When I first applied for the Cultural Vistas program, I didn’t have high hopes of being accepted. I was quite pleased and relieved to first be accepted, and then to find an internship. But even after the internship was secured and all that was left was finals week, I still felt anxious. This would be the first time I would be working closely with professionals in the field, and I had very little experience with the more neuroscience-focused research they were conducting. And while I also had initial confidence that I had a firm grasp of the German language, I spent my first few weeks in Germany fretting over the most basic interactions of greeting a cashier or ordering food at a restaurant.
Facing challenges when doing something very new for the first time is normal. This is not the first time I felt anxious about doing something that was a milestone in my educational experience, nor is it the first time I have overcome my self-doubt and found myself capable of meeting a challenge. Part of me knew that I was well-equipped to deal with any problems thrown my way, from the language barrier to understanding the neuroscience research that is being conducted. I think for the first time in my life, my parents did not question or doubt my ability: at some point in my college experience, I had proved that I was resilient against the disappointment of setbacks, and I think they felt a sense of both pride a relief when I informed them of the internship that they did something right is raising me.
Parental approval and personal confidence aside, what I found most surprising about my internship and the work that it entailed was how simple it was. It’s like that final click of the last piece falling in place after building something. I always thought of the professional side of my field of study as being something beyond anything that I could learn in a classroom. All the lectures I have sat through made it seem as thought the work I would be doing to support myself in the future would be beyond my grasp of understanding. No amount of classes could be enough to prepare me. Clearly, I was doing something wrong in my studies, when it seemed like so many of my peers were confidently pulling their lives together.
I have been in school for a very long time. 75% of my life has been spent being a student: being taught things, being told things, being tested on things. It has only been quite recently when I realized that for the vast majority of my life, I have never been fully put to the test. School has defined my whole life, and despite all that I have been taught, I felt like I knew remarkably little about the outside world. What once felt liberating — learning and sharing new ideas — now felt restricting. I wanted to run for the finish line, but the academic harness held me back. As I have told many of my friends and peers, I was getting tired of school. In truth, I have been for a very long time. Nothing in the lessons made sense; I was tired of reading and writing essays, I was tired of taking tests and exams. In my mind, no amount of theory can predict practical outcomes, and until now I have never been presented the chance to give myself a test run — to see just how well all the mental adjustments that education has made to me will function in context.
With the internship, suddenly everything I had learned in the classroom started falling into place — and I realized that, while what I was learning in school was important, it was a very poor predictor of what my professional life would be like. I no longer had a long list of general concepts and irrelevant facts to memorize and regurgitate in writing. I never had to learn anything beyond what was relevant to the project. Gone is all the theory: here is the actual relevance of EEG to brain function, and this is what we’re going to use it for. Reality rarely has the precision and accuracy that I was taught in statistics, but we are still able to make it work. Significant findings can still be made, and they will be important to the research community. Teamwork is so much simpler when you’re not trying to think about the details of it: you get together with people who are experts in what you’re researching, and you help each other out. You coordinate projects, you fill in for the gaps that others aren’t able to fill.
From a distance, it all seemed so complicated, something that would be impossible to understand. But this internship showed me the reality of having a career. When the wide receiver catches the 70+ yard throw for a touchdown, he doesn’t think about the math of the throw and calculate its exact trajectory to ensure the perfect catch. He goes with his instinct, he trusts every long hour under the hot sun doing nothing but running and catching throws, he trusts his experience. He trusts himself to be able to do it — even if he might miss, in that moment, he knows what to do. My life spent in the classroom has been all about learning the formula for the perfect career, doing the math that is quite often irrelevant in practice. What am I trying to hard at thinking for? I know enough German to interact with locals, I know enough about cognition to understand what this research is about. I’ve spent the past two years living by myself, managing my daily routines and keeping myself healthy, I know how to live independently. I know I am capable of facing this challenge — I chose it because I knew it could be done. I have nothing to be worried about.
But as always, when it comes to the critical moment, we always doubt ourselves. We’re always just a tiny bit nervous right before putting all our hard work to the test. What if we don’t make it? What if we bit off more than we thought we could chew? It’s hard to know when we’re truly ready to take on the challenges we must face in life — but I think, in a way, we do know. We know exactly what we’re capable of. Well, at least I am. What surprised me most about my internship is that it confirms what I knew to be true deep down, but was not confident enough to believe: that I am ready to move on to the next chapter of my life, and I am ready to be done with school.