I’ve been lucky enough to have some really amazing opportunities come my way in the past 20 years of my life, but none as exciting as those that I was able to experience this summer with the help of the STEP Fellowship program. My STEP Signature Project, carefully curated with the help of my wonderful STEP coordinator, Ms. Melinda Sims, was a multi-step project. The first being a BUCK-I-SERV service trip to Chicago, Illinois to the Misericordia House, a community campus that cares for and maximizes potential for persons with mild to profound disabilities. The second part was an internship that I got at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Hamilton Branch in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I worked with the Aerosol Team.
The BUCK-I-SERV trip I went on taught me a lot in regards to how no matter what obstacles you are facing, there is always potential to live an incredible meaningful life. During my stay at the Misericordia House, I was able to work with some incredible residents that always had a smile on their face and always seemed as though they were truly enjoying life. Society has some unfortunate views and unfair generalizations about people with disabilities and how limited they are by their disabilities. A disability does not define who you are as a person, but rather changes how you go about doing certain things in life filled with activity and enjoyment. The residents at Misericordia are truly beautiful inside and out, and their positivity rubbed off on all of us. During my trip, it was not I who was helping the residents, but rather they were teaching me how to look outside of the box with a smile on my face every day.
Now at the CDC, a lot of the knowledge I gained was very technical. It was an incredibly hands-on engineering experience, which required high levels of critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to be independent while being able to work within tough restraints. However, aside from the technical aspect, I learned a lot about what it means to be an adult. For the majority of my life, things have been essentially spoon-fed to me and the pressure of meeting goals to this extent was almost null. However, this summer at the CDC, I realized that I, in fact, did not know everything. In fact, I actually knew close to nothing. That being said, I was still expected to perform at a continuously exceptional level by meeting deadlines, creating reports and experiments, and working on projects despite my lack of knowledge. I learned that if I wanted to succeed, I shouldn’t expect something to come easily to me. I have to work hard for it. Success will not just fall into my lap, but must be seized and sought after with a certain drive and hunger that just isn’t developed at a typical suburban school environment.
The events that led up to my revelations found at Misericordia, happened every single day I was there, for the entire duration of the week. Every day our group was working with a variety of residents, and every day the residents taught me to see life as something beautiful. One instance in particular happened on the day our group went to the Murphy House. The Murphy House is the home and care facility for the residents were extreme disabilities. Many of the residents had Cystic Fibrosis, severe Autism, and a variety of other conditions, rendering them restricted to a wheelchair/stroller system with round the clock care. They had limited capacity to communicate through words or movement. On the day we arrived, a group of about eight college students, we were asked to play a very hands-on volleyball-esque game with the residents. Now this was immediately met with timid responses of hesitation, confusion, and discomfort. We didn’t understand how we would play such an incredibly active game without potentially hurting some of the residents, and we didn’t want to make any of them uncomfortable. However, we tentatively moved forward, intrigued with how this would play out.
As we began, the excitement in the room from both the residents and volunteers was palpable. However, as time went, the residents accepted us and we could see their eyes light up and they smiled. They would sometimes grab our hands to indicate that our pitiful comedy routine was exactly what they wanted to hear. The gymnasium area we were all in soon become a battleground filled with bitter rivalries, shouting, heckling, indignation towards the clearly unjustified referee calls, and unbelievable fits of laughter. Some of the residents even found fleeting romances with some of the volunteers, with hand holding and being dubbed the honorary title of “wifey”. For those few hours, it didn’t seem as though anyone’s disability was debilitating or restrictive. It was just pure fun for everyone.
On the other side of the spectrum, I was taught to grow up by the CDC. It all started as soon as my orientation and settling period ended. I thought I was familiar with the general protocol and procedure I would have to deal with, due to my extensive background in research. I clearly did not know just how wrong I was. The first part of the project I was handed dealt with graduate level and post-graduate level applications of fluid dynamics, aerosolized particulates, aerodynamics, lens and laser systems, and hazardous material processes. My supervisor however, assumed that in the two years of introductory engineering classes that I already had was sufficient for these topics. With a quick, “You should be able to manage” and a high level of expectation, my supervisor dropped this bomb of “I have no idea what is going on” on me and left me to figure things out for myself.
From that moment on, I knew that I was in over my head. But I had the option of making one of two decisions which would shape how the rest of my time at the CDC would end up being either to realize that things are going to be tough and do as much as I can anyways, or taking on too much and burning out before I had even really begun. Going about my decisions in this very methodical manner allowed me to readjust myself every time a problem arose, which, in the research world, is fairly often. I experienced much more success in this manner, and learned a great deal more.
My BUCK-I-SERV trip developed my personal sense of self, whereas my CDC experience developed my professional sense of self. I ended the summer a much more well-rounded individual than when I began this journey, and will continue to use the life skills I learned until I can compound on them and grow even more. I reached my personal goals by realizing who I was in some uncomfortable situations, and learned that it is okay to be different as long as you are happy with yourself. The Misericordia House is filled with incredible memories, and I can easily say that they affected me more than I probably ever helped them during my stay. In terms of my professional goals, I learned that it is fine to not know a lot about what you are doing as long as you make the effort to try. No one is expected to know everything coming into a new field or job, but is expected to show that they can hold their own and manage by putting in effort that goes above and beyond what others would do. All in all, this summer was the first summer I truly felt like I grew into my twenty year old self, and I have no intention of stopping.