Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Little Physics Goes A Long Way

In the four days I have been home, I have witnessed more examples of the ways in which my experience with Ivy League Connection at UPenn has altered the way I live than I ever expected. The month I spent in Philadelphia has changed the way I think about the learning process, applying to college, and the world around me.

Since I have returned, friends and family have asked me how my trip was. I feel bad, because in most cases I think they were just trying to be polite and expected my answer to be something like "Oh yea it was really cool, I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot. The end". What they invariably got instead was a ten minute long shpeel about systems neuroscience, single photon diffraction, cosmic rays, Bill Burner's amazing demonstrations, UPenn's dorm food, my amazing roommate, the frozen yogurt in Philadelphia, and a handful of funny stories about the people I met. It was kind of amazing when my parents picked me up from the airport. I almost didn't realize how many stories I had to tell until they couldn't shut me up the entire car ride home.

In fact, even when I am not asked, nowadays it is hard to get me to stop talking about physics. The month I spent learning from Bill was a real-life, tangible example of learning for the sake of knowledge and discovery rather than a report card and that experience leaves a mark. Now when I look around, I see opportunities to learn and teach all over even when there will be no letter grade at the end. When my friend showed me something on her computer yesterday, I spent about three minutes describing how the liquid crystals in her screen polarize the light differently based on the electrical signals they receive and that is how the image is made. By the end all she could say was "That's great, now let me show you this video." I have found that my colleagues here are a little less eager to learn than those I encountered at Penn.

That alone was a bit of a culture shock. After spending a month with a group of kids who were willing to sit through lectures for a third of their summer, it is hard for me to imagine that someone would not be excited to learn. Returning to high school is going to be strange. I have forgotten what it's like not to be surrounded by ultra motivated science freaks. Hopefully, I will be able to spread my enthusiasm to my classmates and get them excited about the subject instead of doing the bare minimum to get an "A". Now, I am more excited than ever to go to college where I know more and more people will share my passion for discovery.

So excited that on my second day home I dumped out the cluttered drawer I keep all the college information I get in the mail and sorted it into piles based on how interested I am in attending the college. Many of the letters I found in that drawer I had barely even looked at, but now I have a new motivation to continue to research colleges. I also have enough information to know where to start applying for scholarships based on my conversations with alums over dinner and our meetings with college administrators as well as the discussions I had with my room mate and other people on our floor. Many of the students I met talked about starting their essays for the common app as soon as they got home. Their motivation and organization has inspired me to take initiative and deal with the daunting task earlier rather than later.

The people that I met were inspirational in more than one way. I had been told that I would be meeting people from all over the world, but I didn't really think about what that would entail. I got to talk to people who's lives are incredibly different from mine in some respects, but I also saw that many experiences and ideas teenagers have are universal. Being around so many different cultures opened my eyes and helped me understand how big the world is. The international students that I talked to were absolutely the most driven people I had encountered. Not only are they generally fluent in English (and in most cases, multiple other languages), they are working hard in intensive programs like international baccalaureate in order to broaden their horizons beyond the colleges of their own country. The Ivy League Connection stresses that its goal is to help students realize that they are not limited to California. I now know that I am not limited to the United States. My roommate even offered to help me through the international application process.

It is only after I have learned these important lessons that I understand fully what exeptional program the Ivy Leage Connection is. I hope to broaden its impact by getting my fellow classmates involved with it and using the presentation skills I learned during my course to show younger students how fun science can be. I plan on working through the high school to schedule lessons at elementary schools like Fairmont where we can show the kids variations of the demonsrations Bill showed us in order to teach them about the basic concepts of Physics. I believe that learning it from someone who truly enjoys the subject will improve the odds of them getting interested as well.

It is amazing to think that it was in the span of only four short weeks, but my experience at U Penn has opened my eyes to a new way of looking at learning: appreciate the knoledge, don't stress about the grades. I believe this state of mind will not only help me enjoy my final year of high school, It will help me find a college I can thrive in and get me genuinely excited about the process.

