Falling in love with Physics
“Mount Holyoke changed me. It taught me how to think tangibly with critical-thinking skills. It taught me to challenge my own assumptions every single day.”
It’s probably easier to list the things Casey Roepke hasn’t been involved in during her four years at Mount Holyoke.
Captain of the varsity rowing team — and a member since her first semester, having never rowed before. News editor for the Mount Holyoke News. DJ for WMHC radio. Class senator for the 2021 class board for four years. SAW (Speaking, Arguing and Writing Program) mentor and liaison (see below). Member of the Unitarian Universalist group on campus — and on its board for two years.
A physics and politics major, Roepke researches granular flow in the lab of Kerstin Nordstrom, associate professor of physics. She’s writing a senior thesis in politics. She’s studying journalism in the Nexus: Curriculum to Career concentration. She’s gone on Careers in Public Service trips with the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Career Development Center. She’s worked and interned for Mount Holyoke alums.
Roepke’s wide investigation was intentional, she says.
“Coming to a liberal arts institution, I knew that I wanted to really explore my academic path before committing to a major — or in my case, two majors,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what would capture my attention, so I spent some time taking classes in areas I never thought I would explore, like film and Latin. Eventually, I just completely fell in love with the physics department. The professors are so incredibly supportive.”
Not that physics was an easy subject for her. Roepke points to Associate Professor Alexi Arango’s electromagnetism course as a turning point.
“I wasn’t sure if I was capable of being a student of physics,” she says. She was suffering from what she called imposter syndrome, a residual from high school. One day she went to Arango’s office hours to talk over a concept that had come up in class that day.
“I didn’t even really know what it was that I didn’t understand,” she says. “I felt a little bit defeated. He actually made me pause and take a breath. Then he said that learning physics is different from learning other concepts because you have to go through this process of not understanding at all what you’re talking about. It’s only after letting your brain really sink into this place of confusion that the ideas start to clump together and you start to understand the material.”
The explanation landed. She was in the right place.
“It was just such a helpful response to hear from a professor, to hear that I was not the only one who was struggling in this way and that it was actually part of the process of learning science,” Roepke says. “It completely changed my worldview. And his encouragement gave me the confidence to declare my major in physics.”
At the same time, she was deeply drawn to her politics classes. She decided to double major. And as she began to see connections between the two fields, she decided to explore her pre-professional interests more deeply. So she added a Nexus concentration in journalism, media and public discourse.
Nexus was one of the reasons she applied to Mount Holyoke, Roepke says. “While I love the idea of liberal arts education, I am also very interested in what happens after college and how I can launch my Mount Holyoke education into a career. Because of Nexus, I was able to pursue my interests in a pre-professional track.”
The support of the Mount Holyoke community in all these areas helped her see herself in a new light, Roepke says.
“Mount Holyoke changed me,” she says simply. “It taught me how to think tangibly with critical-thinking skills. It taught me to challenge my own assumptions every single day, whether it was in the classroom, in one of my cocurriculars — or even sitting at a table during lunch. I was forced to challenge what I thought I knew and to think critically about what was around me. It brought me into a more confident version of myself.”
In the future, Roepke plans to work at the intersection of science policy. “Mount Holyoke has prepared me for a wide variety of future options,” she says. “It gave me these incredible opportunities to question myself and to question the world around me. That questioning has motivated me to try to make an impact on my communities, to try and change the world for the better.”
Just as she was drawn to the Nexus concentration, Roepke was also inspired by Mount Holyoke’s SAW (Speaking, Arguing and Writing) Center. Students who work in the center are called SAW mentors. They are a select, well-trained group who work with their fellow students to improve their writing and public speaking.
“Our mentor offered me support, not just with my writing, but with the transition to college,” Roepke says. “I didn’t know how to register for classes, or how to think about what res hall I wanted to live in next year. She held my hand through that whole process and ended up becoming one of my best friends.”
Then her SAW mentor paid her the ultimate compliment: She nominated Roepke to be a mentor too.
“To be a part of the SAW program has been an incredible and fulfilling experience for the last three and a half years,” Roepke says, noting that SAW mentors help with all kinds of assignments, from essays to presentations, lab reports, applications, cover letters and more.
This year, she was chosen to be a liaison for the program. “I am not only working alongside my fellow mentors, I am supporting them and putting real work and energy into training and workshops so that they can in turn support and care for our community, the student body,” she says.