STEM schools introduce students to college lifestyle at early age


Photo Courtesy of Jauerback

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy located in Aurora, IL.

By Laura Tanase, Staff writer

Many students first learn to survive on their own in college, but for STEM boarding high school alumni like Katrina Toman, junior in LAS, high school was an early wake-up call to build academic toughness and emotional resilience.

Toman attended the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, or IMSA, a magnet STEM high school in Aurora, Illinois, that hosts student boarders and attempts to mimic college life.

The rigorous academic and dorm life routines there specifically prepare attendees to succeed in STEM careers and renowned colleges.

“You cannot compare life there to anything else. I had to leave my family at a pretty young age to move to the school,” Toman said.

However, just because students attended a STEM school doesn’t mean their career paths will heavily feature the same material they focused on in high school.

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    For example, back at Toman and Michelle Zhu, freshman in Business. Instead of negating their experiences at IMSA, their decisions to study non-science subjects highlight the full extent of the critical thinking skills they gained attending a rigorous STEM program.

    “In STEM, you can find a right answer and drill yourself on a concept until you get it right, but with writing and humanities, it’s subjective,” Toman said.

    “You have to show you have the skills they’re looking for rather than just showing that you have the information they’re looking for.”

    Toman said while she’s not using all the subject knowledge in her major that she learned through STEM, she indirectly uses those abilities to succeed in her life as an English major.

    Zhu agreed that the rigorous STEM program taught her more than just academics. She regularly draws from the life lessons she learned there to tackle responsibilities in college and to deal with difficulties when they come up.

    “Life at a STEM school was hard because the path to success was always very crooked,” Zhu said. “Even now, I’m still on that path in college as a business major. I’ve always had to pass many failures to reach success, but I know my future will be better.”

    Will Bauer, sophomore in Engineering, chose to pursue the traditional STEM route as a career and loved the interactions he had with other students at his STEM school.

    “When I first left public school to join IMSA, I noticed the students were different because they were more STEM-focused like I was, and they liked the sorts of things I liked and shared hobbies similar to mine,” Bauer said.

    Bauer said he remembers quickly becoming close friends  with many students at IMSA. He felt a connection with many of them.

    “Although I realized we STEM students felt different from one another at the time because we had no one else to compare ourselves except to each other. We all still shared the same struggles,” Bauer said.

    Michelle-Ann Meas,  junior in LAS, said IMSA was the first place she actually had to study in her life. Even though it felt like everyone in the same classes were floundering, students found camaraderie because they all were in the same boat.

    “When you live at school, you have to learn to confront and live with your stressors. Some people don’t take them in healthy ways because some people learn to cope and others don’t.”

    “When you live at school, you have to learn to confront and live with your stressors. Some people don’t take them in healthy ways because some people learn to cope and others don’t,” Meas said.

    Meas said there was a lot of pressure on STEM students to succeed. She recalled some students having “mental problems because they knew they could never be the best students when others were doing better than them.”

    She said it was difficult to come to the University from a  STEM school.

    “We were used to being the big fish in small ponds at our old high schools, and the difference between those schools and a STEM school was like night and day,” Meas said.

    She also said many students don’t understand the differences within the American high school     system.

    Toman agreed; she said sometimes she wished she had a “normal” high school experience, which she said included going to football games.

    “Sometimes, I wish that when I’d go home for breaks, I could have known the people in my town, but I didn’t know any classmates there because IMSA students came from all over,” Toman said.

    Toman said at this point, she has accepted that her high school experience is just part of her history now, and she’s happy where she is right now.

    Toman also emphasized that if you’re not happy while you’re doing it, then it’s not worth it.

    “You have to ask yourself if you’re happy or not in the process. If you’re not happy, then why are you doing it? You can’t sacrifice happiness for a shiny medal. You have only one life, and you have to make it count,” Toman said.

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