College in Four Years and no Student Loans, Part II

© Fernando Caracena, 2014


On enrollment to college, I declared my major to be chemistry. That was what my father always wanted to study, and I recognized it as a viable profession. I had done well  enough in studying the subject in high school. I understood the concepts and could balance out the chemical reactions. I looked forward to learning all I could about chemistry. Meanwhile, I took a beginning course in physics the summer after my first school year, along with a course in philosophy. I think that I also got the required course in economics out of the way. I remember at the time that I wish economists understood calculus better, so that they would talk about derivatives instead of marginal utility, marginal revenue, etc.

I did very well in the summer physics course. I liked college physics so much that I decided to declare a double major of physics an chemistry with a minor in maths. By the end of the second year of college, I narrowed my major down to physics, and minor, still in maths.The reason for this is the difference that I found between studying a subject and actually doing it. I got tired of doing long, involved chemistry experiments, but I never tired of doing physics both experimentally and theoretically, nor of doing maths.

Physics treated me well. The professors were always on the look out for good lab assistants and people to grade tests and homework. I was hired to do a lot of that work, which I also enjoyed. My best friends were also physicist students, and we often discussed physics between bouts of ping pong or shuffle board. We also hung around socially together outside of school. We read and discussed a lot of the popular physics books such as those by George Gamov, the famous physicist.


While I was still in college, the Russians launched the first orbiting satellite, called Sputnik I, which was followed by the launch of Sputnik II later that year. This woke up the sleeping U S giant. Suddenly the majority of people realized that the U S was being left behind scientifically and they demanded that the government do something. Our Cold War rivals had overtaken us in space--a visible loss of prestige and perhaps power. In a panic, Congress threw money at the problem and the U S space effort was launched. Other sciences benefit from government funding. Physics received a big boost in spending, which created many opportunities for graduate study in physics.

Space research began in both the U S and Russia at the end of WWII when both sides captured scientists at, Peenemünde, where they had developed Hitler's rockets, which had wreaked remote destruction on the British Islands. Wernher Von Braun, the leading, German rocket scientist was brought to the U S to head this country's rocket research program. After some transfers, the whole crew of German scientists was transferred to Fort Bliss, TX. The rocket testing part of the research conducted by Von Braun's team was at White Sands, NM, just north of Ft. Bliss.

Von Braun's work at White Sand's had been quite frustrating. Under Army command, a lot of requests for funding were ignored or turned down. At one point, he was ordered to dismantle and junk all the rockets and parts that he was working with. The Army had decided to get out of the rocket business completely, and decided to burn their bridges. The rocket scientists decided that their research was too valuable for the future of humanity, and responded by hiding all rocket hardware in government warehouses encased in unmarked crates. When Sputnik was launched and there was a great political reaction, the government ordered the Army to launch an all out effort to launch a U S satellite. Von Braun told the Army brass that he could do this in a short amount of time. Working with the jet Propulsion Laboratory the rocket team came up with a successfully launched, first U S Satellite, Explorer I, which was launched on 31 January 1958, in the year after the launch of Sputnik I and II. The U S could have easily beat the Russians in the space race had it listened to Von Braun, who had developed a means of launching a satellite earlier. In this case, as it has often been in the U S, top-down management was the main obstacle in research progress.

During my college years, I did not go out on a single date, because I had a laser-like focus on study and work. There were girls that flirted with me, one even, who had a very jealous boyfriend. We were fellow students in conversational French class. She wanted me to help her with her French pronunciation. While we were having our discussions in a class room, she had her friend act as a look out for her jealous boyfriend. But, I never became romantically involved. I was too serious of a student.

Most semesters, I took 21 semester hours, which was the maximum load that I was allowed to take. After a full four years of study and part time work, I applied for graduation. The dean reviewed my academic record, and he remarked, "You should have graduated last year. Why didn't you?" I explained to the dean that some advanced physics courses were offered only every other year, and if I had graduated when I was eligible, I would have missed taking them. What I had in the back of my mind was to go to the University of Texas at Austin as a graduate students. The advanced courses that I picked up the last two years of study were accepted by the university of Texas for graduate credit. That means that I was on a fast track for a master's degree in physics, which is the highest degree that I was aiming for. A mater's degree would allow me to move into the field of physics at the working level, where there were lots of job opportunities.

Around the time of graduation, some of my physics friends and I went hiking in the Organ Mountains, which overlook White Sands Missile Range and Proving Ground. Out of curiosity we decided to drop in on the personnel office to see what were the job opportunities at White Sands. There were five of us, all dressed in grubby clothes and hiking boots. The secretary looked at us with an icy stare and said that there was a job freeze at White Sands and that hey were not hiring. As we were about to leave the office, the personnel director passed by and asked what we wanted. Apparently, he saw us in a different way than the secretary. He immediately begin to call the various division chiefs. The first one he spoke to, asked about our grade point averages and majors. We were all better than B+ students. He was enough impressed that sight unseen he offered to hire all of us.

After four years of very focused study and work, I decided that I needed a break from academic studies. It seemed like a good idea to work at least a year at White Sands, then I could go on to graduate school. And so, I and a friend accepted the job offer, the rest of my friend had other things to do.

At the time, I took it for granted that I was able to save up the summer before the start of school to pay for most of my first year's expenses in college, and thereafter, be able to meet all expenses from part time work, while I took a full academic load. At that time it was possible in the U S, but I do not think that that is possible today. College is so expensive and part time work pays so little. Instead students take out loans and mortgage their future to pursue a course of study in which they might not find a job after graduation. Loaded with debt, they try to limp by as menials, draining a large portion of their income to service the student debt.

I think that I was smart enough as a kid were I facing the same situation as modern students, I would have refused to participate and opted to do something else. I think that I would have probably traveled to a foreign country (probably in Europe) to try my luck where there might be better opportunities for an ambitious lad.









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