Breaking Bonds with Organic Chemistry

After a semester of floundering, flopping, and failing, I finally withdrew from Organic Chemistry on Tuesday. It was a weight I desperately needed off my back.

My withdraw paperwork came after a Thanksgiving break filled with worry over its effect on my transcript, the registrar’s reaction, and uncertainty over grad school prospects. Sometime around Saturday night, all this culminated in the completely rational idea that withdrawing from OChem would inevitably and totally destroy any future I could ever dream of.

Yet when I turned in the paperwork on Tuesday – the registrar greeted me with a nonjudgmental smile – I didn’t feel overwhelmed with worry or fear of the future. In fact, I felt numb now that the semester-long stress of Organic Chemistry was gone.

“I’ll try again next year,” has been my motto in the process. My failed adventure in organic chemistry can be attributed to many factors: a lack of emotional and academic preparation, overcommitting to other classes and extracurriculars, and an incompatibility between my learning style and the professor’s teaching style. Giving it another go next year will give me another chance to remedy all those issues.

Don’t get me wrong. I like organic chemistry. It’s a tough class that chews students up and spits them out. It has been the bane of natural science majors since time immemorial, but I still like it despite the difficulty.

One of the things I loved about OChem, despite the stress, was its ability to connect theoretical chemical concepts with much more concrete and observable ones. My textbook, probably in anticipation that many organic chemistry students are pre-med, included sections on medicine and drug design – and I read these with gusto.

Lab section was my favorite: there is something immensely satisfying about conducting reactions yourself. In particular, Tuesday of last week, in the pre-Thanksgiving haze, the lab centered around using different basic tests to identify a mystery compound. Seeing my samples change color, form precipitates, go up in brilliant flames, or boil after sitting inert for several minutes was wonderful.

When I finally realized that even the best lab scores would not make up for my failing lecture grades, I felt both disappointed in and proud of myself. I wasn’t doing well in lecture at all, but I wasn’t bombing lab like I have in the past. My lab scores last year were mediocre at best, but this year they were above average. I was even improving.

I’ve tried to take a “try your best and hope for the best” attitude in college. I spent all of high school panicking about what might happen next and assuming the worst at any setback. Part of that was uncontrolled anxiety and depression, but once my brain monsters were controlled, I made a conscious choice to try and be more laid-back.

It hasn’t always worked. In the last three semesters, I’ve panicked more times than I can count, but at least I’m not at the “full-scale stress meltdown once a week” levels I was in high school.

My experiences in organic chemistry have cemented my beliefs in the “try your best and hope for the best” attitude. There will always be factors beyond my control in life. No matter what I do, I can’t fix every shortcoming I encounter. Sometimes, the solution is to work harder and overcome. Sometimes, the solution is to cut my losses and say “I’ll try again next time.”

I am, of course, lucky and privileged that there can be a next time. For lots of students, a “withdraw” on their transcript could mean a scholarship or other college necessities thrown into danger. That isn’t me, and I am aware of how lucky I am to be in the position I am.

Taking a withdraw is not always the best option, obviously, but it also shouldn’t be a non-option. I went into the withdrawing process thinking that everyone would be mad at me, that I was a total failure, that this would screw up my entire life. I was, essentially, caught up in the perfectionist rat race that, sadly is, college and academia.

But my professor, my advisor, and the workers in the registrar’s office weren’t judgmental. They weren’t upset with me. They didn’t see this as some huge failing on my part.

Their attitude towards my withdrawing seemed to be “well, sometimes it happens and it looks like the best option for you.”

And, an acquaintance currently in grad school explained to me: “There are entire online communities devoted to people complaining about organic chemistry. With a class like this, sometimes the smallest things make the difference between succeeding or not succeeding.”

I’ll pick myself up and try again next year when I’m more prepared and have a better chance at it.

Donnie TC Denome PZ '20 is a public health major from Sunnyvale, CA. They collect pinback buttons to wear on their lanyard.