I recently came in contact with a high school classmate through the powers of Snapchat, which I’ve been clumsily using for about a week now. Last I’d seen him, our plans were pretty much the opposite of each other — he was off to a large, public California university as a pre-med, hoping to become a doctor and help people. I had my heart set on studying English at Swarthmore, with absolutely zero career paths in mind (I never quite recovered from being told I couldn’t be a princess at the age of seven).
To his family’s shock, he is now a linguistics major — he took one class and fell in love with the subject. It made me wonder how we get there, from a simple major as declared on our application, occasionally lying through our teeth, to whatever we’ve decided to pursue. Shayne Rothman ’20 hasn’t written her sophomore plan yet but has already considered a variety of majors.
“I applied as a classics major with possible minor in either French or linguistics. I’ve changed that plan a few times. I went from just majoring in linguistics to majoring in linguistics and language to majoring in linguistics and minoring in French to creating my own special major around speech pathology. Now I’m thinking of declaring a major in linguistics and a minor in computer science,” said Rothman.
Rothman has made most of her decisions thus far based on her interests. Her interest in Latin got her interested in language structures in general, and she unexpectedly fell in love with linguistics. She freely admits there is also a more practical component around her choices: she loves CS, but also recognizes it is a useful and lucrative field of study. This attempt to balance passion and practicality feels familiar. When I started working towards my teaching certification, I often reminded my parents that it was good to have something that would lead me directly to a job. English major, education minor, it felt like an airtight plan. I even felt confident enough to plan to take Italian at Bryn Mawr, maybe study abroad in Italy at some point.
The Plan barely lasted a year. I came back to campus freshman spring emotionally exhausted but determined to see it through. To give myself a break, I took what I assumed would be an easy class: Transnational Graphic Fiction, which I hoped would help me reconnect with French culture. It all spiralled out of control from there.
I fell back into my love of French literature in a heartbeat, realized that the department had something to offer and that yes, a French person could study Francophone literature at an American college without wasting their time. As I grew increasingly drawn into “pure” literature, I felt increasingly uncertain about my future. The summer didn’t help; my boss cheerfully asserted no one actually gave a damn about what you majored in until I wanted to strangle him. Didn’t ANYONE understand my MAJOR EXISTENTIAL STRUGGLE?
This fall, I reached a semblance of peace, mainly thanks to a professor who took the time to talk to me for hours, help me figure out multiple major/minor combinations, and guide me through my existential angst. I owe her a lot, so she may be disappointed to hear my newfound balance is basically “I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing, but neither does anybody else so let’s go along with it.”
“The people who you tend to remember are the people who are very passionate about something. It’s hard to be at a school where it seems as though everyone else has it figured out and knows what they want to do. I understand that this isn’t necessarily the truth, but it still feels sometimes like you’re the only one who hasn’t got it all together,” Rothman pointed out.
Scott Candey ’20 is one of these people. He came in as an engineering major and hasn’t wavered. Engineering is notoriously difficult to pursue due to its lengthy list of requirements, but Candey has remained nonetheless.
“The main reason I’m seeing it through is there’s nothing that fits me better. I like creating things, I like science. The best place to build new things on campus right now is the engineering department.”
Candey added that he does sometimes wonder what else he could study or consider other paths, but ultimately, this is what feels right. A few weeks ago I would have burst into tears, shaking him by the shoulders and asking how dare he be so confident. I’d like to think I’ve reached a more mature stage of acceptance — some have it figured out, some don’t, that’s okay. I will never haul myself out of bed early enough to go to Bryn Mawr five times a week and pick up a new language, and that’s also okay. Even the ever-looming Sophomore Plan is starting to look less ominous. Max Weinstein ‘19 had some perspective on this plan.
“The sophomore plan was an invitation to think about the next two years, without being demanding or scary, […] I’m glad I switched from Political Science to English, because English is harder from me, […] But I’ve become more interested in science lately. I still have two years, so I’m sure it will all get wrapped up with a bow by graduation time.”
Say what you will about Swarthmore — at the very least, it’s not an especially relaxing environment — but if nothing else, it gives us room to explore. It would be too cliché of me to say something like, “Incoming freshmen, try something completely new and discover new passions!” There are brochures and orientation pep talks for that. I will say that the IC courtyard is always a nice place for a little existential cry as you contemplate your future. Besides, as my more sympathetic professor pointed out, absolutely nobody knows what they’re doing, so why not put on a good show?