Do I Really Have To Do This Every Semester?

Let’s face it. Many of us won’t get the “dream” class schedule. You know… the one with early classes (nothing before 11 a.m.), that all end early (nothing past 3 p.m.), and here’s the kicker: no class on Fridays. I’ve only heard rumors of those types of schedules, but that does not mean you cannot make the most out of every semester at your university.

If you’re anything like me, picking courses each semester is much like deleting old e-mails: you have to do it eventually, but letting the task marinate seems like a better idea most days.
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Majorly Conflicted: How I Chose To Be A Triple Major

jessica_jordan_majorI didn’t know what I wanted to major in when I started college, but I had a lot of wild ideas. I knew I wanted to make time for all the subjects I was interested in that I hadn’t had the opportunity to take in high school. I’d finished all my high school’s Latin courses by the second semester of my sophomore year, and was eager to resume my studies, so that was one of the first courses I selected for my first semester at college. Similarly, I had been unable to participate in any kind of theater since middle school, and eagerly signed up for pretty much the only theater class freshman can get into – the one where we have to do the department’s grunt work. I rounded out my choices with a course on Roman Law and an Introduction to Archaeology course that focused on South Africa. Since Wesleyan has no required classes, I was free to choose classes that I was genuinely interested in, and I pretty much figured that I would just major in all the departments that I was currently taking classes in – Theater, Classical Civilization, and Archaeology.

I blame this over-enthusiasm on the fact that at my high school there had been very little room for electives. For five years – since the eighth grade when we began taking some courses that counted towards our high school GPA – I had been solely focused on excelling in every course that I was required to take, no matter what the subject. I knew that making good grades was my ticket to a good college, but, believe it or not, I never put much thought into what I would do once I got there – there wasn’t time for that. I was pretty unprepared to start picking and choosing the courses that would (at least in my freshman mind) begin to determine my entire future.

And silly though it may seem that in my first weeks of college I decided to be a triple major…I did indeed end up graduating with three majors, though that doesn’t mean my plans didn’t change a lot during the next four years. By the beginning of sophomore year, I had decided to drop the Archaeology major, my research leading me to believe that it was rather unusual for a school to offer undergraduate degrees in archaeology at all – it was more typical to major in Classics or History, then later complete a graduate degree in archaeology. So I was feeling pretty good about my life choices when, on the very last day of a writing class I took on a whim (and I mean a whim…I don’t even remember making the decision to enroll), my professor told me that I should be an English major.

It was as if someone had shaken me awake. OF COURSE I should be an English major. I was good at writing, I loved books and close reading – but I had never even considered it before that moment. Unlike the subjects I eagerly signed up for at the beginning of my freshman year, English wasn’t something that I felt like I was missing out on after high school – I’d had enough of essays and dead poets! I thought that everyone expected me to be an English major since I was such an avid reader, and so it was the one thing I steered clear of at college for a really long time. But that wasn’t a good reason not to give something I was so obviously interested in a chance, and I’m very grateful now that fortune gave me a push in the direction that I needed (especially since I’ve just finished applying to a number of English Ph.D. programs!).

Being the stubborn person that I am, I refused to drop either of the majors to which I had already poured so much work, but instead simply added on English as, yes, a third major. In no way, shape, or form was completing three majors simple, especially since I was a bit late in starting the English requirements, but it ended up being the right choice for me. Each of my majors was vital in shaping my college experiences and relationships, from my freshman year Latin professor becoming my advisor and helping me gain admittance to my study abroad program on a full scholarship to my work in the costume shop which became such a big part of my college life – though it’s certainly not something I would recommend for everyone.

If I had any advice to give on choosing a major, it would be to learn from my greatest strength and my greatest weakness in choosing a major: Don’t be afraid to try the things you’ve always wanted to – and don’t worry if they don’t turn out exactly as you’d expect. At the same time, don’t disregard an area of interest just because it’s something you were good at in high school. If you want to leave old passions behind and create a new identity for yourself, that’s fine – but make sure you’re leaving them behind because you are no longer interested in them, and not just because they’re old. You’ll probably change your mind a few times – almost everyone does – but I bet you’ll probably end up right where you’re supposed to.

