My First Week at SSP – Trials, Tribulations, and Cow Drawings

By: Hillary A

Wow. It’s been one entire insane week since SSP began. It feels like it’s been much longer, and much shorter at the same time. This week has been utterly saturated with new challenges and new experiences, and because I have spent every waking moment focused on a pset, a lecture, or group assignment, I haven’t gotten a chance to really reflect on everything that has happened thus far. This is my attempt to do that.

In past blog posts, I’ve read people talking about how they ended up at SSP, so I’ll start there. 

On January 13, 2021(I just went back and checked), I created a document on google drive called “Summer Science Programs/Applications,” with the goal of finding and applying to a multitude of intensive science programs where I would spend my summer. When I created that document, I had no idea what would come of it, and if I had been asked, I would never have imagined that it would lead me to where I am right now, on June 28th, writing this blog post. The document ended up being three pages long, with a variety of detailed descriptions of multiple summer science related programs, complete with a calendar of dates in which I specified when I would work on each section of each application. The only application I ever finished was the one for SSP.

In researching different summer STEM programs, I was at least mildly interested in every one of them, but the only one I completely fell in love with was SSP. I scoured the website, joined the discord, followed SSP on instagram, even attending applicant information sessions. I was obviously interested the advanced and fast paced learning, but what especially stood out to me was the emphasis that was put on caring about each individual participant. Every piece of information I learned about SSP mentioned the collaborative and uplifting environment; the intent was for every participant to succeed. Even down to the application, SSP was the only program that had so many questions that centered around getting to know the applicant as a person, not just a list of stats and achievements. I felt from the moment I started researching the program that SSP could be a place where I could really thrive, not only as a future scientist, but also as an individual and a friend.

Despite being so fond of the program, I was absolutely convinced I would never be accepted. Actually, to this day, the fourth line of my “Summer Science Programs/Applications” document reads, and I quote, “I’m definitely not gonna get into ANY of these but whateverrrr gonna apply anyway.” I spent every day since I submitted my application trying to lower my expectations and convince myself that the hope and excitement I felt about the prospect of being accepted was nothing more than a fantasy. I did not have any incredibly impressive stats or achievements to brag about. When I saw the “Congratulations!” subject line pop up in my email, I was ecstatic, and certain that I would have to hide the fact that I would be a million times dumber than everyone else at the program. 

Okay, enough about how I got here, let’s talk actually participating in SSP.  I entered SSP with a certain set of expectations, and most of them came true. I expected the subject matter to be difficult, even completely incomprehensible at times. That one came true. I expected it to be fast paced and time consuming. That also came true. I expected the other participants to be nice people, which came true, but to a much greater extent than I imagined, which I will get into later on. I also expected all of the challenges I would face at SSP to be entirely STEM related. This one didn’t fully come true. Oddly, from the moment I learned about it, writing this blog was one of the things I was most nervous about this week. I knew my scientific ability and understanding would be put to the test at SSP, but I did not expect to be faced with creative challenges as well. I was so worried that my blog wouldn’t be witty, funny, or profound enough, and that my writing would be sub par compared to all of the other amazing and talented people at this program. My mom suggested that I make a log of my time at SSP, and at the end of every day write down a summary of my day and my thoughts and feelings coming out of it. I ended up taking her advice, and I’m so glad I did- I know after SSP is over it will be so fun to go back and read through everything I have written. I am going to be using what is in that log so far to take you through my week.


I am going to be honest. My first day at SSP was not the greatest. I had been to my first set of lecture blocks, and was incredibly lost. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote that day: “angry that I don’t understand the p sets and angry that I’m not enjoying myself, afraid to admit to myself that maybe I don’t like science, or maybe it’s not my thing. Very tired at 1am. Annoyed and frustrated. Overall a negative experience so far.” I was confused about the content, and felt there was no conceivable future in which I would ever understand, or be able to complete any psets. As you can see, I was so distraught I went so far as to question my future in science. On the first day of what was supposed to be this amazing, enriching experience, I was beginning to feel hopeless.


Okay, I don’t think I need to introduce this one, I’m just going to paste exactly what I wrote. “Miserable. Cried a 1am. VERY LONELY. Nervous about About Me Presentation and about blog. I can’t interact with anyone because I’m so behind on problem sets and that’s the only thing they talk about. I am lonely and so I annoy mom.” Tuesday, safe to say, was even worse. I was just as confused and hopeless, but another feeling had begun to sink in as well: loneliness. Everyone around me was so smart, and I had absolutely no idea how to do the first pset. Coming into SSP, I had little experience with physics, and barely even knew what python was. When my mom went to the parent zoom on Sunday, she told me that one of the goals of SSP was to challenge the participants into getting used to asking for help. I am someone who is not particularly lacking in that area. When my mom told me that, I thought, that doesn’t apply to me, I already know how to ask for help. But when your teammate explained the problem to you an hour ago and you’ve spent the past hour staring blankly at it while your teammates are already moving on to the next pset, having the courage to ask for help takes on a new meaning. I was afraid I would never catch up, and I felt completely alone.


