21st Grade

Life lessons from 1st to 21st grade as told by Jeffrey West, USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidate

There’s never been a doctoral candidate in my family, so it was a mystery to them how I even came up with the idea of pursuing a doctorate. They assumed I just really liked my college professors (which is true!), and that I wanted to be like them (also true, ha). Here’s how I made it all the way to 21st grade.


1. I don’t remember much about first grade, but I do remember getting in trouble for emptying my pencil box in the middle of class so that I could trade with Chris H. I knew that proper equipment was important from the start, even if you have to trade up.


2. When is a disability a good thing? When your disability leads to your classroom getting a microphone! Because of my hearing impairment (I’ve worn hearing aids since first grade), I had an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Our teacher let us use the microphone when answering questions — everyone’s favorite classroom.

3. Growing up, I remember my parents telling me that I’d be a good engineer one day because of all my time playing with Legos. I don’t remember when I stopped playing with Legos, but it wasn’t the third grade — probably more like the 15th.

4. This was the year that I got glasses (huge, thick rims, of course). If only I still had them, I would pass for a hipster today. Maybe that’s why I ended up in LA.

5. In fifth grade, I figured that I would become an astronaut or an inventor. Those summer reading requirements led me to read everything I could about Thomas Edison, and I wanted to be exactly like him. Too bad most of my inventions involved shoveling more cereal into my mouth.

6. This is the grade when recess disappeared. That’s all I have to say about that. I’m not bitter or anything.

7. School dances to the tune of “My Heart Will Go On.” Losing my locker combination. A girlfriend who broke up with me after seven months because she “wasn’t ready for a boyfriend yet.” How do any of us survive?

8. I was looking forward to going to the big school, running on the cross-country team and joining the marching band. It was time for the big leagues! And I saved my allowance for a year to buy an iPod 4th generation. Think Different!


9. I remember taking honors math courses — flash toward my becoming an engineer/scientist — as well as courses in a wide variety of topics, just to follow my general curiosity. I applied to study at a three-week trial semester at a Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio. I have always been interested in the seemingly opposite pursuits of science and faith.

10. After a year of my sister driving me to school everyday, she left for college. As I think back on it, my life was pretty easy because my sister always went first. She survived high school first. She went to college first. I saw her example and benefited greatly for it. But I was not ready for the impact of being an “only child”: I became the sole focus of my parents after many years of getting away with so much by blaming my sister!

11. I was heavily invested in cross country, which became a metaphor for my life: finishing the race with endurance. I recently caught up with some of the guys on that team and it turns out that five of them went on to do a Ph.D. Maybe long-distance running was the proper training for us.

12. Senior. King of the World. Unstoppable. I can’t begin to describe the humbling feeling of moving from being a small town hero (in my own eyes at least) to a no-name college freshman. It’s one thing to be a leader in high school academics, cross country or marching band, but it was humbling to meet so many smart people from around the country just a short year later.


13. My parents did not know if I would survive a week after they dropped me off at Ohio Northern University. Thank goodness for the school cafeteria, because the only two meals I could cook were canned chicken on burnt toast and pancakes.

14. What I remember most is staying up late with my buddies, talking about our dreams for the future. We wanted to start our own company. We wanted to move to California. Those conversations led to great things: one of my friends moved to Arizona with a startup company, another friend transferred to a bigger school, and I moved to Los Angeles for the summer.

15. I knew by the time I was a junior that I wanted to do a Ph.D. I was actually enjoying doing my engineering homework and often turned down a hangout with friends to finish it. Nerd alert!

16. Even though I knew I wanted to do a Ph.D., I had no idea what kind of project I would work on. College provided opportunities in robotics, computer programming and UAVs, plus projects in the fields of agricultural, manufacturing and automotive engineering. Now I study cancer. Life is weird.


17. I jumped on a plane armed with a checked bag and a carry-on. Four cardboard boxes arrived later via Greyhound bus. When I got to LA, I just felt … alone. Not a single friend in the city — but that was soon to change! LA is truly an international city, and I spent most of my first year getting familiarized with all the amazing ethnic foods around.

18. One of my toughest years was spent in debt while watching my college buddies with jobs buy houses and cars with their engineering job salaries. I seriously considered quitting. Sure, a Ph.D. requires some sacrifice, but I’ve always seen it as a calling.

19. Just as I was starting to get used to USC, my friends in the master’s degree program graduated and only the few Ph.D. students in my circle were left. This was the second time in my life when I felt that pressure to get a job and make money because so many of my friends took a different path. A Ph.D.: some determination required.

20. This is when the Ph.D. starts to become fun. I have spent about four years on a single project and read much of the academic literature. It’s fun to travel to conferences, meet the experts in the field and present the research that I’ve added to the body of scientific knowledge. Through USC, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to places like San Diego; Washington, D.C.; London; and Tampa, Florida. This is what I’ve been looking forward to for so many years! Pick a goal and don’t stop until you get there!

21. This is the here and now. I must get asked about my graduation date dozens of times every month. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really look forward to it. The Ph.D. is one of the greatest decisions of my life. I enjoy the intellectual freedom to pursue knowledge. When I started my doctorate, I began by picking up a book on the history of cancer. Where else do you have the opportunity to read about the beginnings of your discipline, even a thousand years ago? This kind of steady, deep investment is a joy and a privilege. And so tomorrow I will grab my backpack, load my books and walk to school with a smile on my face with one goal: trying to finish the 21st grade. No regrets.