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Upperclassmen give advice to underclassmen on how to be successful as a student in STEM.

Marlo Armstrong | October 11, 2022

STEM has often been characterized as a challenging field due to the demanding work and fast-paced environment. Most underclassmen (specifically freshmen like myself) are still trying to find the balance between getting all of their work done and taking care of their well-being. In order to get the inside scoop on what underclassmen STEM students should be doing now to make their major more bearable and worthwhile, the following upperclassmen STEM students shared their tips with me: Jonas Dixon ’24 (Computer Science, Data Science, & Spanish), Katelyn Craft ’24 (Biomedical Engineering & Pre-Med), Berke Lunstad ’24 (Computer Science), and Rebecca Pan ’24 (Biomedical Engineering).

What is something that you wish you knew as an underclassmen majoring in a STEM field?

Jonas Dixon, Computer Science: “STEM isn’t supposed to be easy. You’ll struggle, and that’s okay. Be sure to reach out to your professors early and to take the optional homeworks as required.”

Katelyn Craft, Pre-Med: “I wish I knew that basically everyone else in STEM was just as nervous as I was. It is very easy to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome, convincing yourself that you aren’t as smart as everyone else in your classes or that you’re the only one struggling. That is simply not true. You deserve to be here just as much as your classmates do.”

Rebecca Pan, Biomedical Engineering: “I wish I knew how much of a balance it requires. My high school study routine and schedule did not work for college and I wish that I had been able to find a better balance between school time and other time whether that be social time or personal time.”

What classes (related to your major) have been some of your favorites?

Jonas Dixon, Computer Science: “My favorite STEM class has to be Intermediate Software Design (CS 3251). I really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of it, and I also liked how we had about a week-and-a-half per assignment.”

Berke Lunstad, Computer Science: “This is a hot take, but my favorite CS related class has been Digital Systems (EECE 2123). I would never actually go into electrical engineering, but having the experience of building circuits and soldering things was a lot of fun despite the painful pre-labs.”

Rebecca Pan, Biomedical Engineering: “One of my favorite classes that I’m in now is a mechanical engineering class called ‘How to Make (Almost) Anything and Make it Matter.’ This class has people that are various majors within engineering and not in engineering and it’s very collaborative so I get to meet a ton of new people with different backgrounds.”

What are your recommendations for study habits? 

Jonas Dixon, Computer Science: “As I touched on earlier, following along with the optional readings and doing extra problems helps a lot in math-based classes. For CS classes, I recommend starting assignments early and being sure to reach out to professors and TAs for help whenever needed.”

Katelyn Craft, Pre-Med: “You just need to find what works for you and hold yourself accountable to being productive in your free time.”

Rebecca Pan, Biomedical Engineering: “My biggest recommendation for studying is to plan ahead. I write my tests in my planner as soon as I get the syllabi so that I have a sense of when tests are and if they overlap so I can better prepare myself for them.”

How do you build relationships with professors?

Jonas Dixon, Computer Science: “I built relationships with professors by going up to them after class, shaking hands, and asking questions. Professors are people too and if you put time into building that bond, it will strengthen your experience in class tenfold.”

Berke Lunstad, Computer Science: “If you want to build a relationship with a professor, Google them to learn a few things about them, then go to their office hours and ask them about their experience.”

Rebecca Pan, Biomedical Engineering: “I think that going to office hours and trying to be attentive in class are the biggest ways to build relationships. In smaller classes, professors can tell if you’re paying attention or not; I had a friend tell me about how her professor thanked her for being one of the only people to smile at them in class each day.”

What has been your most utilized academic tool here at Vandy? 

Katelyn Craft, Pre-Med:  “I am such a big proponent of going to office hours. Your professors want to help you succeed, so you really have nothing to lose by going.”

Berke Lunstad, Computer Science: “I have definitely used study groups the most. Oftentimes I don’t know what I don’t know and a study group is a great way to find out where gaps in my knowledge are.”

What is your most important advice for underclassmen on how to be successful as a student in STEM?

Jonas Dixon, Computer Science: “Be kind to yourself and never give up. There have been countless times that I considered dropping STEM, as I thought there was no way I could complete the classes. However, remember that we all have our own journeys and don’t have to make A’s in every class to succeed. Just try your hardest and use any perceived or real failure as fuel to improve.”

Katelyn Craft, Pre-Med: “ You got into Vanderbilt, so you are clearly very qualified to pursue whatever major or career path you want. It gets so easy to convince yourself that you aren’t cut out for being a STEM major when things get tough, but it’s in those times especially that you need to remind yourself how qualified you are to be in a STEM field.”

Berke Lunstad, Computer Science: “You are a STEM student at a top 20 university. In the grand scheme of things, even if everything doesn’t go according to plan, you will almost certainly be able to get a job and be financially stable. With that in mind, don’t get completely lost in the stress of college and try to enjoy your four years.”

Rebecca Pan, Biomedical Engineering: “Learn how to balance things that are important to you. Obviously, we’re all at an academically rigorous school and we all want to do as well as we can, but there are also other things that might matter to you. I am a firm believer that when things matter to you, you find a way to make time for it.”

In summary, there are numerous resources you can utilize to make being a STEM major easier to balance. Listen to these wise upperclassmen and go to office hours, make personal connections with your professors, and remember that you got into Vanderbilt for a reason. You deserve to be at this school. When life as a Vandy student in STEM gets stressful, take a deep breath and reread this article. You got this!

One Reply to “STEM Advice: Dear Underclassmen…”

  1. Laura Armstrong says:

    Such great advice—very inspiring read. Thanks for the fantastic tips! Well-written too. Thanks, Marlo Armstrong : )

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