How they made it: Professors talk road bumps and personal setbacks

student stress
Olivia Staser/File

Our 20s are a time of growth and exploration, but with so many possibilities, so many paths worth taking, it is easy to feel lost. The high-pressure environment of this campus only aggravates such feelings of uncertainty. With its cutting-edge research, esteemed faculty, 22 Nobel laureates and overachieving students, it often feels as though you have to have your life together all of the time. It feels as if one small setback, one path left unfollowed, could entirely alter your life.

Looking for a little guidance myself, I sat down with four professors to talk about the wonders and horrors of their twenties — and the setbacks they encountered on their own paths to becoming the academics they are today.

MaryAnn Robak — Lecturer, department of chemistry

The Daily Californian: Many people talk about their 20s as being both the worst and best years of their lives. Looking back at your 20s, and particularly your time in college, would you say this is an accurate description?

MaryAnn Robak: The hardest point during college where I felt like I was the most stressed out and anxious, where I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do this, was right after I had switched into the chemistry major and had to catch up. I was taking five chemistry classes, and on top of that I was taking a five-credit Spanish class that met every day. I literally went into my adviser’s office in the third week of classes right after drop-add was over. I went in in tears, telling her, “I can’t do this. I’m going to fail everything. I can’t keep up.” At that point, I couldn’t even see past the panic to think about what the options were, but the adviser convinced me that it really was just fine to have a ‘W’ on my transcript. Withdrawing from a class was no big deal, and it was better to do that than to … keep trying to muddle through and feel miserable the whole semester regardless of whether I managed to get good grades or not. And what a relief it was after I dropped that Spanish class.

DC: Many students experience impostor syndrome, doubting their accomplishments or even questioning whether they deserve to study at an institution like UC Berkeley. Did you have this same experience, and how did you navigate through those doubts?

MR: I definitely felt like an impostor my first year of grad school. I got here, and it seemed like everybody around me was smarter than me. I had no idea what I was doing. I was sitting in class, and I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be writing down because none of it made sense. I had not developed the kind of study skills I needed at that point in my life. I had to figure out how to study in groups and how to be OK with being in the lower half of the class. There were a bunch of times that I didn’t feel like I belonged here.

DC: Many students feel that they are stuck to a path, that their career or major choices have become a part of their identities. Do you have any advice for students as we embark on our own career goals?

MR: Don’t feel like you have to stick to whichever path you said you were on two years ago. At a point, it feels like it’s part of your identity that you’ve agreed to and latched onto. It’s hard to feel like you’re OK with just branching out. But, man, am I happy that I gave myself permission to just do what was interesting.

One of the awesome things about colleges is that it’s kind of this big branching point. Picture it being like a tree. You’re climbing the tree, and maybe you were thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to climb to the top of the tree, but over there, that branch looks interesting, so I’m going to climb over to (that) side.” It’s not like you’re stopping (your) climbing. You’ve got so many choices. You become exposed to many more options than you ever knew existed. If you feel like you’re a failure for taking one of those side paths, that sucks. You shouldn’t feel like that. Feel free to say, “Hey, there are these other things that might be interesting goals, and I might be enjoying that path … better.” You shouldn’t feel like that means you’re a failure in any way. That’s my biggest advice.

DC: When students are sitting in your class, or any class at UC Berkeley, and they look up at their professors, who seem to have everything in their lives together, what would you tell them?

MR: I would tell them that they’re not noticing all of those mistakes I’m making. Do I actually seem that put-together? Talk to some of the people who were in the Chemistry 3B class the first semester that I taught it. I literally was posting three corrections per problem set, like three updated files. Some of those had more than one correction. There were typos everywhere. But you have to be fine with making mistakes and not feeling the slightest bit embarrassed to say, “Oh yep, I was missing a carbon there. No big deal.” If you don’t treat it as a big deal, people don’t even notice them making all those mistakes. So I think part of looking put-together is being totally OK with it not being perfect. I encourage students to feel the same way about exams. I would never get 100 percent on one of my exams ever. I have students who do, but I would not, because I’m not that good at keeping track of every single detail. But I also don’t feel like I would need to get 100 percent on one of my exams.

Peter Marsden — Lecturer, department of chemistry

DC: What obstacles did you face during your undergraduate years?

Peter Marsden: I went into college thinking that I was going to save the world somehow. I thought I was going to save the world as a veterinarian and an economist, and I was going to speak really good Spanish and that I was going to fix the environment. I was going to do all of that at the same time with one magic major.

