“First blog post” is the automatic title assigned by WordPress when you begin a new blog. “First blog post” — lame yet apropos. I have had a lot of firsts lately. First apartment in Cambridge. First cockroach. First time paying rent without a bedroom to call my own. There have been so many firsts.
So, how did I get here? A thirty-something single mom living in a tiny one bedroom in downtown Cambridge? It’s a good question.
Today at church the pastor talked about how we all have dreams to do something great. To change the world and be someone and do something great. And, just because we’re Christians our desire to do something great doesn’t go away. Instead of desiring to do something great for ourselves, we justify our desire for greatness by saying we’re doing it for Jesus. As young people we are so idealistic about the good we can do and the change we can bring about. I suppose for most people that’s true. I think it’s probably not true for foster kids though. I was, am, and probably always will be a foster kid. It’s not something you can easily shake. No one can ever truly understand the foster experience, what aging out really means, unless they’ve experienced. It’s similar to the mantra once a Marine, always a Marine — once a foster kid, always a foster kid.
I never really wanted to be someone great or do something great. For as long as I remember, the only thing I really wanted out of life was to be “normal.” I wanted a normal family with a normal house and a normal job. My dream was to make enough money to have a house, a car, and to afford my bills; to get married and have children. That was it. As a kid, those dreams seemed so far away and completely unattainable — it was all I wanted. Greatness was never my dream, mediocrity was.
To accomplish my dream of mediocrity, I thought I would need a college education and so I tried to go to college after high school. I failed though. I couldn’t figure out how to balance school and homework with bills and working. I had no social support, no academic support, and no skills that would enable me to survive the middle and upperclass world of academia. While my raw intelligence did get me pretty far, I gave up and dropped out. I told myself I would just take a year off and then transfer. But dropping out also meant I lost the place I was living. Constantly finding a place to crash made getting to work harder and harder. Then I got into an accident and totaled my car then lost my job. With no home, no car, and no place to work, I had nothing to lose and so I joined the Marine Corps. For the five years I was in the Marine Corps, I dreamed of the day I would get out and go back to school. I wanted to be an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College.
When I finally did get out of the Marine Corps, I was scared to go back to school. I was scared I wasn’t smart enough. I was scared I was too old. I was scared I couldn’t afford to. Mostly though I was scared I would fail again like I had the first time. Someone said something to me though that really hit me, “Ten years are going to go by. And you could take one class a semester and in ten years have a degree. Or, you could just let the 10 years go by and never get a degree.” And so, with that sage advice, I decided to enroll in classes at the local community college. What did I have to lose?
I loved it. I loved learning. I got all A’s without even trying. And, for the first time in a long time, I found people that actually believed in me — Professor Mazzarelli and Professor Saunders. With their encouragement I worked up the courage to apply to Smith College, my dream school. Shortly after I submitted my application I became pregnant (another story for another day). I also got really, really sick. It turns out my body couldn’t handle being pregnant along with a full time school and a full time work schedule. Something had to give and so I dropped out of school. A month or two later I received an acceptance letter from Smith College. I cried. I was too ashamed to call and tell them what happened. I never acknowledged my acceptance, I just let it slip away as the little life grew inside my belly.
Keith and I moved into a small apartment in Acton. He was unemployed at the time so I cashed out my savings and supported us on my Starbucks salary. It wasn’t much but it was enough to get us by until he could get a job. After Hannah was born we acknowledged the fact that childcare would cost more than what I earned at Starbucks and so I quit my job to take care of Hannah. We were so poor we had food stamps, WIC, and MassHealth but not public housing. I had never wanted to go on public assistance as an adult and I felt such shame in accepting handouts. With the help of the post 9/11 GI bill, I thought going back to school would be a good way for me to bring in money. Keith disagreed. He finally agreed to let me go back as long as it didn’t interfere with him. And so I put Hannah in daycare one day a week and I went back to school part time. Not long after that, Keith and I split up. Hannah was one.
In December 2010, just after Hannah turned two, I finished my Associate’s Degree. I really wanted to go on and get my Bachelor’s Degree but I had a daughter to raise and a home to provide and so I needed a job. Miraculously, I found a job as the administrative assistant at Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis (ACP). It was there I had my first exposure to the world of neuroscience research and it was there I once again acknowledged my love for science. I tried so hard to do research but the harder I tried the more I realized I had no clue what I was doing — I needed to go back to school. With the encouragement of my professors from MassBay I applied to Wellesley College, Tufts University, and Brandeis University. I still remember my CEO’s response when I told him Wellesley College was my first choice. “You know,” he said, “the thing about Wellesley is that it’s really hard to get in.” With confidence I didn’t possess I replied, “I know. But I actually have a pretty good application.”
A few months later I received my acceptance letter from Wellesley College. I couldn’t believe it. I was in such shock I cried — I was being given a second chance to accomplish my dream of getting a Bachelor’s degree. And so I finished my job at ACP and enrolled as a Davis Scholar at Wellesley College. My first semester Professor LaBonte, my biology professor, encouraged me to consider a PhD. I told her that sounded awesome but I would never be able to afford such a thing. She told me that there are degree programs that actually give students a stipend to pursue a PhD — rather than paying for an education, I could be paid to receive an education. The next couple of years I struggled with the idea of whether or not I could believe in myself enough to take that path.