Okay, I know the past two days seemed a little depressing. Sorry about that. It gets better from here on out. While I thought I was hiding how I was feeling pretty well, I clearly couldn’t have been doing too great of a job, because one of my teammates texted me personally that morning. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote in my log: “So Sarah texted me this morning with this really sweet message saying I could vent to her. And I did and it felt really good. Really changed my whole SSP experience. In the breakout room with Fly Me To The Spoon, I confessed I had spent half the time trying to open python and they helped me. Very nice. Sarah was so sweet… Hung out in breakout room with big group(zoom background shenanigans)…Then went to Morgan, Pablo, and Caroline desperately asking for help. They helped me and were soooo cool and nice!” By Wednesday, I was desperate to tell someone else how I was feeling. It just so happened that my incredible teammate(shout out to Sarah) reached out to me that morning and gave me that very opportunity. I ended up texting her a long message about how I was lonely, behind on psets, felt like I didn’t belong at SSP, the whole shabang. As soon as I sent that message, it felt like an incredible weight had been lifted off of me. My teammate assured me that I could always ask them for help, and just like that, I didn’t feel alone anymore. Later that day, after thirty minutes of not being able to figure out how to open python, I, being quite embarrassed, asked my teammates for help, and they were gracious in helping me. I had feared I would be judged, but that fear was not substantiated. That same day, I had another moment when I was completely lost, and was able to muster the courage yet again to ask others for help. By the end of the day, I felt so much more connected to my fellow SSPers than I had before.


From Wednesday on, everyday at SSP was better than the last. I wrote a LOT on Thursday, so I’ll try to cut it down. “I’m HAPPY. It’s 3am, two psets were due today. I tried to wake up early to do one of them. I didn’t end up getting up early, but from 10 to noon I worked on the python pset. It was actually kind of fun. I’m really proud of getting question 2(a, b, and c) all by myself. I worked on the python pset during every break I got. I LOVE Pablo, Morgan, and Caroline! I can actually get enough sleep tonight! I feel so good after submitting the psets and the one due tomorrow shouldn’t be nearly as difficult, especially if I can get someone to explain vectors and matrices to me. Thank you Caroline, Pablo, and Morgan for being cool and letting me hang out with you! Goodnight!” By Thursday, I had become much more accustomed to asking for help and was blown away with people’s patience in being asked. Like I said, I had expected people at SSP to be nice, but I had not expected them to be THIS nice. Everyone was so incredibly kind, caring, and intelligent. When I didn’t understand something, someone would explain it to me until I understood it. I felt like everyone around me cared as much about my success as I did. By Thursday, I felt… well, whatever the opposite of alone is. 


Friday was… just as fun as Thursday. (I know, it’s getting repetitive at this point.) Here’s an excerpt from my log. “OKAY ITS 4AM GOTTA MAKE THIS QUICK. Just got out of asteroid imaging. About 20 people, that was cool. Before that I called with Caroline, Pablo, Morgan, and Sarah. SSP is cool. WISH IT WAS IN PERSON UGH. Tomorrow is a play zoom. Oh yeah I did my About Me presentation today; I was shaking during it. Sarah, Caroline, and Amanda cheered me on which was nice. I should talk to Amanda again. Staying up very late for asteroid imaging was fun.” On Friday, I stayed up late to watch live asteroid imaging. Even though by the time I went to bed it was starting to get light outside my window, the experience was really cool. By Friday, I had learned to enjoy every aspect of SSP- even the moments where I was confused. 

Today is Sunday. I have gone on for WAY TOO LONG, and I actually forgot to write an entry on Saturday so I’m going to wrap it up here. This week has been a whirlwind of emotions and new experiences, and I wouldn’t change any of it. Even though my first two days were kind of terrible, I was able to grow and learn from them, and I’m proud of that. My main takeaway from this week is honestly how amazing, kind, talented, and caring everyone is here. I really do wish we could have had SSP in person, but nonetheless, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn really cool stuff alongside some really cool people, and I know that SSP will stay with me long after July 24th. And gosh, I’ve said all this and I’m only a week in! This blog is due in ten minutes, so I’m going to end it here. I’m so excited to see what new challenges the next four weeks bring, and to keep up with the new friends I’ll have long after it’s over. Shout out to Sarah and Andrew; even though we didn’t win the scavenger hunt, Fly Me To The Spoon is and will always be the best observing team(and anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves).

P.S. If anyone is interested, here is an amazing cow I drew for a QOD(although I never submitted it):

About Me

Hi, I’m Hillary! I love singing, dancing, science, traveling, people, and learning in general. I am an only child, an Aries, and an ESFP(if that means anything to anyone). I live in Princeton, New Jersey with my mother and grandmother. I’m interested in sports(playing not watching), sociology, social justice, and music, and I love any type of adventure. I think astronomy, astrophysics, and theoretical physics are really cool. I’m so excited and grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of SSP!