I Learn Every Day

The time that I spent in Pennsylvania and on the East Coast in general was valuable to me for many different reasons. First off, my time on the East Coast was valuable to me because it was really fun. I also found that I really learned much more than I expected to during my class. However, I also learned a lot outside of the classroom about college which will be very valuable to me in May when I am signing a certificate of intent to attend a college wherever that may be.

Occasionally, things change so suddenly that we say that they have taken a quantum leap forward. For me, going to class at Penn was a quantum leap because I realized how much more I have to learn about everything. Certainly in my high school environment I have taken the toughest classes I can and I always push myself hard, but when I got to Penn I was reminded that there is always more to learn. From the first day I struggled a bit in class, but always was able to get through it and learn in the process. Something valuable that I learned is that it is OK to be a follower sometimes. At school, I tend to always take the lead on projects and make sure that everyone does their part, but in my lab group of 4 at Penn, all 4 of us were trying to do the same thing. We quickly realized that all of us were competent leaders and that it was actually important for us to learn how to accept the leadership of another even when they were doing the lab differently than we would have. In a time of constant collaboration in business, this was valuable for me to learn.

Another thing that I came to realize during my time at Penn is that discipline is critical to achieving success. One guy in my class is the same age as me but he has taken 6 years of physics classes and knows, at last count, 5 languages. Armed only with my year of physics education and 1.3 languages that I speak (English and some Japanese), I was inspired to realize how much more I can do if I really work my hardest at everything. Certainly, some of the difference is due to opportunity, but I have recently come to realizes how much time everyone wastes. In one of my classes at school, my teacher had us all track where all of our time goes over a three week period. I was shocked to find how much time I wasted and due to that and my inspiration at Penn I have resolved to try to always maximize the time I have.

To avoid being all bark and no bite, I would like to briefly lay out how I think that the learning I have done at Penn will help me in my future. First off, I intend to be a lot more organized as a student in the future. While I have gradually realized this in high school, Penn presented the immediate need of knowing where all of your materials were and of simply organizing information so that you could use it effectively. I have also learned to manage my time more effectively. During the upcoming school year, I intend to keep track of the time that I waste so that I can become inspired to do something useful with it. Penn also taught me about setting good and achievable goals. In many scenarios, we would have some huge goal to achieve such as measuring the speed of light. We began this process by breaking it down into many smaller goals along the way. For example, we needed to build a laser, assemble the circuits, and take measurements. Each of these goals could be broken down even further into easily achievable goals such as plugging in our oscilloscope and connecting certain wires. I think that I can easily take this sort of process out of the lab by setting goals, say on a project in school, and making things more manageable by breaking the process into easy parts.

I have been handed an amazing opportunity by the ILC to learn tons about physics, college, and life in general. Something that I haven’t mentioned so far is that I definitely plan to give back some of what I have learned to other people. Many people my age blindly apply only to public California schools and ignore the other options out there. While Californian schools are fantastic, a large part of the ILC is exposing teens from California to the fact that there are so many other colleges that may be a better option than UC’s and CSU’s. To give thanks for the exposure that I have gotten, I plan to collaborate with Alex and Julia to make some sort of presentation about considering many options when applying to college to present to other teens our age. If we can help even one person to take a good look at an East Coast school and realize that it is really what they want, we can call our plan a success.

The ILC has really changed how I will go through the college application process. First off, I plan to start very soon so that I can have plenty of time to do the job right and not apply to a few schools last minute. This will help a lot because I plan on applying to some very competitive schools and the last thing I want to do is to present a sloppy image of myself. As I talked about goal setting earlier, I think the college application process will be a great place for me to set goals. While everyone talks about the application process as this giant overwhelming thing, it really breaks down into parts quite easily. Inspired by my time at Penn, I already have a calendar with some important dates in the application process on it.

On a very specific level, the ILC will help me in the college application process because at Penn I have gotten to learn more specifically what I really want to get out of college and what sort of college I want to attend. At the most basic level, I have realized that I want to attend a medium or large sized school because of the huge number of opportunities present at a larger college. For example, Penn has the resources to have hundreds of different clubs and sports that I could try. Furthermore, I have realized that a must at any college that I go to is a strong study abroad program. During an information session at Penn, I was glad to learn that Penn has a strong study abroad program and that many students take advantage of it. I could go on for hours about the details of my ideal college, but the bottom line is that through the ILC, Penn has really helped me to narrow down my college search and for that I am very grateful.

