Reaching for the Stars

Any dream that dies takes part of you with it. I know, because I’ve witnessed the demise of several.

Marcha Fox
Stories From Women In Tech


Nonetheless, I firmly believe that childhood dreams are in a different class from the usual run-of-the-mill aspiration for a new car or big house. Those that linger in your heart that you don’t remember ever placing there were programmed into your psyche at birth and are meant to be realized.

For me that dream related to astronomy and space. I don’t remember the first time I looked up at the stars in awe and decided I wanted to learn more about them. Perhaps it was planted in my subconscious as a baby by the charm and mystery of the simple nursery rhyme everyone knows. I’ll bet you know which one I mean but I’ll repeat it anyway.

Twinkle, Twinkle, little star

How I wonder what you are

Up above the earth so high

Like a diamond in the sky

Twinkle, twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

As a child growing up in what was then a somewhat rural area of New York state, I hungered after anything related to the stars and planets. I could see the constellations fairly well but even then light pollution was such I was never able to see the Milky Way and wondered what all the fuss was about. When I discovered science fiction, probably around fifth grade, I ate that up, too. I couldn’t get enough of it. I liked to write, another in-born trait, so it made sense that my first stories penciled on yellow lined paper in sixth grade were about the extraterrestrial origins of select teachers at Toddville Elementary. I never thought I could write an entire book, though. All those pages! Way too daunting!

A year or so after that, my parents moved us to California. When I got to high school I was disappointed to find out that the only science classes offered related to biology. Dissecting worms and frogs amidst the ambiance of l’eau de formaldehyde was horrifying enough, much less cutting up something like a cat! I quickly re-thought my aspirations for college and shifted to business classes so I could get a job once I had my diploma.

My family’s situation was such I knew they couldn’t afford to send me to college, anyway, and to be honest, my grades weren’t scholarship material even though I miraculously scored second in the entire school on a state level geometry exam. I told my teacher it was a fluke or luck when she admonished me for not doing better in her class. I explained that I could visualize the problems and therefore make an educated guess at the answers. Not rocket science, right? Little did I know that the story problems I loved gave everyone else panic attacks.

Or, for that matter, that I was ADHD which was exacerbated by being seated in the back of the room repeatedly due to being cursed with a surname that began with “U.”

Quite frankly, big surprise, about that time I started hating school. After graduation I went to work, got married, eventually moved to Northern Utah and before I knew it had a half-dozen kids. I still loved astronomy but didn’t even know what subject heading it would be under in a college catalog. I did know, however, that the stars from our small town were astoundingly beautiful! For the first time since summer camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains I could actually see the Milky Way as well as the visible planets from where I lived. I’d lie on our trampoline with the kids and watch polar orbiting spy satellites fly overhead and sometimes we could even see the illusive glow of Northern Lights.

About that time I met a new friend (who is now an old friend). At the time she was just out of college and writing a book. A science fiction book. I was more than happy to become what I now know is a “beta reader.” We brainstormed together about her characters and plot which was tremendous fun plus it nudged something slumbering in my subconscious. Not long after watching the process of developing a story one chapter at a time I decided I could do it, too.

There was only one problem. I was detail-oriented, loved science as long as it didn’t involve cutting up dead animals, but clearly didn’t know enough about science to write about it. At least the kind of hard sci-fi I loved. Back then there was no internet much less Wikipedia even though I did have quite a collection of books. Shortly after that I took a few astronomy classes at Utah State University and thus discovered that my favorite subject was included under the general heading of physics.

Holy cow.

I had no idea that star-gazing would be part of Einstein’s domain. Little did I know. One professor, Farrell Edwards, even told us that anyone who wanted to badly enough could get a degree in physics. Yeah, right, I thought.

I’d been out of high school for nearly 20 years. What on planet Earth was I thinking?

Following that last astronomy class I went off into the sunset to give birth to my sixth child, but not before sending Professor Edwards a telepathic message that like the Terminator, I would be back, and probably prove him wrong. Miraculously, various circumstances evolved over the next year or so that made it possible for me to go back to college full-time. My family was struggling financially which was great for obtaining financial aid so earning a degree with the assistance of government grants and student loans made sense.

Look out, Dr. Edwards, here I come! I thought.

I was 35 years old with six kids ranging from one to 14. I’d been out of high school for nearly 20 years.

What on planet Earth was I thinking?

