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Robert Neubecker

Skydiving taught me I can land on my feet—in my life and career

I had never jumped out of a plane before. I was not a thrill seeker, and I disliked heights. But I had decided that I would learn to skydive. I volunteered to be the first in the group to jump. My instructor nodded reassuringly, and suddenly I was outside the plane, in shock, kicking and fumbling. But within seconds I found myself floating in midair, smiling so wide that by the time I landed, my face felt stuck in that position. I felt such elation I decided to jump again. Something inside me had shifted. Unexpected new possibilities seemed open to me. It’s a feeling I have come to embrace in all aspects of my life, including my career.

My parents and I immigrated to the United States from Cuba when I was barely old enough to start school. Like many Cuban immigrants, I was led to believe that the only acceptable career options were doctor or lawyer. I enjoy science, so I entered college with my sights set on medicine. In the course of exploring career options in the medical field and participating in a summer research internship, I discovered the Ph.D. track, and I seized on the idea of a career in biomedical research.  

A postbaccalaureate research program dampened my enthusiasm, however. I learned a lot in those 2 years, but I found the culture and expectations of biomedical research to be frustrating. Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t the right career direction for me after all. I gave up on Ph.D. programs or anything related to medicine. Part of me felt that I had made the right decision. The weight of expectation had been lifted off my shoulders and I felt free for the first time in my life. At the same time, I had never felt such shame and failure. I was half sure I was being naïve and ruining my life. I still loved science; would I be able to go back if I changed my mind down the road?

I was also scared—directionless and on my own in an unknown place. The postbaccalaureate program had taken me to Arizona, where the heat was stifling and the mountains were glorious—very different from my flat and swampy South Florida. I had two options: I could give in to the fear and go back to the safety of what I knew—Florida, science, academia—or I could explore the unknown.

I faced my fears. I stayed in Arizona and took a nonscience job outside my comfort zone. I began to explore the mountains around me—and I learned how afraid of heights I was. Going up was easy enough, but descending required mental gymnastics to convince myself that I wouldn’t fall to my death. But the fear was nothing compared with the joy of accomplishment. I took pleasure in pushing my boundaries. I began to rock climb, and I made my first skydive.

I knew how to pull my parachute cord and land safely.

This exploration helped prepare me for another leap: A year ago, I went back to science, starting a master’s program in environmental engineering. It’s not the type of graduate degree I envisioned pursuing 5 years ago. Instead, it is a culmination of many of my interests, including my consistent love of science as well as my newer passions for making the outdoors accessible to all and trying to address the disproportionate impacts of environmental problems on some communities, especially disadvantaged ones.

So far, my new path has felt like the first time I skydived: It has exceeded expectations and delivered new thrills and challenges. But the thing about fears is that they never go away. On my third skydive, I froze up on exit and cannonballed out of the plane. Hurtling through space, I thought I was going to careen straight into the propeller. All I could see was swirling blue sky. I closed my eyes, reminding myself that all that mattered was that I knew how to pull my parachute cord and land safely. The 60 seconds before my chute opened were the longest of my life, but I regained my confidence and trust in my abilities and made it down in one piece.

Some days I still feel lost. But when that happens, I listen to the voice inside me—the one that knows how to land safely on her feet. That allows me to appreciate the free fall, confident that I have the skills necessary to save myself.

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