Passion and Fear: The Unique Combination I Found at SSP

By: Sonal B

Allow me to take you back a few months in time: it’s December 2020, and you come across the SSP website. Winter Break has barely begun, and yet you’re already thinking about summer plans. 


Go back another year in time – to Winter 2019 – and I’m just a sophomore eagerly reading the “What is SSP?” page on the website. My excitement only grew as I continued to surf through the tabs until I came to the “Is SSP for you?” page and saw how the program focuses mainly on juniors. I felt overcome by disappointment because I still had to wait another year. I quietly closed the tab and continued to browse other summer options. The idea of asteroid orbit determination had not left my mind, nor would it for the entirety of sophomore and junior year. 


Fast forward to December 2020, and I eagerly await the opening of the 2021 application season. The excitement, however, is accompanied by a strange mixture of hesitancy and fear. “This program is very selective,” I thought to myself, “Would I be able to get in?” I had been waiting over an entire year to apply to SSP, yet a fear of rejection stood in my way. How could something I was so passionate about suddenly morph into a fear?


With this question racing in my mind, I challenged myself to at least try and submit an application. Often feeling so confident about myself and my work, I wondered where that confidence disappeared as I clicked the Submit button to the application. It was March 3, 2021, as I uploaded the last of my essays and clicked Submit. That’s it. “Forget it happened, Sonal,” I told myself, “We’ll think about this again in April.” 


Well, surprise! I got into SSP, and here I am writing a blog post for my peers, TAs, teachers, and other members of the SSP community to read. I remember lying in my dorm room bed one evening, just minutes before Study Hall began. It was Friday, April 16, 2021, at 7:43 PM (don’t be surprised how I still remember this) as I slowly got out of bed and reached for my computer to finish my English paper. Of course, as any student does, I casually open the Gmail tab to catch up to any emails. As I scroll through my inbox, a new email appears fresh up top from with the subject line: “Congratulations!” Cue the shock, tears of joy, and roommate dance party in celebration of that email. (Don’t worry, I still finished the English paper, too!)


Fast forward even more, and now I’m at home immersed in the virtual world of SSP. Each night, I complete one or two PSets, study some of the lecture material, and hope to sustain a decent amount of sleep in the process. Even as I write this blog post, I’m completing the Centroiding in Python PSet (and my code doesn’t run). But, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have it any other way (though I need to get my code to run). I love what we’re doing and how we’re all in this together. I love how well we’re getting to know each other, despite sitting in front of a screen – alone in our rooms. 


In the first week, as we encountered challenging material, I felt bits of fear in my learning process. I feel so fortunate to be studying and researching astrophysics, a subject that I’ve been passionate about since I first watched Interstellar in sixth grade. (Yes, Interstellar is a great movie – must watch!) As I first encountered concepts I’m so passionate about; there were lingering ounces of fear: a fear of not understanding, of confusion, of asking “bad” questions, and of course, a fear of judgment. These fears combined into my passions, producing hesitancy. Here, let me show the math:


Passions (P) = {Physics, Math, Astronomy, CS}

Fears (F) = {Not Understanding, Confusion, Asking “Bad” Questions, Judgement}


If we were to either list out the union or intersection of these two sets, we’d get a long list. But if I think about the two sets combined philosophically (which is not something I’m great at), I come across hesitancy to pursue my passions. 


Essentially, we just came full circle. The hesitancy that emerged in the application process now emerged as I began the first week of SSP. Again, how could something I was so passionate about suddenly morph into a fear? I don’t have an answer to that question yet, but I did come across a solution to my fear, and I think it’s working.


Foremost, everyone at SSP is so kind and collaborative. If I don’t understand something, I can talk to the TAs (shoutout to Mason, Kimberly, Alan, and ZP)! An extra shoutout to Alan for supporting me in the blog-writing process.

Everyone is so willing to work together and collectively arrive at an understanding of the concepts we learn. I can type a question on Discord and enter a voice channel with other participants. I can also enter the TA Office and ask Dr. H, Dr. F, and Ms. M about any of my questions and concerns. I feel so grateful to be surrounded by people who love astrophysics and love supporting one another. Perhaps my fears were grounded in the anxiety that I would be alone. But as I worked through each PSet, I became comfortable asking questions and reaching out when I was confused. This is something I’m still working on, but I’m glad to have started somewhere.


Each night, I make my way over to a breakout group, and we begin sharing our progress on the PSets due in a few hours. Last night, my group worked on the Centroiding in Python PSet. Hopefully, by the time this blog is published, my code is running. Attached is a picture of my breakout group from last night. I got to know some amazing people in the past week, and I’m happy to have made new friends.

My fear is slowly starting to fade away, which is a great feeling. It is so nice to pursue my passions without a constant fear of messing up. I want to feel comfortable making mistakes, asking questions, and being myself. In just the first week, I’m starting to grow as a person and a researcher. But, I do hope to get back to you in the last week of SSP – as Neil and I will conclude the blogs on July 24 – with a better answer on the origins of my fear. For now, I think I was just anxious about starting something new. But I realize that change is good, and it’s okay to feel challenged, confused, and sometimes overwhelmed. I’m so happy to be in a group of people willing to overcome obstacles and learn new things together. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to reflect on what causes the fear of pursuing new passions. But if I could give you any advice so far, it would be: “Just do it. Try something new. Put yourself out there, and see how things play out.” Cliché, sure, but if I needed a mantra in this year of applying and enrolling into SSP, it would be precisely this: just do it. As we continue through SSP and then later begin writing college applications, I want to put myself out there, feel confident, and be proud of who I am. Maybe my blog urges you to try the same. 


TLDR: Don’t let your fears become obstacles when pursuing your passions. It’s okay to feel afraid, overwhelmed, or confused. But remember to do what you love and surround yourself with people who are supportive and eager to learn: like studying astrophysics with the people I met at SSP! 


Thank you for reading!

About Me:

Hey everyone! My name is Sonal B, and I’m a rising senior at St. Andrew’s School of Delaware. I live in New Jersey, but I’m originally from New Delhi, India. I enjoy astronomy, physics, math, and computer science. I’m the Co-Head of my school’s Model UN team and the South Asian Affinity Group on campus. I lead the AV Club on campus, and I’m on the Musical Tech Crew. I enjoy stargazing, photography, dance, and music of many genres. Talk to me about your favorite artists and send me drama/movie recommendations!