• Shelly Elliott

One Shining Moment- The CHEG Experience That Changed My Perspective and My Life

Failure. What do you feel when you read that word? What do you think when you read that word? What do you imagine when you read that word?

For me, I used to feel anxious, nervous, and fearful. I used to think I can’t, or I’m not good enough, or I’m going to disappoint. I used to imagine having to tell my parents or my husband or friends that I just couldn’t hack it, or I would imagine myself having to change my major or leave my job.

Now, I think of failure differently. Before I tell you why I do, let me share the past experience that is responsible for changing my perspective and re-framing how I think about failure.

It was my second year at Notre Dame, fall semester of 2009. I was starting to get into my main engineering classes and advanced sciences. I excelled in academics in high school, and though there were certainly many changes and adaptations I had to make freshman year, my study habits and work ethic from high school were enough to get me by in gen ed courses. Naturally, being young and naive, I thought that those same things would be enough to get me through my engineering courses, too. I had my first Introduction to Chemical Engineering and Physics II exams on the same day of the semester. Now, we covered everything I had in a full year of high school physics in the very first lecture of my Physics II class, and I wasn’t overly confident about it. But, I did what I usually did to study for both exams; I reviewed my notes, re-wrote them about 3 times, could recite them in my sleep, re-did my homework problems, and did a few extra problems I could look up in the back of the book. Guess what? Engineering and applied math and science aren’t just about memorizing; engineering is about application, applying the concepts, theories, and equations learned to new situations. I was not prepared for that. The outcome? I got in the exams, saw new problems and situations, and panicked. I didn’t immediately know the answers, and I felt anxiety, doubt, and fear just creep in. And this happened twice in the same day!

Two days later, I was sitting on the back stairs to our student union, crying on the phone to my parents. I had failed both exams, and failed them miserably. My instinct was to retreat from my goal of becoming a chemical engineer. I thought that two failed exams meant that I just wasn’t meant to be an engineer. As I talked to my parents, I told them I was going to have to switch my major to business and would have to drop these two classes and maybe stay an extra semester to complete the necessary credits if I switched out. My initial reaction was to accept the failure, alter my goal, and pivot to start going down a different path to reach that new goal. Looking back, each time I think about this, I’m a little ashamed and embarrassed that I responded in this way.

Fortunately, my parents knew that giving up on engineering and switching to business wasn’t what I really wanted, nor was it the response they had seen from me before when I faced adversity. My Dad, after I had finished blubbering through what happened and my new life plan, said to me, “Shelly, if you let two bad test grades keep you from something you’ve been striving after for years, you’re not the person I thought you were.” It was a verbal slap in the face, but it was just what I needed to take a few seconds and think about what Dad said. Did I really want to switch majors? Did I really want to close the door on engineering? Did I really want to make this decision that would very likely completely change the professional career path I was on? The answers to all of those questions were, “Hell no!” So, our conversation switched gears and we started talking about where I go from here.

Mom and Dad encouraged me to speak to Cathy Pieronek, an Associate Dean in the College of Engineering who was also the director of our Society of Women Engineers (SWE) program on campus. If I could sum-up Cathy in a few words, it would be “tough as nails bad ass engineer with a kind heart.” Cathy was a double Domer, receiving her aerospace engineering degree in 1984 and J.D. in 1995 from ND, and she also completed a master’s in aerospace engineering in 1987 from UCLA. I sent her an e-mail as soon as I hung up with them, and she called me on my cell phone saying, “Come to my office, now.” Ten minutes later, I’m sitting in front of her desk, bawling my eyes out again, telling her what had happened that week. I told her I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but that I was considering switching majors. She handed me a single Kleenex, said, “Wipe your tears, and toughen up, because I’m not giving up on you that easily.” That was the first thing I remember after this that started putting a level in my internal self-confidence tank, which was bone-dry empty after getting those two F’s.

Cathy and I sat in her office for about an hour putting a game plan together. She wanted me to sign up for tutoring and go to the professor’s office hours more. We also talked about how engineering is different than other classes, and that I would need to change the way I studied and prepared for exams. Memorization was not an engineer’s mentality, and I had to change that. I had to learn to truly break-down a problem, figure out what it is asking, call on my brain’s library of concepts, and apply it to a new situation.

After leaving Cathy’s office, I walked straight over to the tutoring center to sign up. I again called my parents while walking over, and I’m glad I did because I might have lost my nerve. In high school, I was the one giving the tutoring, not the other way around. I started letting negative thoughts fill my head, and that little bit of self-confidence I had gained from Cathy was starting to leak out. Here you are, a high school valedictorian, and you’re signing up for tutoring, I thought. When I told my parents what I was doing and how uncomfortable I was, they each said something to me that really catalyzed my shift in perspective.

First, Mom said, “Shelly, I have never had nor heard of a job interview where the interviewer asked you how you learned something or asked if you went to tutoring. They care that you can solve the problem; they aren’t going to care that you solidified your understanding of the concept used to solve the problem in tutoring.” I thought about that, and I conceded that Mom was right.

Dad, who tends to go into coaching mode, reminded me of one of the quotes he used at his practices: If you don’t stretch your limits, you’ll set your limits. Though signing up for tutoring was something completely outside my comfort zone, I was going to limit my ability to learn and ultimately reach my goal of becoming a chemical engineer. When I thought about it this way, I realized I had to set my pride aside for better return in the long run.

I busted my rear that semester. From that day on, I never missed an office hour or tutoring session, and I started studying for understanding, not for memorization. The benefits started almost immediately. Within a few weeks at tutoring, I was a student that if the tutor was busy with someone else, other people would come to me. As I started to be able to apply what I was learning to homework and other problems without much help, I felt my self-confidence rising. That semester, I was able to pull off a B+ in Intro to Chemical Engineering and an A- in Physics II. The funny thing is while I was obviously happy about my grades, I was more proud of how I felt about my path to earning them. How many other people would have chosen to switch their major after failing their first two exams? How many people would have gone to all of the office hours and signed up for tutoring? I didn’t know the answers to those questions, but I knew that I did.

Looking back, failing those first two exams was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I got my mindset, study habits, and perspective in place, and had it not happened that semester, it definitely would have happened the following semester, which would have been more difficult to bounce back from. There are always going to be challenges; it won’t always be a physics test, but it will be something. Don’t let that obstacle deter you. Don’t let it define you. Let it shape you. Learn from it. Embrace it. Yes, it’s hard to do in the moment, but if your goal or dream is worth fighting for and your heart is really in it, you’ll see failure as an opportunity.

My Notre Dame Graduation. L to R: My Godfather, Jimmy Caribardi; My brother Pug; Mom; Me; Dad; and My Pap

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