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Oct. 27, 2020

Faculty voice: Two selves

Vashti Sawtelle
 
Vashti Sawtelle is an associate professor in Lyman Briggs College. She is a physics education researcher who studies how learning environments support (or inhibit) students from diverse backgrounds in their learning physics. 
 
I grew up in a trailer in the middle of rural Ohio with a gigantic family that supported each other and knew everything about everyone else. Outside of my teachers at school and a handful of people in my church, I knew no one personally who had attended college. 

What did I anticipate from a college degree? I’m not sure I remember. I had this vague sense that it was the way out of a life that didn’t seem like it fit me. I knew I didn’t want to spend my life asking which bill I wouldn’t pay this month or scrambling when an appliance broke. 
“I had this vague sense that it was the way out of a life that didn’t seem like it fit me.”

I chose a small liberal arts school in the middle of Iowa, called Grinnell College. I chose this institution based on exactly two factors: (1) they offered me the best financial aid package; and (2) they sent me a recruiting postcard that caught my attention in the large pile of recruiting materials. 
 
I ended up in physics largely by accident and, as luck would have it, it was my favorite because it challenged me to think in new and interesting ways.

While I was at school, I loved being surrounded by folks who read as voraciously as I did and who wanted to talk about why things worked. I also struggled immensely in classes as I navigated making sense of what professors wanted me to be able to do and how the textbooks never seemed to tell me how to do it. 

In school I worked hard, but I struggled for every ounce of recognition. On the other hand, when I was at my off-campus jobs I became a top-notch employee – someone who never complained and who always showed up for work on time. I fed people, cleaned up messes and was constantly praised for my hard work. 

My first winter break while I was home working at Wendy’s, my supervisor told me a story about her sister who had gone to college to be an engineer and now she was “too good” for her family. She said this with clear distaste for her sister and, in that moment, I felt my resolve for continuing college crumble – I didn’t want to become too good for my family. 

“I think it was that first year in college that I began to feel a sense of two selves.”
I think that is truly when the feeling of straddling lines became real for me. I knew that I wanted more education — that it would ultimately serve me and my family to pursue it, but I also never wanted my family to think less of me for that education. I think it was that first year in college that I began to feel a sense of two selves – the one who was struggling to keep up, surrounded by people who seemed to just get it easier than I did, and the one who was committed to staying connected to her family.
 
What I experienced that first year continues to this day — many years later after earning my Ph.D. Valuing where I’m from and the opinions of people who still live there and wanting to impact society at a larger grain-size, knowing that influence and clout is what makes that possible. 
 
As a faculty member, I try really hard to bring that way of talking with my family into my research group and into my classroom. I want students from all walks of life to feel comfortable in their own skin and to feel valued for the experiences they bring to the table. 
 
If I could give a bit of advice to students who find themselves resonating with a bit of what I’ve written here, it would be to find a mentor whom you trust to have these conversations with. Transitioning across class lines can be tricky and often you might feel like you don’t fit in either place. Some of us have been there; some of us are still there, and we are more than happy to help you find your own way through it.
 
You are not alone. There are others of us out there, struggling to figure out how to blend all of our identities into a single state of being.

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