“Follow your passions.” “Do what you’re interested in.” This is advice we receive too often as college students. It’s also generally ignored. I’ve met many students, including myself, who take the path of least resistance when it came to classes and course loads. We say that a good GPA is all that matters or that we want to have fun and not be stuck in the library all weekend. We even eschew our areas of interest in favor of easier, less interesting subjects. This is a myopic and selfish path to take.
Coming to Cornell, I thought I was going to major in biology. I enjoyed it in high school and was good at it. I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do after college beyond a vague desire to help the environment and maybe go to law school, but I thought that biology could help me. Rumors of the difficulty of the biology major, along with the realization that it was mostly full of pre-med and pre-vet students, quickly dissuaded from that course and instead put me on the biology & society track. But I soon realized that I had to take a lot of science courses to fulfill that requirement. I had never taken chemistry or physics before, and although I had excelled in math classes, I never considered myself a “math kid.”
So, thinking ahead to the possibility of law school and its need for a good GPA, I picked a seemingly easier major. I opted for science & technology studies, a subject for which I felt no particular passion. My freshman year, I took classes in that major and other easy, filler classes. I finished with close to a 4.0 with little effort but found myself unsatisfied and burdened with what was close to a sense of guilt.
Going into sophomore year, I lost my full scholarship. My guilt intensified, and I knew I couldn’t keep taking easy classes for the sake of earning a high GPA. I dropped all of the classes I pre-enrolled in the previous spring, and added classes that would enable me to major in environment & sustainability. E&S isn’t nearly as technical as biology, but it’s certainly more involved than STS.
Now, halfway through my third semester at Cornell, I am taking advantage of the school to the fullest. I’m in a major that I’m passionate about and will be taking courses I find intellectually stimulating, such as environmental governance and an introductory biology class. I’m on track to earn my first B (I’ll probably earn several, actually), but I don’t care. I know that challenging myself and engaging in material that is both exciting and relevant to my career goals was the right choice.
If you’re taking oceanography or your credit load is under 15, I’m not calling you out for being any less a busy student. Many are genuinely interested in classes that are considered easy; if you are heavily engaged in research or other extracurricular work, it’s probably not a good idea to load yourself with a demanding courses. With respect to course difficulty, there is, of course, a balance. It’s silly for an English major to take a quantum mechanics class on a whim, but it’s also irresponsible to yourself and your parents to hunt for the easiest classes until you graduate. And of course, this is college: It’s okay to have fun — just not too much fun.
Some of the people I respect the most at Cornell are those who fit into a sort of conditional “work hard, play hard” mold. Last year, my friend Andrew confided to me that he had realized that he should be taking full advantage of Cornell while he’s here and soaking up all of the knowledge he can. Now, he takes over 20 challenging credits in the Engineering School, while maintaining a 4.2 GPA and managing to spend lots of time with his friends. If he has to spend a Friday night studying, he’ll do it.
At the end of the day, we are here to learn and wring this school of all the opportunity it offers. Most of our parents and relatives sacrificed a lot for us to be here. Breezing through college, or even making an attempt to do so, would be irresponsible. Do what you’re passionate about. You won’t regret it.
Christian Baran is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honestly runs every other Monday this semester.