Opinion | Columns

Studying liberally

Where I am from, we do not believe in destiny when it comes to a university degree. You are required to declare your future by filling out perfectly spaced out bubbles on a form the day you enroll in university. You are required to take endless requirements and dismiss the era of exploration. Hesitation is seen as a synonym for immaturity. If you can catalog yourself into the realms of medicine, science, or law, your destiny is set. Who would ever consider academia or taking a dive into the liberal arts? They are too liberal. You study for money, so whatever title you attach to your diploma needs to be worth the time, effort, and resources invested in it.

This terrifies me, which is why, from a very young age, I promised myself that I would make an effort to study in the United States. Not necessarily for the prestige that such an experience would grant me back in Mexico, but because there was room for real, in-depth academic exploration. There is room for the concept of small Core classes, for discussions on Don Quixote that transcended translation, for a random class on Afro-Cuban dance, and for validation in a course on the sociology of masculinity. There is space for a regional studies or gender studies title in your diploma that intellectual people would regard with respect. But above all, there is time to discover who you were before you declared who you were to become. There is an amazing span of two college years to breathe, to grow, to touch, to taste, and to hear before you declare your major, and contrary to common perception, there is no pressure to decide it beforehand. This is something beautiful from the educational system here, and few individuals truly value it.

Influenced by the university atmosphere back home, I arrived at this university with a perfectly clearly defined notion of a double major that I wished to pursue. One of the first days of orientation, I met a fellow freshman who challenged all my notions of major decision, and, looking back, I thank him for this greatly. When asked what he was majoring in, he claimed to have not the slightest idea. He was curious, hungry for everything. He embraced his ambiguous state as an opportunity to redefine himself. “Who is supposed to know what they are going to do with their life at 18 years old?” he said. He was right. Who is supposed to know from a very young age what route she is pursuing? Who is supposed to be able to define what interests her when she grows up in the same homogeneous bubble her entire life? Who has the degree of authority and knowledge at this young stage to restrict themselves from the possibility of discovering endless new things? Since that day, I have kept my options open. When asked about my major, I romantically answer that it is “life,” and complement it with an array of things I have been inclined to pursue. When the time to declare my major comes, this will probably change. However, it might not be until graduation when I will truly know what it was I learned at this school, and maybe not even then.

Looking back to September, I cannot understand how it was possible that I thought I had a clear notion of what I wanted to do with my life. After months of growth, of being exposed to situations I had never encountered, of living in a city that has the potential to deceive you but also make you feel incredibly alive, of reading the founding texts of civilization and meeting some of the most interesting people in the world, I know that I am more lost than I ever was. I think, therefore I am. But I think that I do not know who I am, and I embrace this thoroughly.

It annoyed me greatly that during Days on Campus, all the prospective students had their intended majors on their name badges. If I have one piece of advice to give to the class of 2016 after spending my first year at Columbia, it is that they should not limit themselves. They should try to “major in unafraid,” like the slogan of our Barnard counterparts, and take a wide array of introductory classes in subjects they would have never considered. They should also take art classes—whether it is sculpting, guitar, or modern dance. It will relax them. If they choose really constrictive majors like economics or architecture, there is still room for exploration freshman year to be able to graduate in time. They still have time. But above all, they should not go around announcing their intended major during orientation. They will grow so much that this will be subject to change.

Why catalog yourself into a particular pathway, stereotype, and mentality this early in your college experience?

The author is a Columbia College first-year. She is on the executive board of the Columbia Society of International Undergraduate Students and a writer for Nuestras Voces. From Outside In runs alternate Mondays.

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UchechiI posted on

I completely agree with you, Andrea, but for premedical students, the Core simply doesn't allow space for substantial academic exploration. Very annoying.

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Anonymous posted on

imagine what its like for SEAS students. stringent requirements and if you decide its not for you...well then, good luck.

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Anonymous posted on

wow! my views resounded with yours- a quick hat tip from a fellow undecided student! What a beautifully written article :)

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Anonymous posted on

I guess it depends on each person. While it's important to remain open to general knowledge, I see nothing wrong in being able to make an early decision on what you want to do. There's a lot to explore even within a given area. On the other hand, given the cost of higher education, there isn't much time to "fool around" studying things that won't help you get a job, regardless of how intellectually rewarding they may be.

Just incidentally; in the British system you must decide your area of study a couple of years before enrolling in the university, when you choose which A-level exams you'll take. If you want to get admitted into Oxford or Cambridge you'll need to be quite knowledgeable in it and take additional exams from them.

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