Jessica Jordan, Quest Scholar Alum, Wesleyan ’13

Errrrr…Give me a second please!

“May I take your order?” “Errrrr…Give me a second please!”

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(courtesy to NBC TV series Hannibal, season 1 and 2)

Now picture yourself dining in a restaurant that serves unfamiliar cuisine. You can read the menu (with full descriptions). There are also other customers around you, some are frequent visitors. You are also allowed to visit the kitchen to see the masters behind the delicious food. Which dishes would you choose for dinner? You noticed this restaurant has a special feature: you are allowed to sample a great many dishes before the server takes your order. The best way is probably to take a sampler platter, and taste all the interesting things on the menu. Be aware, too much sampling can lead to a full stomach, which leaves no room for the main courses.

Choosing a major is just like taking a savory journey in this lovely restaurant (but with a lot more time to sample the food. In my case, I had a year and a half. First, you can think about the subjects that interest you, and take a look at the course catalog (the menu). If you are not so sure, no worries, freshman year is here to the rescue! There are usually wide ranges of interesting classes to choose from for freshman.

Be brave, and take a few classes that look intriguing or you never heard of (you are usually allowed to drop a class at the beginning of the semester without penalty).

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(Wesmap)

The above figure is a real life “menu” offered by Wesleyan University. It shows all the possible majors you can choose from. There are three major categories, excluding certificates and interdisciplinary programs. Under each category, there are roughly more than ten majors (well, Arts and Humanities alone has more than twenty). Under each major, there are numerous classes, and their numbers are changing constantly from semester to semester.

Excited, but befuddled? Me too.

Therefore, one of my most grateful college experiences was that I didn’t start college with an assigned major. I didn’t know what to major in anyway (look at all the options listed on the menu!). My school (Wesleyan University) gave me a year and half to explore my options, and declare a major (or majors) at the spring semester of my sophomore year. If I was not ready, I could have more time. And of course, dropping a major is allowed. All I am trying to say is, colleges usually have a flexible system, give students enough freedom to explore their interests, and (hopefully) maximize the chance to find the most suitable major(s).

Now here comes the big question: how do you choose a major (or majors) in college? I would like to share some of my experiences and hopefully can make your life a little easier when the time comes.

Upon graduation, I gained a double-major degree in Chemistry, Molecular Biology & Biochemistry (MB&B) with a Biophysics certificate, and a minor in German Studies. During the college years, I thought about declaring majors in Art Studio, History, Film, etc. Trust me; this only looks like a lot, because it only involved a lot of thinking and planning (not too much action). I was allowed and greatly encouraged to take a broad range of classes in my freshman year, and I had an advisor who truly cared about me. My first year schedule was roughly as follow: Personal Identity and Choice (Philosophy), Drawing (Studio Art), Intro to Biology, Intro to Chemistry (Science), Chamber Music (Music), and English Essay (English). I was going to take more classes (I wanted more than 4 classes per semester), but my advisor, Professor Randall, stopped me at all cost. I thank her eternally. Taking 4 full-credit classes each semester is just the right amount of work I can handle properly. There are always more things to learn than just classes, especially as a freshman.

Taking a class or two is just like sampling the major these classes belong to. After my first year, I learned that my interest lies heavily in my science classes and art classes. The problem was that both subjects demanded long hours spent in lab, library or studio. After a semester of trying to take gateway classes for both majors, talking to professors and academic advisors (masters in the kitchen), and upper classmen (frequent customers) who double-majored in both, I figured it was too hard for me to keep up. I went back to my advisor, and she said, “You can always take relevant classes if you are interested.” Giving up on a major doesn’t mean giving up on my interest.

When the time comes, I didn’t declare Art Studio major, but Chemistry and MB&B double-major (these two majors are closely related to each other). I felt like this was a better choice for me, for I could only take the art classes that interested me the most, without the frustration of fulfilling graduation requirements for the major. After the initial struggles, I learned my way around the system, as well as my limits. Throughout the years, I was always able to take classes I love outside my own majors. I let my interest guide me through the course map, and in my senior year, I surprisingly figured out the amount of German Studies classes I took gained me a minor in German Studies. Back in my freshman year, I never even thought about doing anything related to language.

