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STEM Story: Catherine Johnson

“On behalf of the admissions Committee, it is my pleasure to offer you admission to the MIT class of 2022!”

On December 14, 2017, I read a sentence that I had once only dreamed of reading. It was real. There it was, printed in big letters on my computer. However, this wasn’t the end of my story, and it certainly wasn’t the beginning either.

My STEM story began in middle school. One summer I attended a programming camp with my cousin, and I was hooked. Programming combined the fun of problem solving found in math and science, along with more creativity than those subjects allowed for. I began to pursue the best computer science schools during my college search, and now I find myself a freshman at MIT.

One of the biggest issues women have when pursuing STEM careers is "imposter syndrome." When I got to MIT, I definitely experienced this. It is easy to look around at the people to your right and left, see that most of them are men, and be intimidated by how intelligent everyone is. You doubt yourself. I'm just pretending to be smart. I don't fit in here. I don't belong here. I was a mistake. These are all thoughts that have rushed through my head, and through conversation I've found that many others experience these same thoughts as well.

The truth is that you shouldn't be the smartest person in the room. In fact, if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room. If you're in a room full of women, you're also in the wrong room. Because women in STEM are forced to be in uncomfortable situations throughout their entire journey, they come out stronger and more resilient than their peers.

Finally, it is important to not settle. Enjoy your achievements, but then set new goals. Sometimes I worry that my college admission at 18 years old will be the greatest thing I ever accomplish in life. How can you top getting into MIT? Will my adult self always find herself struggling to achieve that same level of accomplishment?

This is the main reason why I have joined Air Force ROTC and intend to commission as a Cyber Warfare Officer when I graduate. Although I’ll be forfeiting a likely six-figure salary (as most programmers fresh out of MIT land) for the lowly pay of a second lieutenant, I’ll have a purpose greater than myself. I’ll be protecting others with the skills I’ve learned and perfected, and that to me is what it means to be an empowered woman.

It isn’t about what college you attend, what job you land, or what grades you get. If you are a female pursuing a STEM career and you have a purpose greater than the number on your paycheck, you will make an impact.  

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