors were called “doctor” but had never actually considered why. During my last semester as an undergraduate math major, we packed up the family and moved to Lubbock, where I started graduate school—in physics. This was a second academic lesson. There is always more to learn.

Graduate school was fantastic. I learned from a masterful research mentor, made lifelong friends, and built up a network of professional support. When I graduated, I chose a tenure track faculty position at an institution where the emphasis was on teaching rather than research, in which I spent 15 or more hours per week with students in a classroom or teaching lab—despite the urging of one of my most cherished mentors to pursue a position as a postdoc. I truly enjoyed my research in graduate school doing experimental solid state physics, and though I have not accomplished great feats of ground-breaking research, I have enjoyed focusing on teaching undergraduate students and guiding their research projects centered around my interest in optoelectronic materials.

Unlike my driving-partner classmate, I never became an official math teacher, but I did become a teacher. My piecewise continuous experience as a student has helped me to be a better educator and mentor. I did loathe my first year in physics, but, eventually, physics drew me in. No matter where (or when) a student falls in love with physics and no matter how many discontinuities may occur along the path, that student can have a profound influence on the world because of the way physics enables one to think.

In this issue of The SPS Observer, we deal with those not-so-easy parts of academia and physics. I have seen lots of students encounter the same kinds of challenges I did when I was a student, and there are many ways to navigate those challenges. I know this because of my own experiences, but more importantly because of the stories of the many students with whom I have shared my piecewise continuous path. //

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