It’s Okay: Professors Muse on Majors and Life

15 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

There’s a familiar, collective sort of anxiety that pulses through every college campus in America. That creeping feeling of responsibility; that leering shadow of practicality in reference to a major. Whether it’s humanities or science, math or the arts, a one-track career plan is expected to set the ball rolling. These decisions will apparently make up the rest of your life.

Or will they?

How much of what you study in college actually aids you in your career and, moreover, how much of the gargantuan quantities of anxiety are actually valid? For students absolutely set on their career paths and for others stumbling through the mist of liberal arts education, rest assured in this simple fact: you can change. Yes, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether you majored in dance or biochemistry; all of your classes work in concert to give you the fundamental skills you need to succeed. Your experiences matter. Your major, however, doesn’t.

To solidify this reasoning, five professors offered the stories of their unexpected journeys to their current occupations. They discussed how, despite the extensive plans students are expected to have, you can end up happy anyways.

Political Science Professor Keith Reeves came to Swarthmore with one thing in mind: he was going to be a lawyer. He grew up in Chester with a large family, very few of whom attended college. As a result, being a successful and useful member of his community was very important to him. Through his studies in political science he formed a friendship that would last until this day with Professor Richard Rubin. Rubin not only planted the idea of an academic career in Reeves’ mind, but also made it possible for him to study abroad at Oxford University in England.

“My life was forever changed after that”, Reeves said, though he returned to Swarthmore with his sights still set on a law degree. Rubin, however, thought otherwise. He handed Reeves a blank check and told him to fill it out for applications to any and every graduate school he wanted to attend. Keith Reeves, Rubin reasoned, was going to change the lives of a great many students. Reeves studied at the University of Michigan, then went on to teach at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and eventually landed back here at Swarthmore.

He now does “controversial work at the intersection of race and policy,” focusing on voting rights and electoral behavior in relation to black candidates. Currently, he’s pioneering a project on black male incarceration which is discussed in his course “Politics and Punishment.”

Even though Reeves’ studies directly inform his work today, his current career was never one he had in mind. In fact, being an academic had never before appealed to him. The advice he gives to all students is simple: “Try everything”. Taking classes and paths you don’t enjoy is just as valuable as taking those you do, and both give you excessive amounts of experience.

Professor Reeves may have entered college with a career set in mind, but Literature Professor Elizabeth Bolton did not. “I changed my major maybe seventeen times”, she said, bouncing between every division of humanities offered including philosophy, Russian, English, Spanish, comparative literature, and history.

After studying abroad, she came back to the English department, then graduated with a large amount of student debt and entered the workforce. She began working as a self-employed contractor for Kodak in its Marketing Education Center, but after they offered her a corporate position, she ran in the other direction to study acupuncture in the Boston area. There, the memorization required as well as some disillusionment produced by internships left her “somewhat disenchanted.” A poet who had dreams of writing a novel, she then moved into a burnt old mansion that was renovated in areas; a place also known for having been occasionally visited by poet William Carlos Williams. Living in that “marvelous decrepitude” she worked on writing and also started teaching interpersonal skills to Fortune 500 managers as a consultant—a family business. But she began to long for people her own age. Still working, she attended Yale graduate school and earned a Ph. D in comparative literature.

“The point of getting a PhD,” a fellow student of hers reasoned, “is that it gives you a license to go and learn anything you want about anything you want.”

Not enticed by the prospect of an academic career, she tentatively entered the job market. When she was one of very few graduates in either English or Comparative Literature to get a job offer, she decided she had to accept and so came to the steps of Swarthmore. Now the work she does as faculty coordinator of Environmental Studies takes her in many unanticipated directions, which keeps her doing what she loves best: learning.

“We as a society have a very narrow, legalistic, vocational training understanding of education,” she said, acknowledging the reality of a volatile job market. “We can be and should encourage one another to be bigger and braver than that.”

If our American colleges overemphasize the importance of career paths, the German education system of the 1970s breaks them under force. German and Film Studies Professor Sunka Simon had to enter university with a plan in mind and decided on studies in German and American literature. Originally, she had dreams of being a dramaturg, but realized it was a career more involved with ladder climbing than with skill, and decided against it. “Who you know and what you do with who you know” was not an ideology she wished to pursue. Instead, like most of these professors, she studied abroad as she had in high school, this time attending Dartmouth for a year where she fell in love with the American idea of a liberal arts education. It was there that she first entertained the notion of what it might be like to “be on the other side of the classroom,” but with two teachers as parents she knew that primary and secondary education were not appealing and decided to pursue a PhD in German and Literary Theory.

