Path to success isn't a straight line; student shares 'zigzag' journey
Doing poorly in college classes, or even failing them, is not the end, although it may seem so. A plummeting grade point average can result in the loss of a scholarship or financial aid, a warning about getting on academic probation, and a lot of additional stress from parents and family.
Joe Yao, who is currently working toward his Master of Science in Exercise Sciences at University of Houston-Clear Lake, reflects on his freshman year at another university with something less than fondness.
“I got a scholarship to go to a university in New Jersey and I was studying chemical engineering,” he said. “My original plan was to get my engineering degree and work toward a career in physical therapy. I was taking engineering and math courses and it was just not working out.”
Yao said he was doing very poorly, even failing some of his math classes more than once. “I felt trapped in that environment,” he said. “Everyone else seemed really smart, like they belonged there. It felt like everyone around me was able to do something I wasn’t doing.”
Figuring he’d either fail out of his first year or be placed on academic probation, Yao decided to leave New Jersey and transfer. “I had a lot of pressure on me to figure this out,” he said. “I was trying to decide if I could survive without transferring, and if I could survive at the second university.”
He completed his bachelor’s in kinesiology at Purdue University in 2021, but he knew that a master’s degree was a necessity if he wished to move forward to his ultimate career goal. “I have always been into exercise,” he said. “I really wanted to go into physical therapy, and my ultimate goal is to work at NASA in the Human Performance division and come up with exercise countermeasures to prevent muscle and bone loss in space. But there aren’t that many venues for my degree plan, so you have to go to graduate school.”
He applied to another university in Indiana and was sure he would be accepted. “I was mentally prepared to go there,” he said. “I was so surprised when I got a rejection from that university, and the deadline application for most other programs had closed,” he said. “Again, I was in the position of having to decide what to do because things weren’t working out for me like I thought.”
With his interest in NASA drawing him toward Houston, he found UH-Clear Lake’s Exercise and Health Sciences program. “I looked at the faculty in that program and saw (Assistant Professor of Health Sciences) Kirk English. He has so much NASA experience, and I got in touch with him,” he said. Yao enrolled at UHCL and has begun his master’s program, with hopes of graduating in May 2023.
“So, my original goal was to study chemical engineering and then go into physical therapy, but since that didn’t work out, I found out at Purdue that I actually liked research more than physical therapy,” he said. “Now I’m secure I want to go into research. The program at UHCL is right for me.”
Yao said he sees it as a life journey with many lessons to learn. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away is that at first glance, something might not seem to work for you,” he said. “For me, those engineering and math courses weren’t working. But right now, the work I want to do is engineering, designing hardware systems. Without even meaning to, I’ve ended up where I started, but just from a different perspective.”
He said he was surprised to find out after that difficult first year, when he thought he didn’t fit in and felt that he’d never become an engineer, that he’d still found his way to a plan that incorporated all his interests.
“I thought I wasn’t like those people and it was all such a bad fit for me, but through this zigzag journey, over time I have found what I like and stayed true to my interests. I can still work in engineering—I know now it doesn’t matter where you started, only where you end up.”
Now, after just about a year at UHCL, he has done more work with NASA than he ever thought possible, and feels his outlook is strong to realize his dream of having a career there.
But even if things don’t immediately work out as planned, Yao said his previous experience has taught him there’s no need to be crushed. He’ll still get there somehow.
“Making mistakes and failing is so common. Everyone will do that,” he said. “I failed calculus twice and I got C’s in chemistry. It doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything—I still got some of the concepts. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you might have nothing to do with a certain field of study, but some part of your skill set can be useful and you can apply it in that field. Just find the connection. Remember, everyone is smart in their own way.”
Even when your back is against the wall, Yao said that it’s easy to gloss over the lessons you could be learning from failures.
“You’re too stressed out and worried about what to do next, but don’t forget to take something away from the situation,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s a true waste of time. If you make a mistake, but you learn something from it, it was worth it. Dr. English says to enjoy the journey and don’t be stressed out about where you end up—most people aren’t going where they want to at first, but it’s about the zigzag road that you take until you get where you want to be.”
Note: This story was first published March 8, 2022.