If you miss where my passion for stars comes from, you can read it here:
People’s reaction when they find out that I studied Aerospace Engineering after high school usually is: “Oh wow, you’re so smart!”. I’m telling you a secret: no. Well, I don’t think I am stupid, but I’m a long way from the people I consider geniuses. I just like to put myself to the test. The day I enrolled in Classical High School I knew I would be facing hard times due to grammar gaps, as well as I knew, during my three-year degree, that I would have to put a little more effort into making up for my lack of scientific knowledge. I have never cared too much about grades, but rather I have always been trying to push myself a little further and to be satisfied with my choices. Moreover, I think it is fun to prove someone wrong when he told you that you were not able to do something. I am the kind of person that will do all she can to make it possible, no matter if it requires time and effort.
The first time I showed this stubbornness was during the final exam in high school. One of the main subjects was the Italian Language and, needless to say, I didn’t get good grades in written tests throughout the years – although I always managed the oral examinations. I was and still am aware that I lacked writing skills in comparison with my high school friends. Matteo, for example, had an extraordinary talent for transforming a simple greeting card into a masterpiece, no matter if it was written on a piece of toilet paper (as it happened once). I have never been and never will be as gifted as Matteo, but still, I didn’t consider my writing skills as poor as my professors did. Maybe at the beginning they were right in underlining my wide gaps in Italian Grammar, but their mistrust remained the same until two months before the final exam, when they eventually said: “Dear Erika, you can’t expect to get more than 11/12 (out of 15) on the first written exam”. It was very rude of them to declare that I could aspire to a passing grade and nothing more, but I took on the challenge and I never in my life have studied Italian as hard as I did in those two months.
Just a quick note: in Italy, at the end of the last year of high school, students take an exam consisting of three written tests, an oral interview, and a free topic short thesis. I wrote my short thesis about Nelson Mandela certainly for personal interest, but also having an intuition that one of the topics of the first written test could be related to his recent death. I was right indeed, and I remember I greatly enjoyed writing about Nelson Mandela as a political leader and lifelong pacifist. Within a few days I got my score: 14/15. Yes, almost full marks, boom! No matter if I got a lower than usual grade in the Ancient Greek translation test, I had already achieved my own victory over previous criticisms. The oral interview went surprisingly well too: although the professors asked me many different questions about Italian Literature, I answered so confidently that I barely recognized myself. I even recited by heart a couple of sentences from Manzoni’s masterpiece, I promessi sposi, and a passage from Rosso Malpelo, a novel by Giovanni Verga. I am still convinced that I was not quite myself that day. At the end of it all, my total score was 85/100. I got a good grade, perhaps it was not excellent, I know, but I believe that nobody was as proud as me on that day.
That very night I decided to present my long-term plans to my parents. They knew that I wanted to go to university and that I was especially interested in engineering, but that was it. Now I am writing about it openly, but, in general, I don’t talk too much about life-changing decisions before making them. As a result, those who knew me well were only aware that I liked stars, but there is a big difference between a mere personal interest and the desire to study Aerospace Engineering. During my second year of high school, I had actually started evaluating the programs of instruction of various Aerospace Engineering faculties in Italy. But still, when the time to study for the placement test came, I said to myself: “Come on, Erika, what do you want to do? Where do you want to go?”. Thinking back to those days, I believe my lack of self-esteem was due to the medical vicissitudes I was coping with (see The heart has its reasons – part 2). The striking example of how tough and perilous that time was for me is that I took a step back from my space dreams because I felt I could not measure up to them. I ended up convincing myself that Environmental Engineering would be a good compromise, so I started studying for the placement test.
To enter an engineering course, one must take a test called TOLC, which is about necessary skills like logic and math. There are three chances to pass the test: the first is in April, the second is in July and the third is in September. This means that if you don’t pass it on the first try, you still have two chances left. Since I was aware of my gaps in scientific knowledge, I took the test in April. I chose the University of Modena. To enter the course without failing to achieve the required standard, the score must be higher than 15.
Well, I tried the Environmental Engineering test and I failed it. They gave me the score right away and it was half a point less than the minimum passing grade. I left the classroom and went home. It was my first university test, and I had failed it. Surprisingly, I was serene, almost relieved. It was on the way home that my Jiminy Cricket told me: “All right Erika, let’s do this way: take your time to think about it, and if you don’t change your mind, go on and try the Aerospace Engineering test in July. Maybe this failure is nothing more than life asking you Honey, what the fuck are you doing?”. July came, and since I was sure about my desire of studying Aerospace Engineering, on 3rd July 2014, after taking the final high school exam, I made my parents sit down and I told them: “I changed my mind about university”. Despite being always confident and optimistic, they were scared that I was going to drop out. I smiled and I said: “Don’t worry, I want to study engineering, but this time I will try the Aerospace test instead of the Environmental one”. I noticed they were holding back their laughter, but I don’t think it was because they didn’t believe in my choice, rather because of the happiness, after so much time, of seeing in my eyes the sparkle that has always distinguished me. Just think that the next day my father had already printed the flyers of every single Aerospace Engineering faculty in Italy.
I didn’t talk about it with anyone else because I was well aware that it would be too hard for my self-esteem, a little higher than in the previous months but still shaky, to take jokes and comments about it – and I knew they might come. I made the choice of informing only the people I trusted, and I was happy with that.
Three weeks later I took the test. I’m an aerospace engineer now, so, as you can tell, I passed it.
In case you were wondering, my predictions about inevitable jokes and comments were right. I had to face scornful laughs when I said what I was going to study, as well as stupid jokes like “Oh, do you want to be the new Cristoforetti?“. What can I say, I didn’t care, because I was happy with myself.
Before moving on to tell you how I got through my first years at university, I would like to dwell on a sentence that I am sure you have already heard, but which I feel I have entirely understood only over the years. Have you ever wondered what does it mean to “dare to believe in the beauty of your dreams”? Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had got that half a point in April. Or rather, what would not have happened.
I would not have studied those subjects that made me stay awake at night in order to understand them. I would not have taken exams that I cursed, but whose notes I jealously guard. I would not have met amazing people who were passionate about the topics I love the most, and I would not have shared with them bitter coffee and nerdy chats about Matlab and Orbital Mechanics. I would not have my eyes shining every time I talk about what I would like to do in life. And maybe, I would not even be here writing. Sometimes our dreams seem so extraordinary that we believe they are out of our reach, just because we are “simply ourselves”. I’ll tell you clearly: trying to pursue a dream requires a great amount of courage and patience. You will surely find someone who will tell you that you are not suitable for it. Somebody will think that you got full marks in your exams just because you are a girl in a male-dominated environment. Someone else will look at you with disappointment because you gave up a paid job to study mathematics applied to space sciences. Somebody will tell you that you do not have the required skills for your dream job, after years of sacrifices and intense study. It is not easy to remain true to yourself and to your ideas in moments like these. You must be brave enough to believe that your dream is so beautiful that it is worth it. But please, do it, because no matter where you will arrive, it is the feeling you face the journey with that will bring out the best in you, and I am sure you will end up falling in love with yourself.
I still don’t know if I will be able to fulfil my dream career, but I am sure that having failed that test in April was the best mistake I could have made.