Nonetheless, I did it. From the start I figured I’d flunk out somewhere along the line but it would be worth a shot. I had to take algebra again, needless to say, totally starting from scratch. Freshman chemistry was tough but I was determined. The majority of students around me were just out of high school and thus only a few years older than my eldest daughter. I remember one girl who’d had AP (advanced placement) chemistry in high school and supposedly aced it and everything else with a 4.0 GPA (the highest possible grade point average), yet she was struggling.

Huh? Really? What had she been taught in high school? Anything?

Yeah, it was hard, but I’d expected it to be. So far life had not been easy and I was determined. I’d never seen anything like it before, but that’s what made it interesting and what studying was all about.

One thing about Utah State at that time is worth noting. They were on what was known as the “quarter system” which were a few weeks shorter than conventional semesters. Yet, for the most part we covered the same amount of work in that time. I saw at least two students I can remember transfer in from other colleges that were on semesters. Both had 4.0 GPAs in their previous school, yet flunked out after the first quarter at the pace we kept, a mental marathon that required an unrelenting full sprint. Some years later, USU switched back to semesters. At the time I didn’t know the difference, having never been to college before. I’d always heard it was hard and so it was. I didn’t have a choice. That was where I lived with my family and moving for my educational convenience wasn’t an option. And by the way, my then-husband was in school full-time, too.

Right during finals at the end of my first quarter as a full-time student one of my children got sick and needed an emergency appendectomy. I was studying for my chemistry final in his hospital room in the wee hours of the night when one of the nurses came in and peeked over my shoulder. She groaned and offered her condolences. When I walked into the final like a zombie the next day I was beyond certain I’d flunk it and my college career would be over. I did the best I could and hoped that maybe through the grace of the patron saint of students who were also mothers that I’d somehow squeak through and pass.

When grades were out a week or so later, I was up there first thing to retrieve my test before anyone else would see my abysmal grade and find out if by some miracle I’d passed the class. I trudged down the stairs to the basement of the ancient building to one of many paper-laden tables in the vestibule below. I found the one designated for Chem-201 and dug through the stack, which was huge given the class had a few hundred students. I noted some of the scores along the way which were never done as a percentage, but rather your score noted over the total possible like an unreduced fraction. I stiffened and braced myself for the worst when I found the one with my name at the top. I held my breath as I slid it from the stack far enough to peek at my score. My jaw dropped as I did a double-take.

I shuffled through a few more random exams and confirmed my grade was one of the highest. I looked at the list of grades for the quarter and saw that somehow I’d managed a strong B. The hallway was empty, given that Christmas break had already begun and a vast majority of students were already gone for the holidays. I literally threw the test in the air and let out a victory whoop, very unbecoming a thirty-five year old. Then I cried.

I aced Introductory Algebra, likewise College Algebra and Trigonometry after that. From there it was on to calculus, which blew my mind. I’d never had the slightest clue that such a thing existed. If anything was my nemesis it was the math. Whatever talent for it I ever had seemed to flee when called upon in a testing situation, especially if a time limit was involved. Someday I hope to understand it better. Really. I can even prove my intent by the DVD courses reposing on the shelf behind my TV with entertaining titles such as “Understanding Multivariable Calculus: Problems, Solutions, and Tips” and “Mastering Differential Equations: The Visual Method.” I kid you not. Why would I lie about something that could be used to prove my insanity?

Something else that blew my mind in my role as a “nontraditional student” was the friends I made. I have to admit, I wondered about that from the start. Here I was, almost old enough to be most students’ mother! I’d already sprouted a few grey hairs and packed on the pounds of middle-age. Nonetheless, professors loved me because I was not only hard-working and dedicated but had several years of life experience on my odometer. Furthermore, I was closer in age to some of them such that I felt comfortable talking to them and didn’t have even a vestige of the fearful awe of the young and uninitiated. Respect, yes; awe, no.

Regarding my student peers, I found it amusing that in lab classes everyone would ask me questions. Some even jokingly called me “mom,” which I found endearing. I didn’t know any more than they did but since I was older I guess they figured I‘d gotten it by osmosis. All those years in the kitchen certainly taught me how to precipitate silver from whatever that stuff was, right? If nothing else, I wasn’t afraid to ask a question. Probably the biggest problem with that approach, however, was the fact that most lab instructors were foreign students and in many cases their English skills were pretty lacking. To wit, years later I had a Chinese lab instructor in physics who actually answered my question with the answer to an entirely different question. Thank heavens I knew enough to know what she’d told me was wrong. I found this beyond frustrating and wrote a rather strongly worded letter to the administration about English competency skills for all lab instructors. I was told foreign students were the only ones who wanted the job.