At the same time God had been working on my heart and in my life. As you might expect that too is another story for another day. But what is important here is that I finally submitted to God’s sovereignty and it was beautiful. God provided for me. He met me right where I was and showed me my home was in Him and I was loved.
Then my life completely changed. A common theme in my life has been the tension between science and faith. After I realized the truth of God’s love, I began to explore the ways faith and science work together. Prior to understanding the truth of God’s love I had a fear — I was scared that if I believed in God it would mean I can’t believe science, that evolution can’t be true. Conversely I was scared that if I believed in science and began to follow the facts revealed by science it meant I would not be able to believe in God. Armed with God’s love, I dove head first into exploring what the Bible said side-by-side with what science had to say. What I found in the stories of Genesis when looked at through the lens of science was nothing short of extravagant beauty. I was able to release my fear of living in the intersection of faith and science and I came to understand that there was nothing any human could ever discover that would be able to disprove God and I was free to fall as deeply in love with science as I wanted to.
That set my life on a trajectory I can’t fully explain. I started to get interested in questions of sociality and morality, how we humans come to have a social and a moral cognition, and how the brain supports these processes. I had a thirst for knowledge that was undeniable and unquenchable. I began to do research at Harvard and then MIT. World renowned researchers knew my name and wanted to work with me. There were moments when my personal life felt like it was completely falling apart and yet my academic life was thriving. God was guiding me and pushing me along this trajectory, I just needed to follow Him and trust Him. He was always close by, even when I couldn’t tell.
Then came graduate school. I enrolled in a PhD program. Me. A foster care alum, a woman Marine, a single mom that had been on public assistance, an unwanted, unloved outcast from society was now a PhD student at MIT. Not only that but I also had social support and financial support and the love of a Father unlike any love I had ever known. It turns out one of the biggest challenges students at elite universities have to overcome is imposter syndrome. I am no exception. Perhaps for someone with a background like mine, overcoming imposter syndrome is even more of a challenge. But, I suppose that’s what anyone with imposter syndrome would say.
My first semester was hell. At the beginning of the semester my PI wanted to try to get a paper written. Paper for data I hadn’t even analyzed yet. Yes, the data probably should have been analyzed by then but, they weren’t. It was an impossible task. But everyone agreed that focusing on the paper was more important than worrying about classwork. And so I neglected all of my classwork and poured everything I had into analyzing those data to write that paper. Do you know what happened? I failed. The very first month of my very first semester of graduate school and I failed. Then, because of the sacrifices I had made in my classes, I was failing those too. I was too far behind in my classes to catch up. Then my personal life began to rear it’s ugly head. A court date, threats from Keith and his lawyer, and, if all of that wasn’t enough, Ann went to the hospital to have heart surgery. It was apparently minor heart surgery, just a catheter. But then she had three surgeries in one week! It was too much. I pulled back on my research, I dropped a class, and I pulled back on the homework for the classes I didn’t drop. I felt like an utter failure and the 3-4 hours of a commuting everyday didn’t help. I tried to focus on taking care of myself and parenting Hannah — I didn’t want to fail that too.
God began to work on my heart. He helped me to see that this opportunity to go to graduate school was a path that He had for me but it was just one option. I have the option to say yes or to say no and He will love me no matter what I do. He wants me to be happy. But, if I said say yes to the graduate school path, it meant I would have to let go of some other things. My home in Concord would have to go and I would have to move closer to school. It also meant that I would have to give up my dreams for Hannah and to entirely trust God’s plan for her. I wanted to be able to provide her with all of the things I never had. I wanted her to know stability and to have friends that she grew up with and attended school with from Kindergarten until graduation. I wanted what I thought was best for her, not what God knows is best for her.
I had a choice to make. Would I trust God and this path He put me on, even if it meant giving up my dreams for Hannah, giving up my home (the one He provided me with in the first place), and giving up the stability of the life I had in Concord? Or, would I choose a different path? One that would let me stay in Concord and let Hannah stay at her school? I decided to trust God and this path. I know He loves me, I know He wants me to be happy, and I know that His wisdom is more infinite than mine and so His path will surely be better than anything I could come up with.
Just as my heart softened, right in the middle of all my failures in school, do you know what happened? I got another award. My third in three months. This one though was a cash award. It provided me with enough money to break my lease and to move to Cambridge. And so I began the search for a new home in Cambridge. As I started to look I began to accept that wherever I would move would be smaller and not as nice as the place in Concord. Through the whole search process my one prayer was that God would provide me with a place that had really nice sunlight. I had such lovely sunlight in Concord and I would have been so sad to lose that along with everything else.
Two days after Christmas, Hannah and I moved. We moved to a little one bedroom apartment in graduate student housing. She has the bedroom and I sleep on a nice futon in the living room. It is on campus and is within walking distance of her new school. It has beautiful sunlight.
So, how did I get here? A thirty-something single mom living in a tiny one bedroom in Cambridge? I got here because this is exactly where God wants me to be. What of my dreams of mediocrity and middle class? Well, maybe one day I’ll get that too. For now though, I trust that God knows the best way for me to be happy and I will follow Him.