Ever wondered what to do with your degree in STEM? Curious about what Wellesley alums have been up to?
In the summer of 2016, Helena Yan (Wellesley ’18) visited a few Wellesley alumnae in the Philadelphia region to talk about their career paths and how they got started. Read her “Letters to Wendy” series to hear her reflections on their conversations!
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I know you and a few of our friends have been struggling lately with trying to decide what to do after Wellesley. To put it a bit more dramatically, we’ve all been contemplating what we should dedicate our lives to. It’s a question that I’ve personally been pondering (obsessively) last semester and I’ve talked about this many people extensively. However, I realized that most of the people I’ve been hearing from are our fellow classmates and while realizing that this struggle is widespread amongst the students, I felt it was necessary to gain a wider range of experiences, especially from those who have more experience than us. I concluded the spring semester with this vague notion, agonized over packing my life into four storage containers, and moved to Philadelphia for the summer.
So here I am, in a new city, alone. Well, not quite alone. You see, I decided to reach out to the local alumnae network to connect with those who have already graduated Wellesley. Who else is better equipped to answer our question for us than someone who has been through the Wellesley experience?
The first person I visited was alumna Dr. Michele Lee, a Biological Sciences and English double major from the class of 1993. She is currently the director of Temple University’s Teacher Residency program and was previously an adjunct professor at Temple. After graduating Wellesley, Michele took 3 years off to teach science at elementary and high schools, and ultimately went to graduate school in science education.
Michele is extremely dedicated to furthering education in STEM. However, she didn’t leave Wellesley with a clear picture of what she wanted to do, in fact, she told me that she was originally debating between becoming a doctor or a teacher, both of which would allow her to “apply scientific knowledge to help young kids”. The initial years after graduating Wellesley were intended as a brief period of reflection for her to decide on graduate school plans and she eventually decided that she wanted to foster a love for science in young children.
Of course, she also tried to experience as much of being a doctor as well before her decision— she volunteered at a clinic and shadowed scientists/physicians, just like what most pre-med students right now are doing. But what appealed to her more about teaching was that you get to learn new material alongside the kids that you’re teaching. She told me of a course she did in the national parks in the Southwest, where she learned geology for the first time. She also participated in a “Teacher at Sea” program hosted by the NOAA that taught how fishing policies/limits are set each year based on the amount of marine life present. Through these two opportunities, she was able to both learn about the process and teach children about it.
The breadth of topics you get to learn and teach as a teacher was a major factor in why she chose to teach, but nowadays she’s “a step removed” and is more focused on helping STEM teachers make their subjects more interesting for students. When I asked her what prompted the shift in focus, she replied that she had just concluded her PhD program and was approached by the program. Before her PhD program, she thought she would be a professor forcused on elementary science education. She “never thought that [she’d] be directing a teacher residency program for middle school science teachers” but is currently enjoying how her position provides an opportunity to do education policy advocacy.
The main thing I learned from our conversation was this:
Don’t expect life to be a straight line. Michele and I spent quite a bit of time discussing how new occupations are being created each year and how we’ll probably end up working with a job title that didn’t even exist yet (e.g., Director of a teacher residency program). You don’t need to know your destination; you just need to make sure that you’re walking in a direction that you like. Michele did that by setting goals each year on how she wanted to improve or achieve and also reflecting on how her most recent experiences may change her goals. However, once you know what you want in the near future, be purposeful—when Michelle was applying to PhD programs, she very pointedly sought out individuals that could be a role model for her.
Additionally, don’t be afraid of trying. “What Wellesley prepares you to do is anything.” she said, as I was talking to her about the variety of positions she’s held. She was accepted to work with a science and mathematics education reform initiative at the AAAS after seeing an ad for it in the newspaper and thinking “why not?” So don’t be afraid of trying something that seems out-of-reach!
Miss you lots,
PS- If the teacher residency program sounds like a really cool thing that you want to learn more about, check out Temple University’s website: http://sites.temple.edu/templeteacherresidency/. If you would like to ask Michele more questions about her experience as a STEM educator, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where Michele got to volunteer on a vessel and learn about marine ecology, has a website.