It turns out that Spanish is just like an English major, but in a different language, so that stopped happening. Econ, I was like, I don’t understand this. No, thank you. Stopped doing that. Biology I really did not even remotely like, but to get into biology you needed chemistry. My first gen-chem class was the worst class I’ve ever had, really. In college that was the worst that I performed. I called my mom, crying, “I’m a failure at life.” And she was like, “Baby, it was your first semester. Who cares?”

DC: Do you have any advice for students as we embark on our own career goals?

PM: Be really introspective. Take the time to ask, “Why am I taking this class? Why am I doing this problem set? What else could I be doing at the same time? Am I using my time efficiently, or wisely?” People say your 20s should be the best, and they kind of are. It’s kind of baller. You get to be young. Right now, I want to be young, but my body is saying, “Fool, you’re 34. Slow your roll.” Again, take the time to plan out what schoolwork you’re going to do — (ask yourself): “What fun things can I do at least once a week or a couple of times a week? What fun things am I just going to goof off with?”

Joanna Reed — Lecturer, department of sociology

DC: Did you ever have doubts about the life path that you had chosen?

Joanna Reed: Oh, yeah, especially when I couldn’t find a job. Getting a Ph.D. is pretty specialized, and it takes such a long time. I did have a few thoughts of “am I going to have to completely switch gears” or “am I going to have to go back to school again?”

DC: Many students struggle with finding balance in their lives. What advice could you give to students in this regard?

JR: From interacting with a lot of undergrads today, I see how many people have anxiety and are just having a difficult time. I think I would advise taking time to do things that you like and giving yourself some space to not feel like you have to be the best at everything all the time. Giving yourself some openness to try new things and having some faith that it will work out in the end. We have to give it time. Things aren’t always so neat and tidy at any given time. You want to focus on the future, but you also want to focus on your life now and do things that you would enjoy, that are good for you. Like go see more music; just make sure that you try to save some space to have fun.

Aya de León — Lecturer and director of Poetry for the People, African American studies department

DC: Many people talk about their 20s as being both the worst and best years of their lives. Looking back at your 20s, and particularly your time in college, would you say this is an accurate description?

Aya de León: So for me, during my 20s, I was just kind of a mess. I ended up spending a lot of time in my 20s doing personal healing work — therapy, support groups, a meditation retreat. While other people were having this sort of carefree-best-years-of-their-lives, I was sitting in support groups, crying about different aspects of my childhood. At the time, it really seems like a bummer, you know, other people seem to be having a great time. And yet, my 30s were this time of incredible thriving. Anyways, I did all this healing work and, in connection to that, really focused on my creative life and trying to build my career. And so in my 30s and into my 40s, I’ve had this thriving career.

I would say that I (have) also noticed that people in their 20s struggle more openly, and people have questions for them, like what are you going to do with your life? How are you going to make money? Where are you going to live? Are you going to get married? It sort of seems like you’re supposed to have the answers to those questions. And a lot of times older adults have the answers to the questions, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not struggling. We struggle in different ways and we also struggle much more secretly and silently.  

DC: What were some of the setbacks or obstacles that you encountered during your 20s?

AL: One of them for me was about being a person of multiracial heritage and just having to deal with rigid boxes that I didn’t ever feel comfortable in and having to have that sort of sense of identity, you know, where do I fit, who is my community? That was one of them.

Another one was just this trauma and dysfunction that I had to deal with from my family. That was really important for me to get a chance to really look at that — looking at different addictions that happened in my family, … how did I want to live my life in terms of being more awake or more anesthetized. Those were decisions that I had to make, and it was just useful to look at those head-on and really think and talk about them in terms of deciding who I wanted to be.

DC: What advice would you give to a student who’s sitting in your class, looking up to you as someone who has their life together, as a goal they want to achieve, but they currently might be experiencing impostor syndrome, anxiety or stress from school. What would you tell them?

AL: I would say embrace the struggle. Embrace it and decide to really struggle, to get help. I had watched the generation before me, in the ‘70s, get a little therapy, so they gave me the message that it was OK to get help. It was not like any of the people around me were having huge, horrific problems, but they went and got help, and so for me, I didn’t even wait till my problems were as big as theirs had been — I went ahead and got help.

Contact Arianna Moss at [email protected]