During this program, I have not been able to say thank you enough. First off, thank you to all of the people that routinely read this blog whether you are family, friends, or simply interested in what we did. Many thanks to Alex and Julia who were extremely supportive during the entire trip and made everything a lot more fun. I’m glad that I got to be Alex’s roommate because he is a fun and supportive friend that knows how to get work done and knows how to have fun. Thank you very much Mario Miranda for your organization, your fun presence, and your great taste in food. I am very grateful that you spent a month of your summer traveling and learning with us, because it really wouldn’t have been the same without you. Finally, I owe so many thanks to the Ivy League Connection and its sponsors. I have learned so much about physics, college, and myself that I can never repay it.

That’s all I have to say for now, but this program and the knowledge I have learned will stick with me forever.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

One of the Greatest Months of My Life

It has been less than a week since I departed from Penn, but I feel like I have been away for much longer. My time in Pennsylvania really left a mark on me. Not only was it my home for a month, but it was also a place where I was part of an intellectual community, I was able to branch out much farther than I normally do at home, and I was able to live a completely different lifestyle. Not only was I able to live more independently, but I was literally fifteen minutes away from one of the most populated cities in the country. My experiences at Penn are things that I will never forget and I will continue to be influenced by the lessons that I have learned.

I feel like going into this program with prior ILC experience gave me a totally different perspective. I was introduced to the world of college exploration last year and I got a good sense of things that I did and didn’t like about colleges. Going in this year, I had a better idea of what to look for in a college that would suit me. Better yet, I knew the questions to ask. When we visited Georgetown and spoke with Bruce Chamberlain, the Senior Associate Director of Admissions, I had several key questions about Georgetown that I was eager to ask. However, he was so thorough that I didn’t even need to ask them. I had planned to ask about Georgetown’s financial aid and the strengths the universities different schools have, but I never had to ask because he had covered those topics thoroughly. He was even able to discuss at great length the opportunities, such as internships in D.C., that are available to students at Georgetown. The same was true of my discussions with Ellen Kim, the Northern California Admissions Representative at Penn. She informed me of how tightly knit the Penn community is and how focused on learning and research the university is. More on that later. Last year I was just beginning to learn about what colleges had to offer in general. Since I got that experience last year, I was able to focus on the details this time around. I was even able to pick up on some of the programs that different schools offer, such as Georgetown’s 3-2 program, which is in conjunction with Columbia where you spend three years at Georgetown and two at Columbia, or Penn’s new major that combines sustainability and engineering that Ellen Kim told me about. This is something that I want to be able to spread amongst my peers. I want to let them know about what college can offer, but I also want to let them know that you need to understand what you truly want out of your college experience when looking at a college.

Not only were the college visitations memorable and enlightening, but so was my course at Penn. The Experimental Physics Academy was the most challenging science class that I have ever taken. Although it may not have had very many assignments outside of the classroom, the class was fast-paced and you had to keep up if you had any chance of understanding the next lesson or lab that was coming your way. We covered topics that I never thought I would have the chance to study while I was still in high school, let alone understand these advanced principles of physics. I had no idea that I would study Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or String Theory while I was still in high school. We covered so many principles of physics, ranging from mechanics and motion to optics and relativity, in just four weeks, that it astounds me that we were all able to keep up. What made it easy was the support of the faculty that ran the program. Bill, Mary, Craig, Ryan, Adam, and Brian were all extremely helpful. Each was dedicated to making sure that we understood the material. It was a top notch learning environment. I didn’t feel like I was taking a class from Bill or any of the TAs. Instead, it felt like I was doing research with them. They always made class an interactive experience and I felt like we were all peers working towards a common goal. I cannot fully express how lucky I was to have been selected for such a great course. I learned skills that will help me work toward my future and, in the process, I learned from people who were truly passionate about education for the sake of education.

