Oberlin Blogs

How I Chose My Major, Part I: What I am. What I was.

November 16, 2009

Harris Lapiroff ’10

This post is part one of a three part story. Part two is Two years of everything

Some people come to Oberlin eyes open and confident, knowing exactly what they want from college and prepared to take it. Most of us, in my experience, don’t. Many of us are unsure: we know some things we like, we know some things we want to try, but we’re not really sure what we’re looking for. Some of us agonize over it. College is a mental struggle, not just on the most obvious level of challenging classes—analyzing stories and histories, memorizing formulae, creating meaningful art and writing, & cetera—but on a deeper harder level of grappling with oneself. For many of us college is the time when we come to terms with what it means to be an adult and decide how we want to react to our changing lives. I’ve changed a lot during my years here. Most people do. Even the difference in attitude between a student beginning their first year and that same student finishing their first year can be striking. That’s why so many of us find it harder and harder to go home with each passing break—we used to be the right shape to fit in that place we come from, but Oberlin’s been working on us like clay and now there’s a little bulge that feels a little awkward and uncomfortable in our old house. We have to squeeze a little to fit.

But that’s not exactly what I meant to talk about.

For some people, a large part of this philosophical battle of our brain—trying to determine who we are and what we will be—a major1 aspect is that well-known dilemma of deciding what to study. It’s hard to say whether choosing a major has been the cause of so much of my introspection or just the most obvious representation of it.

Some of you no doubt will come to Oberlin all planned out—you know what you want to study. You’re certain. Others among you don’t know yet. Maybe you won’t know for a long time. A few of you might struggle with it, as I have. To you, I offer my story. It’s long—encompassing pretty much the entirety of my time at Oberlin—and it’s going to take me a few posts to get it out.

What I am. What I was.

I’m a mathematics major. Math is a wonderful discipline—an exploration of the laws that govern and/or approximate our universe as well as some stuff that people just invented in the name of fun and fascination. Math is great.

xkcd: Fields arranged by purity
Source: xkcd

But I didn’t always love math. I was always good at it—so good, in fact, that I had taken four years of high school math by the end of my third year in high school. But just being good at something is not enough to make you love it. What math class did I take for my senior year? Nothing. I said to myself, Thank god that’s over! I’ll never have to take another math class again, and spent my senior year of high school free of that subject I loathed, mathematics.

Sometimes, you’ll think that you hate something, only to realize that you only hated the simple rigid way it was taught to you all your life prior to college. In college you realize that things are a lot more complex than your high school teachers ever led you to believe and, as a result, are a lot more beautiful. That goes for every discipline I’ve had the pleasure to study at Oberlin.

So when I came to Oberlin, I definitely wasn’t a math major. What was I?

I was tentative. Not socially—I was outgoing and friendly and made a lot of friends that first year, but that’s another story—but academically. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, so I dabbled.

I knew that I liked writing. I liked graphic design so I thought maybe I’d like art. They’re similar, right? I thought I’d experiment in politics and cinema and theater. I even thought I’d dip my toes into a physics class just for good measure.

In short, I had no idea what I wanted to be. So I did what I think everyone should do when they’re not sure where to find the path. I experimented. A lot.

Next: Two years of everything.

  1. No pun intended. &uarr

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