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Courtesy of Linda Nhon

I Got Kicked Out Of a Lab, and Three Lessons I Derived from It


 

Editor’s note: This is adapted from a speech Linda made at Illuminate Tech on November 13, 2019. We would like to thank Maureen Rouhi, Communications Director of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, along with Benjamin Ahn of the Georgia Tech Student Government Association for their help in making this story a reality.

 

I stepped foot onto Georgia Tech’s campus in the fall of 2014 with two letters in hand.


One was an acceptance letter from Tech and the other was a letter from my aunt or as I referred to her as Mieng, which is Khmer for aunt. I applied to six graduate programs and was rejected by all but one, as you can guess I was very grateful for Tech’s acceptance letter. Now the second letter was not so pleasant.

In it, Mieng wrote, “Dear Linda, GT was reluctant to accept you because of your low GRE results (Editor’s note: Graduate Record Examination Test scores are one of the application requirements of many graduate schools in the US) and GPA, but because Phou (Khmer for uncle) was an alumnus at the school, they extended a courtesy to him and asked him for further assessment of you. I am bringing this to your attention because I am not sure if you understand what your uncle has done for you.”

So here I was on Tech’s campus, with these two letters setting the stage for my upcoming Ph.D. adventure, and feelings of not belonging were unlocked. I rationalized continuing to go to Tech because an opportunity was still an opportunity, regardless of how or who helped me obtain it and that I should still take it.

As any graduate student understands, the first year is an exploratory year — we are multitasking with teaching classes, taking courses, and most importantly adjusting to a research group. In the chemistry department, we are fortunate to participate in a rotation program to get to know the research group and advisor before making that hefty commitment to staying on board for the next half-decade. At the same time, we are also competing with our peers for a slot in the research groups.

During that time period, after going through the rotation program, I decided I wanted to work in a biochemistry group. I thought the topic was super cool and that there was a lot of research opportunities in that field. I was not the only student in my class who thought so; in fact, there were two other students from my year whom I had to compete with to earn a spot.

After talking to the advisor, he decided to accept me “on one condition”. The condition was I would work in his group starting in the spring and through the summer. At the end of the summer, he would evaluate me and determine whether he would keep me. I didn’t think twice about the risk of possibly being rejected from the group, because I believed that if I worked hard enough that I would be able to stay.


 


Courtesy of Linda Nhon

As a reminder, this story is about a time I was kicked out of a group. So, what happened that summer?

Well, despite working long hours, taking extra time to study additional physical chemistry, and having anxiety to the point where I was afraid to ask for time off, at end of the summer, the advisor sat me down in his office one evening and broke the news. He said he recognized my hard work, but just did not think I would thrive in his group. He said that because I came in with a microbiology degree that I should look at the biology department rather than chemistry. He could not see me doing organic chemistry and that he simply did not have a project available, that was suited for my “abilities”.

For the first time, I truly felt like a failure. Let me tell you, feelings of failure are physical. I threw up my dinner that night, I could not stop crying, and my body would not stop trembling.

There I was in this eclectically decorated office, August 2015, one year after joining Tech, experiencing the raw emotions of rejection. My aunt was right, I did not belong at Tech. I was shattered. I truly thought hard work paid off, but if that’s the case, why did I fail? Why was it his words against mine? Do students not have a say on whether they belong? These questions rushed through my mind as I argued with him for two hours trying to secure my spot one last time. That night, I walked out of the office defeated, my face wet with tears and snot, and my stomach in tight knots.

For the first time, I truly felt like a failure. Let me tell you, feelings of failure are physical. I threw up my dinner that night, I could not stop crying, and my body would not stop trembling.


 

Linda Nhon with her mother, grandmother, and grandfather on her first birthday in September 1992 at the house her parents rented in St. Petersburg, Fla. In Southeast Asian culture, first-month and first-year birthdays are often big celebrations, hence the incense and bowls filled with sticky rice on the table. (Courtesy of Linda Nhon)

Why did that moment hurt so badly? For me, it was because I felt that I failed my family.