Learning for the sake of learning seemed to be a constant theme at Penn. Bill told us on the first day that he didn’t want to give us grades or credit because then we would be playing the game for the grade instead of actually “doing science.” This was also resonant throughout my discussions with Sam Gilbert, a grad student at Penn, and Ellen Kim during our dinner at La Croix. Sam told me that even though you have to do work for a passing grade, the emphasis in almost every class he had been enrolled in at Penn was on learning and research. Ellen Kim also told me about how involved members of the Penn faculty (such as June Chu, a Pre-major Advisor) are in helping you find your path at Penn. This is something that I find admirable about a college these days. There are so many universities and colleges that have massive class sizes that are only focused on getting the grade or being number one. However, at Penn there is a strong focus on collaborative thinking and learning as a whole. The word community is tossed around a lot when college is being discussed. At Penn, there really is a sense of community. You have the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, study with professors and researchers, even as an undergrad, and you can get help or support from almost anyone. I really got the feeling that Penn was a huge family and, for a month, I got to be a part of that family. This is the kind of university that I want to attend. I want to be able to interact with people from different parts of the globe and actually have classes that are taught by professors. Penn helped me come to that decision, and I am very thankful for it.

My experiences at Penn would have been much less memorable if I didn’t have so many wonderful people to share them with. I was very lucky to have such an excellent cohort. Mr. Miranda was an excellent chaperone and I can certainly see why the ILC has asked him to chaperone for six years of the program. Not only was he responsible and on top of things, he was also very knowledgeable. I think of him as a renaissance man because he is able to speak extensively on so many different topics, from architecture to evolution. His wealth of knowledge made me realize the value of a liberal arts education, one where you can learn a little bit about everything even if you are focusing on one subject. Brian and Julia were great as well. Things were a little strained at first because the two of them and Mr. Miranda already knew each other, but I feel like once we got to know one another we were great friends. I was able to get to know Brian really well because we were roommates. He was always fun and (thankfully) didn’t mind when I stayed up late doing my blogs. Julia was great too. She was always lively and brought a special sense of humor to the group. However, my cohort was not my only family at Penn. Soon we befriended four very special people. Fred Kwon, Alison Lui, Abheek Basu, and Onur Soybir were my closest friends throughout the program. Despite how different we all are, we were drawn together and ultimately became inseparable. Fred was always a great person to talk with, either individually or in the group. He was fun and sincere. Abheek shared my dry sense of humor and was always good for a laugh. Alison seemed to have something in common with everyone, no matter how small it was. She could relate to and was friendly with everyone. Onur was extremely sociable. Whatever he did or wherever he went, he tried to include as many people as possible to make it a group experience that we could all share. I especially enjoyed his company because there are so many cultural differences between America and Turkey that we were able to discuss, such as differences in our schools, cities, and even food. I will always treasure the friendships that I made with the other six members of our Clique and I know we will keep in touch. Like I said, we have become inseparable, barring distance.

My adventure in the east is over. Although I have left Penn, it will linger in my mind for a long time. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to have such a great experience if it weren’t for the Ivy League Connection. This program has grown to such great heights since it began seven years ago and it would not be possible without Charles Ramsey, Madeleine Kronenberg, Don Gosney, the sponsors, and everyone who has supported or been a part of the ILC. This unique program has influenced the lives of so many students, and I am extremely fortunate to have been a part of it. Of course, I also have to thank my parents, who have been supportive of me throughout my life and especially my ILC experience. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for the ILC because both of my experiences on the east coast have shaped my decisions in both high school and my plans for the future. I have become more organized as a student, I have decided that I would like to attend an urban campus, I know now that not-so-well-rounded students are acceptable to many colleges, and so much more. This whole experience has changed my paradigm drastically, and to show my thanks, I will continue to spread the word about what students can achieve if they look to colleges outside of California. I would also like to organize a project with my fellow Pinole ILC scholars to spread the word about the opportunities that wait outside of California and that students do not have to fear the college admissions process. This is all information that needs to be given to the students because it can change their opinions about higher education, just as it has impacted ours. I feel like this would be the best way to put all that my peers and I have learned from our respective journeys in the Ivy League Connection to good use.

After two years with the greatest program in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, my journey has come to a close. For the last blog with the Ivy League Connection, I’m signing off. Thanks for everything.