She went abroad for graduate school to Johns Hopkins where, having decided America’s liberal education was indeed a love of hers, she enrolled as a full time student and finished her studies there. Afterwards she taught at Duke and then at Smith College where she was asked to give a course on German cinema—and so opened the doors to her academic study of film. Having been in an education system much stricter than the one at Swarthmore, she says the best you can do is “Take note of things you don’t like, make a conscious decision whether it’s worth it to try to change them or better to move on to something else… know your limits…”

Another professor who had his mind seemingly set was Spanish and Film Professor Adrián Gras-Velázquez. After a childhood of movies and shows that depicted the various excitements of journalism, he went to school at home in Spain for media studies. After two years, however, he realized he needed to be proficient in English to work at an international level and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to restart his undergraduate studies. After school, he was employed as a journalist and worked for four years “chasing no stories” and was “stuck under a desk”—a definite disappointment to previous aspirations. Still working, he got a MA in screenwriting and, by pure chance, ran into an old professor on the streets of Edinburgh who expressed his longstanding belief that Gras-Velázquez would get a Ph. D. With a physics professor for a father and a sister with an astrophysics degree, a Ph. D was not particularly appealing. However, after some research, he decided to go back to school. It was there that, while teaching Spanish on the side, he realized his love for languages as well.

For him, his experience of attending school in both Spain and Scotland really opened doors in the way he conducts his classes. In fact, similar to other professors in this article, his recommendation to any student of any year is to participate in study abroad. Specifically for those a bit lost among interests, he said, “It’s okay not to know what you want to do. It’s totally normal.”

Last is Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian Swarthmore alum in the class of 2006. He, unlike some of the previous interviewees, spent a great deal of time stuck between two prospective paths. On the one hand, he was on a Mellon scholarship for minority students who wanted to become professors, but on the other hand he was also a Lang scholar for practitioner students who engaged in community building. At the time of graduation, the Lang side won out and he went to Harvard to pursue public policy and humanitarian aid in conflict settings. There, he realized how much he loved being surrounded by ideas and discussions in the classroom. With Swarthmore’s Quaker roots and its history of being the first school in the U.S. to offer peace studies, he soon returned to teach.

When discussing the immense possibilities of majors, he said, “I understand that, given economic hardships in the United States and around the world, and given the neoliberalization of the academy and given that a lot of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds etcetera have a lot of pressure to rise up the social ladder, why there would be a utilitarian approach to the pursuit of knowledge.” He added onto this by discussing the merits of passion, andwarned against being consumed by anxieties around having a “practical” major as opposed to doing what you love. Passion, he argued, gives you better grades, better recommendations, better interviews and an all-around more cohesive understanding of what you study. “Swarthmore students land and they land well.” Atshan said, pushing for the pursuit of knowledge as opposed to a career that may or may not work out. “The pre-professional approach is not always the best way to choose your major.”

Perhaps you know what you’re going to major in; perhaps you have a major now and still aren’t sure; perhaps you have no earthly idea what you even enjoy studying—it’s okay. To have experiences and to learn from those experiences is what not only college, but life is about. Developing universal skills like persuasive writing, textual analysis, and public speaking will aid you more in a career than any major might. Maybe you want to be a lawyer; a poet; a dramaturg; a journalist; an activist. Maybe you don’t want to be any of those things. Maybe you don’t know what you want and maybe you think you do—it’s okay.

And of course, if all else fails, you can always do study abroad and become a professor.

Featured Image by September Porras Payea ’20

1 Comment

  1. This is a great feature and it’s great to hear from our own often intimidating professors how they took a roundabout path into their current careers.

    However, as a science major I had hoped to find examples of people who came into STEM later in life. Minorities are underrepresented in STEM, and part of the reason is because entry into STEM seems very intimidating. A lot of people have this mistaken perception akin to, if you aren’t born a math genius and majored in STEM in college, you can never excel in a STEM career. Would it be possible to do a follow-up feature that includes some STEM professors?

    For anyone reading this and also looking for examples, one role model I find inspiring in this arena is Barbara Oakley, professor of Electric Engineering at Oakland University and author of the popular book, A Mind for Numbers. She majored in Slavic languages in college and worked as a Russian translator for the military, then later in life got a PhD in EE. Her book and popular Coursera class, Learning How to Learn demystified for me how mathematical thinking works, and shows how anyone can become great at math through effort and the right study techniques.

    Another example is tech titan Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, who majored in Philosophy in college and later got a PhD in CS.

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