January 30, 2012

Disregarding My Major

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By now, I’m sure that we are all used to the mantra of questions asked of every college student at every gathering-of-people-mostly-older-than-you-that-you-don’t-see-very-often. “So, how’s college?” “So, are you seeing anyone?” “So, what are you studying?” Usually, my answer to that last one gets a blank look. “Oh, that’s cool,” they say. Beat. “So … what does a chemical engineer do?” Fortunately, I have a well-rehearsed elevator pitch and I love talking about my major, so that question has never bothered me.

One of my very dear friends, who happens to be studying communications, is not so fortunate with the follow-up questions. On her behalf, and on the behalf of college students everywhere, I would like to make the following public service announcement: “What are you going to do with that?” is not a nice question. It is only slightly better than, “Isn’t that a waste of tuition?” or “How is that useful?”

In fact, asking a college student what the heck he or she is doing his or her their life at all is bad form. If you insist on asking something, I humbly suggest, “What sorts of things do people in your major usually do after graduation?” as an alternative. It takes the pressure off of us.

I digress. The truth is, a lot of us have no idea what we’re doing and are at least a little grumpy about defending our choice(s). A major in What You Liked in High School with a minor in Everything That Sounds Really Interesting very rarely goes exactly according to your bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman expectations.  I know it took me a good semester and a half to figure out what most of the majors in my college, including my own, even meant. Now that I feel like I can make a good, educated decision about picking a course of study, it’s too late for me to switch majors anyway.

I’m lucky. I stuck where the admissions gods put me, and I’m having the time of my life. But my major was not the key deciding factor here. Choosing Cornell was. It has turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Being a Cornell student means that I’ve picked up certain critical skills, most of them unrelated to my college.

It means that I have learned how to fail, with at least a modicum of grace. No one ever picked Cornell because he or she thought it would be a walk in the park. This is not a place to boost your ego,  and a big part of staying sane is learning to be honest about your failures. You can only make so many excuses about situations supposedly out of your control before the demons of self-doubt start eating away at your soul and those excuses collapse. You learn to keep moving forward, and to be gracious in failure. I have learned to accept that falling short is not the end of the world.

It means that I’ve been put through a mill, one where you only come out the other side if you’ve learned to think critically about information. It’s an essential survival skill to synthesize sometimes disjointed facts into a smooth and cohesive idea, then defend or refute that idea. Some skills are easily forgotten after the prelims. This one will stick.

It means that I have been asked to question my assumptions, and to realize when I should throw them out. Rolling over and accepting every idea presented would be a tragic waste of four years and the purchasing price of a luxury car, but so would leaving The Hill without an improved mind.

I am surrounded by sometimes astonishingly brilliant people who are stunningly good at what they do. Learning from them, testing their ideas and advancing myself without merging into an academic hivemind can sometimes be as difficult as tearing out my deep-rooted assumptions.

I’m a Cornell engineer. This also means some nifty things about my job prospects, having the right to make playfully snarky comments about liberal arts majors and developing a skillset to build really cool things. But somewhere along the line, I decided  that those aren’t the most important things.

In about a year, I’m probably going to have a rant about people asking for my post-graduation plans.

I’m comforted by the thought that, no matter where I choose to go,  I’m going to be carrying some very powerful tools. Most of them will be unrelated to my major. All of them will mark me as a graduate of Cornell University.

Deborah Liu is a junior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at [email protected]. First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Deborah Liu