This is how I found my majors. Hope my experience will give you some hints.

Bon Appetit!

Shu Zhang, Quest Scholar Alum, Wesleyan ’13

The Major Limbo

 

It is very hard for many people to choose their college major. Statistics show that 50%-70% of students change their majors at least once and most will change majors at least three times before they graduate. Numerous schools make it so that you must have a major in mind before you attend, or some even make it so you have to apply to the “school” that has your major in it. For me, it was very important to go to a school that had a broad yet focused education so that I was not just focusing on one thing, because I’d like to say that I think it would be pretty boring to take classes in only one field for four years or even more.

Liberal arts schools like Pomona make it so that you gain critical thinking skills that you can use across all fields. Even though I am a media studies major I have taken a math class, a psychology class, and other classes that I am able to connect to concepts I learn in my media studies classes. Next semester I have decided I am going to take a computer science class just to get some extra skills that I may be able to use for the future, and its okay because my school wants us to delve into different disciplines, they encourage it. I believe this to be the only way to truly find out what you want to do because taking different classes helps you see what you definitely don’t want to do and maybe help you find something you have an interest in although you never knew you had an interest in it.

Ever since I was little I knew I wanted to be a journalist and when I was looking to apply to schools, that was definitely a huge factor for me. Journalism/Media was my intended major and I have stuck with it just because I have a passion for the media and everything it has to offer. I was set on going to a really great journalism school like USC or Northwestern, but then I discovered Pomona. Not the best school for journalism, but very academically challenging and community centered–I fell in love. Sometimes I do have little tinges of regret about my decision of going to Pomona because of many of my friends in other journalism programs like USC and Mizzou, who have a big network behind them since they go to big universities. When I do have those tinges of doubt I quickly realize again and again that college is not just about what your major is. Yes it matters, but you are going to get a good education at any elite school you choose. At Pomona I am gaining knowledge from across disciplines and am having the true undergraduate experience.

So I say, yes, majors matter, but I wouldn’t get too caught up with it especially because as we grow, our interests tend to expand as well. I know that Pomona may have not been the best choice to go and study “journalism” per say, but I know the well-rounded person it is making me become will be much more useful in the future anyways. If you are still an underclassmen or even are just now applying to colleges, I advise that when you are in college you take classes that you would have never thought about taking because, in the long run, it will make a difference and you will be happy you did. We cannot limit our minds from gaining knowledge in only what we are interested in because that would be way too easy.

Ashley Land, Quest Scholar, Pomona ’16

A Meandering Path

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It may not look too terribly glamorous, but this is how we replicated the Millikan oil drop experiment: we looked at a screen that showed what was going on inside the little oil chamber where we manipulated oil drops with electric fields. #PHYS228

Class at 8:30 is infamous in the winter, but it was fated that I have a class that time: Analytical Mechanics. It’s next on the grand sequence towards the major I am certain of declaring: physics. This past Wednesday, our professor brought up a couple pictures on the projector. One picture was a lone tree, pine needles and all; the other was an idyllic forest vista, a river meandering through it. Bill (we are on first names at Carleton) went on to reiterate a point on the syllabus, one that’s become much clearer in the past five years I’ve been exposed to physics in the classroom. Something like this: that the lectures and lessons and notes will focus a lot on single topics of detail, but in the end are all connected and part of a bigger picture. Or: we’re taking a look at a lot of trees – admiring them too along the way – but in the end we need to remember it’s all part of the bigger forest. Macro-perspective and micro-perspective. My eyes open at the realization, the revelation of the moment. I’ve found another reason to cherish what has been, like the river in the photo, a meandering path towards what I hope will be a worthwhile career and life in physics.

I’ve been on a river once: the end of June last year saw me on the Cannon, the river that passes by Carleton, and even if I did know the path of the river on the map, you wouldn’t truly know what to expect until you paddle your way to the points on the map. Maps don’t tell you what you’d actually see, from the two bald eagles we saw float above, or the old creaky metal bridge we passed underneath, faded and forlorn. Whatever navigation I had in life didn’t tell me what I’d see for sure. They sure didn’t tell me I’d want to study the things I’m studying now.