For the first two years students with physics, chemistry and engineering majors had the same core classes. After that, you got into the upper division ones specific to your field which was when you began to realize who your peers really were out of the crowd. There weren’t that many physics majors (imagine that…) yet I wasn’t the only female, which was nice. About that time I also found out about this big, old room on the second floor of the engineering building which was designated as office space for upper division physics majors. You were invited to participate and up until then I didn’t even know it existed.

It wasn’t fancy, just a room divided into eight or nine sections with portable walls, each with a blackboard and desk, which would serve as indoctrination for the cube farm you‘d occupy upon graduating and getting a job. Each person shared their cube with another student, however, but luckily it was usually someone who wasn’t there that much. Since studying in a household with six kids was beyond impossible, I practically lived up there. And that’s where I really connected with my fellow students. We took pride in placing a catchy quote of the week at the top of our blackboards where it could be seen above our respective walls, sometimes from a famous scientist, others something silly. We had our own rituals, such as an end-of-quarter celebration which comprised getting together for pizza to commiserate about the previous quarter and to watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail and see who could recite the best lines in advance.

One time in the early morning hours we ordered a pizza and attempted to figure out how much each person owed since some of us were more voracious eaters than others and all of us were on a budget. We were all so punchy from studying all day and into the night that we couldn’t even figure out how to divide the tab, which of course drove us into near-hysterical laughter that a bunch of physics majors who’d made it through differential equations, albeit with a few bumps and bruises, couldn’t split up a bill according to the slices consumed.

Ah, differential equations, appropriately nicknamed diffi-que. I’ll always remember that class for the time I got a 28 on a test which to my vast relief turned out to be a C, thanks to grading on the curve. As I recall, the top grade was sixty-something. It was even more gratifying when I found out later that a friend whom I considered very intelligent, certainly much more than me, had to take that class three times before he passed it with a C while I did so at the same level on the first go-round.

Hmmm, maybe I wasn’t as stupid as I thought.

Nonetheless, all the way up to my final quarter I kept wondering if one particular subject in the next block of classes would be the one where I flunked out. Some classes had ominous reputations and I seriously wondered if I could get through them. Analytical Mechanics was one and the other was Electricity and Magnetism, referred to as E&M or not-so-fondly as S&M. I could understand the principles involved but whatever math skills I’d demonstrated previously had definitely taken a hike by the time I got to multi-variable calculus which was what was required to solve the problems. No matter how well you can visualize a problem, setting it up mathematically much less solving it is another story.

My office cube mate, on the other hand, was brilliant and I could hardly believe it when he said he was having trouble understanding the interactions between an electric and magnetic field. This much, believe it or not, I was able to explain to him, after which I saw the light bulb illuminate above his head, and since he was already a math whiz he aced it from that point on. This, of course, was bad news for me, since he couldn’t enlighten me in similar manner with regard to the math, which to him was “intuitively obvious.” But somehow I passed E&M, even though it was the only physics class in which I got a lowly, even shameful C.

In my defense, however, I must say that I took it summer quarter, which was even shorter than a normal one, I had a programming class that was extremely time-consuming as well as a children’s literature class for my English minor, also time-consuming, plus my husband had major surgery in a hospital ninety miles away. That was business as usual for the “non-traditional student.” Life does, indeed, go on, with little regard to E&M or diffi-que.

Did I mention that I expected to sail through with nothing short of a 4.0? No? It’s true. I was already crazy enough to major in physics then compounded that initial insanity by placing unrealistic expectations on myself. Brilliant.

Six months before graduation one of my physics professors, who was the Chief Operating Officer of a spin-off company from the University’s space endeavors, offered me a job. Fortunately, by that time the worst was over as far as classes, any help I needed was seldom more than a short walk away, and I even got paid for my senior project, a Lotus 1–2–3 program that calculated the center of mass of a satellite, since it related to what I was doing on the job.

The income was nice, too, needless to say, and right before graduation I did what so many do and that’s buy a Porsche, albeit used, but a Porsche nonetheless. It was beyond great after driving an old Chevy pickup to school for so many years, though I did get rather good at backing it into miniscule parking places amid mountains of winter snow. I actually had people watch me do so more than once, often to applause at my skillful maneuvers.

When graduation came no one was more surprised than me. After the ceremony I hunted down Professor Edwards, who by this time had become a good friend, and reminded him of the challenge he’d issued many years before; of course he didn’t even remember saying such a thing. While some part of me had set out to prove him wrong, somehow he turned out to be correct after all, leaving us both quite pleased. Me, because I’d made it and him to know that at least one person had paid attention to something he’d said in a general ed astronomy class years before where most the students’ eyes were glazed over.

