My high school physics teacher, Mr. Fetsko (who remains a close friend and one of my biggest supporters to this day), was my introduction to the world of physics. When I was a junior in high school, AP Physics I was a confusing mess of unfamiliar characters and concepts. There were definitely times when I felt like I was learning a new language, and I spent lots of time trying to sort through all the new vocabulary and equations I had to memorize. On top of this, I was expected to problem-solve? Both learning new ways of thinking and applying the problem-solving skills needed for physics took a lot of focus.
I remember sitting in my seat, two rows back from the whiteboard, trying to keep up as Mr. Fetsko explained that the velocity of a falling object is independent of its mass. Frantically trying to pull from the concepts we’d recently learned, I was struggling to keep up with the explanation that was quickly filling our whiteboard. Energy, conserved; where does kinetic energy come in?; oh, I see… wait, no I don’t; potential energy?? I thought this was kinematics… I can still feel the little bubbles of stress starting to boil under my skin as I realized there was still “m” for mass in the equation and I had no idea where he was going with this. I looked around at my classmates—did no one else feel as confused as I did? Glancing back at the board, I noticed I’d missed several lines and scribbled down what little I could process to catch up.
Fetsko stepped away from the board and circled a final equation:
v = √2gh
Now that I could see the entirety of the whiteboard, I saw the whole picture: much of what had distracted and confused me was simply his explanation, and it turned out that the final product was one beautifully simple equation. It all made sense in an instant and it felt so good.
That’s my favorite moment—the moment when you get it. It’s the satisfaction of that seemingly quenchless want in your chest, when you’re wholly fixated and you just need to know how that works, or why that happens, or where that comes from, and then it clicks. It’s there; you know.
It’s not even quite a click; it feels like you’ve been unconsciously clenching some sort of brain-muscle and then the tangled thinking-knot unravels all at once and your whole body goes ahhhh.
Ahhh, I see now. I understand.
This feeling makes me laugh out loud every time, and that’s what I did in class that day. I finally understood why we’d been learning everything we were taught in the past few days and it all came together in one tiny equation with only a couple of steps, repeatable even for me. All the context that went into it was worth it and so, so beautiful. This is why I love physics—you learn the language, the process, the thousands of pieces; you struggle with the equations and the ridiculous nomenclature—and then it all fits together in a way that illuminates so much more than what you start with. It turns on all the lights and you can see everything you’ve just waded through, and you realize you can see even further ahead than you thought you would.
I laughed out loud in class, and then remembered I was sitting amongst my classmates so I timidly cleared my throat and ducked my head back toward my notes. Time to move on to the next topic, memorize some more equations.
I’ve had similar experiences since coming to college, but I will always remember the first time it happened. We went through a derivation in my General Physics class, and I felt that all-familiar relief when my professor unveiled that a complicated-seeming concept could be drastically simplified. I felt the beginnings of a giggle in my throat but I caught it before it escaped my lips, not wanting to disrupt the class or draw attention to myself. Someone snickered behind me. Sofia next to me smiled to herself, Jack two rows down laughed silently and shook his head. I laughed, too. We all felt it.
This is what we mean when we say we’re at William & Mary for the community. We’re not trying to convince you that everyone here is best friends, or that every single student is the nicest person you’ll ever meet (though we do have high-quality students, for sure). It’s more than just the acknowledgement that we all share similar experiences and living situations and classes. We really do fit together. This looks a little bit different for everyone—you may not have a particular moment in a major-related class where you realize for the first time that everyone loves the subject as much as you do, but you will find your fit here. I know so many people here with similar stories to mine. William & Mary isn’t home because I live here; it’s home because I fit William & Mary as much as it fits me.