I was accepted to a high school with specialized offerings in STEM and vocational and technical trades, back in the ancient days – so far away, aren’t they? I was enrolled as a student in Engineering, an idea I didn’t also know I’d consider, or at least did so without enough complete thought. Nonetheless, I found myself in a physics classroom, with engineering applications, my sophomore year. And what a year that was. I could list so much, but I will simply say that our activities beyond note-taking and homework, and my teacher, got me thinking about physics that year. A defining moment for how we engaged with our lessons was a moment in our school’s indoor pool, testing latex-coated cardboard boats that had to be self-propelled. Besides the nice dip in the pool we got to do with our projects, the greatest benefit was that the time we spent there was to truly work on applying the theories, their relation to us as people and their relation to the world at large. Buoyancy never came more alive as an idea beyond just the Archimedes principle until that moment in the pool.

Come to think of it, it was so amazing, I kept on thinking about physics all throughout the five years since. I still want to understand and want to do something with it, even with a few rapids on the river. My junior year was spent in a higher-level class that wasn’t taken seriously by either class nor teacher; the next year, I spent the next level online because nobody wanted to move on, mostly because of the aforementioned experiences. It did get tough – but by then, physics was what I was telling people I wanted to do with my life, though I knew not how.

Enter the Carleton days. I probably should have been done with physics because of how much more complex the concepts have become over the past year and a half. Some people may consider the following two experiences “signs” they should stop dealing with physics:

  1. Learning about special relativity in your freshman year. I’ve likened the effects of motion at the speed of light as “trippy” because it just is: it isn’t as intuitive for you to consider how things behave when they move that fast as opposed to those classic “football” kinematics problems lots of high schoolers and some intro college physics students may face. I remember leaving the final exam feeling very burnt, because I couldn’t understand everything.
  2. Modern physics. My fall term this year was spent cramming the last century’s discoveries in ten weeks, from Planck to Feynman, and many details in between, but admittedly too many bases to cover. Not to mention a few nasty experiences writing up lab reports and learning how to do laboratory work. Plus, the intuition was again, different, for this time now you talk briefly about quantum mechanics. And as before: I couldn’t understand everything.

I did understand a lot of things, actually. We replicated the famous Millikan experiment in the fall for my first laboratory experience, working with an apparatus that moved oil particles through an electric field. This process a century ago discovered the fundamental charge – essentially, how small you can divide an electrical charge. With precision! My lab group and I didn’t get that precision – we weren’t meant to – but I will remember this: just like that moment in the pool years ago, I saw physics at work. It was in the tracking of motion on a little screen of the smallest speck of oil we had to follow, and in the numbers we found after some mathematical and computational massaging. I saw how we understood the world just a little more, and – from a liberal arts perspective – the history and legacy we are left to work with and build upon, from Eratosthenes to Newton, Faraday, Heisenberg…

And who said the path was meant to be pretty? It was meant to meander some, in a good way. I’ll never forget the advice of a friend of mine who’s a physics major: you don’t have to necessarily get it right away. Not all of physics is immediately understandable. Schrödinger’s equation, relativistic mechanics… all of them we were meant to wrestle with. And there is no one “right” path anyway to learn, nonlinear, like a river.  Thankfully too, nobody ever has to understand it alone. You can see it in the culture: our physics department always promoted collaboration on homework and review, and I find myself learning more when I get a chance to try to talk about an idea from a lecture, or seek help from colleagues, who probably face the same straits I was in understanding. Maybe in a different way, but we all knew it was never easy. Yes, you don’t have to get it right away – although you do have to get it in time for the exams and projects! Working smartly is still the name of the game, but I know that the atmosphere here towards learning physics is just all the more conducive for me to keep on going.

I’m probably still wondering why I still want to pursue the physics major. I’ll definitely keep asking myself. At best, it’s a good idea to keep asking because I could always use a self-made reminder why I ultimately want physics. The same thread has followed, from the high school pool, to the labs, and hopefully in my Mathematica programming. It’s just that natural urge to make sense of it all. Not a very specific idea, but I know I want in, and when one can take a look at all the trees along the river path, all separate and together, details and the big picture – it looks like a very nice life to paddle through.

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17