First Things First by Rachael Klaiss

As a first-year graduate student at the University of Oregon, I’ve had a lot of “firsts” over the past year, including being a first-year attendee of the ACCESS Assembly. I became involved with the UO site, The North Star Project, last summer as a way to start integrating myself into the department and my research group. It was a cute parallel; I was using a summer program for incoming freshman to be introduced to the department and to feel comfortable with physics and other physics majors to do the same for myself, except I wasn’t leaving home for the first time and I already knew I loved physics enough to stick with it. While, if I’m being honest, my involvement with the summer program was minimal, it gave me a good opportunity to see how the program functioned and was enough to get me excited to become a core organizer. As my first year as a grad student progressed, I felt the necessity for this sort of program more and more. I was lucky as a grad student. The department houses all of the first-year offices in the same space so we can collaborate and eventually become great friends from all of the time spent together. An incoming freshman physics major does not have that type of pre-arranged support system and so navigating an influx of homework assignments, making new friends, and a new living situation can be daunting. I liked the idea of being a part of something that could make some of those things a bit easier, because it would be a shame to lose the potential of some amazing future scientists and people because they felt unsupported or overwhelmed.

At the ACCESS Assembly, I got to see first-hand how different universities approach the same end goal of retention in STEM. We were given many opportunities to share our programs’ successes and shortcomings and discuss with other sites how to improve in areas a different site has success in. I think the assembly did a good job of accomplishing what it set out to do, which is foster inter-site communication for the benefit of our respective programs. On a more personal level, something else I got from the assembly that I believe is just as important (and I’m sure the assembly organizers believe as well) was the relationships built between current post docs, graduate, and undergraduate students on the basis of non-program related interests. I find that scientists fall into this stereotype of being lone lab (or theory) rats, but from my experiences that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is something I find imperative to portray to new students entering the field.

The assembly helped remind me of how I grew to view physics departments and academia over my undergraduate career. The first year of grad school can lead to disillusionment with the study of physics. Classes are taxing. The realization that what you spend your PhD studies on will be pushing the bounds of human knowledge in your field, and that this can lead to disappointment, is alarming. I began to forget the opportunity I had been given to make an impact in the field, instead focusing on my own situation and frustrations. The ACCESS Network is an amazing thing to be a part of to ground me. It reminds me that physics is more than what I study and the things we discover. I have the opportunity to inspire the next generation of physicists and make it a more inclusive, accessible field. These students deserve to study what makes them curious and happy, and be supported while doing it, and we can see them through this.

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