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What I Learned After Taking Calculus Five Times

Growing up, I always felt like the slow tortoise of the race. I was the last one to finish an assignment, the last to get the answer right, and the last chosen for flag football. Oftentimes, I left the classroom silent and ashamed, not understanding how I was constantly behind everyone else.

In middle school, I still felt like the slowest in the class to get a concept or submit an assignment. But I felt I had turned a corner when I started to excel in math—even winning the Excellence in Mathematics Award in eighth grade.

Still, my middle school math achievements didn’t prepare me for high school math. Even though I went on to graduate with a 4.0 average, this accomplishment came at the cost of my self-esteem due to my experience with AP (Advanced Placement) Calculus. I felt immense pressure to sign up for AP courses to compete with my peers and to have a better chance of getting into college. So to get on track to take Calculus my senior year, I decided to take Precalculus at a local community college the summer before. Working part-time at McDonald’s, I attended daily tutoring sessions to be successful in the class. While half the class dropped out, I persisted and achieved one of the highest marks.

Despite that success, I still did terribly in AP Calculus my senior year. No matter how much I studied—whether at home or during lunch period—the subject was completely novel to my brain. I couldn’t bring myself to understand and apply concepts like derivatives and u-substitution. As a senior drowning in three other AP classes, I eventually gave up and stopped attending class altogether. I accepted the F on my transcript. By that point, I’d already been admitted to UC Davis (and I still had a 4.0 because of the extra points California universities give for taking AP courses).  

Anxiety and depression tormented me during my freshman year after I failed another calculus course (Biocalculus this time). No matter how much time I devoted to finishing assignments and studying for my exams, I found it impossible to concentrate. Though I did successfully repeat the class, failing calculus twice crushed my self-esteem. I began reconsidering my dream of going to medical school.

My decision to attend community college turned out to be a crucial step toward regaining my self-confidence and drive to attend a four-year college. At Berkeley City College I immersed myself in efforts to discover my passion. I took courses in business, economics, and public speaking—subjects I found fascinating for their universal approach and application.

Intending to declare my major in economics and pursue a career in data science, I had my sights set on transferring to UC Berkeley because of its proximity to Silicon Valley and prominent alumni who lead tech startups. However, my calculus credits from UC Davis would not transfer in my new major, so I ended up having to take Calculus 1 and 2. 

During my first semester, I found the strength and motivation to succeed, taking a total of 25 units and earning A’s in all seven courses, including Calculus 1. In the end, I reached my goal and transferred to UC Berkeley for this fall semester.

As an incoming junior with five calculus courses under my belt, but no prior exposure to statistics in my entire academic journey, I now worry whether I am prepared to take required upper-division statistics classes in order to declare my major and graduate on time. Though I had to take all those calculus classes to get to where I am today, I often question whether it was worthwhile. I am not letting my past math struggles, or history of being the slow tortoise, detract from my future career and life goals. But I do hope sharing my story and my work at Just Equations will eventually help more students avoid a similar fate.

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