Student Spotlight: Melanie Clark, U.S. Air Force

Princeton University Cohort

What was your educational experience prior to WSP? Would you consider yourself a confident student? 

Prior to WSP, I was an average high school student from a lower-middle-class family in rural North Carolina who did not apply herself. I briefly attended a local community college, but I lacked the desire and discipline required for college at that time of my life. I joined the United States Air Force in 2001, and throughout my 20-year career, I did manage to complete two Community College of the Air Force associate degrees. I honestly believed a bachelor’s degree was an out-of-reach dream that I was not smart enough to obtain for most of my life. At least until 2018, when I applied and was accepted to Arizona State University (Online). 

I am currently pursuing a degree in urban planning, and I found that I thoroughly enjoy learning and that it isn’t too late to learn. Even though I’m already attending school, WSP/Princeton Cohort was paramount in regaining my confidence in continued higher education. Even though I am close to completing my degree, I have experienced my fair share of setbacks and started to feel a bit stagnant and unworthy of my educational goals. However, through the Warrior-Scholar Project, I have regained a new sense of self-worth, for which I am so grateful. I really felt the positive vibes from all of the Fellows. I interacted with students, professors, and peers who shared their similar goals/journeys, which was such a relief. I am now looking forward to accomplishing my dream of receiving a Bachler’s degree, and I know that I am capable of more than I realize. 

Had you participated in any sort of virtual learning before? If so, how does your WSP experience compare to that? 

I attend Arizona State (online), but most of my studies consist of slide shows and pre-recorded lectures. I have had very little interaction with my professors besides the comments posted on discussion boards or graded assignments. WSP was refreshingly different. I am not going to lie, the two weeks I attended were intense, morning to late evenings (with breaks in-between), and even though I was attending at home via Zoom—I felt like I did not see my family for two whole weeks. However, the fellows, professors, peers, and tutors were engaging and interactive; those two weeks went by fast. I was legitimately sad on our last day because I loved being a part of the experience and making connections with people I never thought I would have an opportunity to meet. 

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer? 

I was excited to see what it felt like to attend a top-tier school like Princeton, even just for a moment. I knew I would enjoy the humanities week, which I did. However, I was the most anxious about the STEM week, which I was nervous to try but really needed to help get over my fear of Math. In my urban planning studies, I have a lot of geographic information system courses, and though I find them interesting, I tend to struggle due to the math/science. The WSP STEM week was a great starting point for decreasing my anxiety and learning better studying techniques. 

What have you learned so far that you think will be helpful as you pursue your degree? 

The biggest takeaway was that is it is ok to ask for help. I know this seems like a simple concept, but asking for help or seeking tutors was so difficult for me. I’m not sure if it’s military pride or just an internal aversion. I know that my current school has resources, but I felt embarrassed to ask for help, which has been my biggest downfall. The WSP program and the atmosphere were set up so that I was able to reset my mindset. I learned that the educational environment is different than the military environment in that it is truly acceptable to ask questions.

I do not know everything. That’s why I’m in school–it is unnecessary to tough things out while in a learning environment. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week? 

Truthfully, I wasn’t looking forward to STEM week; It was more like a necessity. I knew it would be the most challenging week for me. I decided I would go into STEM week with an open mind and realistic expectations. I knew I wasn’t going to become a math genius suddenly, but if I could at least try to see what skills I could learn without my usual negative thoughts, it would be a success. 

What research project did you work on, and what did you learn from that experience? 

Our team had data exploration where we used coding techniques to study inquiries about particular subjects. In our case, we were studying the songs of 2018 Spotify top 100–What makes a song a hit? Is it the tempo? The danceability? We learned how to type code in Python to create scatter plot graphs and histograms for our research. 

I had zero experience with coding and had absolutely no idea what it was, but by the time we presented our project, I was able to create scatter plots and change color on the graphs. Our project lead was so patient and knowledgeable. I really enjoyed working on our project and learning about code. 

Are there any instructors or fellows who have made a difference for you this week so far? 

These two ladies, Ana Vidal (fellow) and Caroline Holmes (project lead), were my heroes. They were so patient when it came to explaining math problems and code, and they were just so impressively knowledgeable in their respective fields of study while being humble at the same time. 

Is WSP having any effect on how confident you feel as a student?

WSP has played a huge part in raising my self-esteem, especially regarding STEM. My desire to further my education has been renewed. I am even thinking more about graduate school, which I never even thought was possible. I feel better in knowing that I am not alone; other military members/veterans are also passionate about education and face challenges along the way. I loved that my accomplishments were all on me but in a low-risk environment. There was no pass/fail hanging over me—this increased my willingness to learn. With my teammates cheering me on along the way, I felt so much pride at the completion of the course.

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