I didn’t cry at graduation because I was still in shock. Rather, I saved that for later under the most embarrassing of circumstances. As noted earlier, I was working close to campus at a spin-off company when someone from USU’s Women’s Center contacted me for an interview since I was one of the first in the ensuing wave of women returning to school later in life. I invited her to my office and the woman sat down across from my desk and asked what it was like to be a non-traditional student.

And that was when the sum-total of what I’d been through the past four years descended upon me and all the tears which had been restrained so effectively washed over me like a tsunami. I couldn’t even talk, just totally lost it, right there. I was so embarrassed I wanted to die, and somehow sniffled out a request that she please come back another time. I have no idea if she understood what she’d triggered but fortunately she did come back at which time I was sufficiently composed to provide what was hopefully an intelligent or at least coherent interview. However, the tears probably expressed it more eloquently.

I know that my children still bear some scars from when I was virtually gone for four years.

So what was that emotional dam that burst at her first interview attempt? Simple. Studying for chemistry finals in my seven-year-old son’s hospital room. Worrying about my spouse in a hospital room ninety miles away while I struggled to concentrate on writing a program in Basic computer language in USU’s Univac a.k.a. “Vax” room. One of my teenage daughters running away, fortunately not far enough not to be found but far enough to send a message. Parent-teacher conferences while my children attended a kindergarten school, elementary school, middle school, junior high and two different high schools with both their parents in college. My toddler picking up thumb-sucking for the first time at the age of three from the babysitter’s children. Various bumps and bruises on the little ones when the older ones didn’t watch them as closely as I expected and thus feeling like an unfit mother for abandoning my children and missing out on four precious years of their lives for my own selfish ambitions.

Which brings up the people who deserve so much credit for the fact I was able to complete my formidable goal of getting a physics degree. My children who tolerated an absentee mom, the wonderful network of small-town neighbors who helped care for them during my self-imposed absence, my then-husband working as well as going to school full-time who did so much cooking and parenting while I was in the library or later in my “office” doing homework on the second floor of the other-wise dark engineering building.

I know that my children still bear some scars from when I was virtually gone for four years. They learned some positive things about determination and goal setting and I think they were proud of me, at least at a certain level. But I know that I was a very negligent mother during that time. If it weren’t for the requirement to carry a minimum number of credits each quarter to qualify for financial aid I would have taken it slower. I would have loved, under different circumstances, to have pursued a Master’s degree. They had one in holography at a University in Alabama that sounded so enticing, yet that was something I could only dream about in good conscience. Besides, I was terrified I’d never pass the math section, anyway, of the GRE (Graduate Record Exam).

I worked for the USU spin-off company for about a year and a half, then connected with someone at Johnson Space Center in Houston who eventually got me a job interview with their contractor who at the time was G.E. Government Services. I got the job and we all moved to Texas. I worked at JSC for a variety of contractors over a span of over twenty years and am now retired in the Texas Hill Country pursuing the other half of my childhood dream, that of writing science fiction novels.

The series I started many years ago is now complete and in print. As an independent author known as an “Indie” I am now learning a variety of other skills such as navigating the alligators in the vast swamp known as the publishing business and hawking my wares as well as supporting other Indie authors in whatever way I can. My NASA experience has been invaluable as a science fiction author, as I’d expected it to be, even though my writing had a rather long hiatus during my aerospace career phase.

Both careers began with the single step of becoming a “non-traditional” student in, of all things, physics, at the ripe old age of thirty five proving it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. But nothing in life is ever that simple.

Everything has a price. What would I say to someone considering a similar voyage? First, I’d point out that more mature students have some advantages in real-world experience and commitment to the value of education, but by then life is more complicated. Transplanting an entire family to the college of your choice isn’t simple, neither all the other obligations you’ve accumulated as an adult. Finally, paying back student loans along with all your other bills is another challenge that creeps up far sooner than you’d like. And what if you don’t get a job right after graduation?

College freshmen right out of high school living in a dormitory have advantages they often fail to recognize, filling those extra hours with partying and exploring their new freedoms instead of studying. As an older student awash in family life I wanted to slap them upside the head to pay attention to what they had or, better yet, trade places with me for a week or two.

Yes, everything has a price and sometimes it’s fortunate not to know how high it might be until the journey ends. Perhaps blissful ignorance of the final cost is the only thing that allowed me to pursue my dream, the glare of losing part of myself obscuring everything except that twinkling little star’s tiny but persistent light beckoning me toward the path ahead.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are…

(Photo via Unsplash / Guillaume)