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Love thy major?

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FEBRUARY 12, 2018

When people ask me why I chose math as my major, my response is simple: It just happened.

I didn’t come to UC Berkeley set on becoming a math major. In fact, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to major in at all. One of the things I was looking forward to most about college was choosing my own courses. But as I looked through the course catalog for my first semester, I wished I had a better plan — a major, an exact career path, something that would tell me which of the hundreds of available courses I should choose.

The July before classes started, I went to campus for a few days to participate in CalSo. Amid campus tours, sleeping in the dorms and meeting other new students, CalSo was built around a 15-minute appointment with an adviser, after which you would choose your courses for the upcoming semester.

Even though I knew I was interested in STEM, I also wanted to keep my options open to explore the humanities. Walking into my advising appointment, I felt I had crafted a potential schedule that would allow me to do both. But after talking to my adviser, I quickly learned that with the number of prerequisite courses for STEM majors, I needed to adjust my focus for the semester if I was really serious about majoring in STEM.

During CalSo, I chose to take math classes because they composed many of the prerequisite courses for STEM majors. This set me on a path toward actually becoming a math major. But I kept wondering — did I make the wrong choices during CalSo? Is math really the right major for me? Will math lead me to the right career?

One of the challenges I’ve faced at UC Berkeley is trying to make the most of classes and my experience as a whole, while secretly wondering if I made the right choice when it comes to my major. Some people I know couldn’t imagine being in another major, learning about a different field, applying for a different type of job — but I’ve never felt so exclusively drawn to one thing. I admire my professors who have lived their whole professional lives in a passionate study of just one field. Is it wrong if I don’t share that same exclusive passion towards math?

I don’t regret choosing math. I only wish I had known how each class you take in your first semester or two sets you on a specific path, whether you know it or not. In high school, you take six or seven classes in a semester. At UC Berkeley, students usually only take four. Eight semesters seemed like an eternity to me as a freshman. But now it’s my last year, and even though I’ve taken a full course load each semester, there are still so many courses I wish I’d taken.

Balancing exploration and passion with reason will always be a challenge for freshmen who want to keep their minds open but don’t want to be a sixth-year super senior. Writing requirements, language courses, breadths, prerequisites — all these courses took more time than I could have realized as a freshman.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you absolutely love your major. You might love it, you might not, but if you really explore the limits of the field and the opportunities that one subject can bring, you can’t really go wrong with studying that subject — especially when you’re studying it at UC Berkeley.

I’m still not sure that I love math. Math and I have good and bad days, but the mathematical background I’ve developed has allowed me to take classes in a variety of STEM departments and complete internships in different fields. Math may not be my best friend nor the first thing I look forward to doing each day, but it’s been a challenge, an opportunity and my reliable companion in the chaos of UC Berkeley life.

Clare Egan writes the Monday blog on her experience in STEM departments at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cegan_dailycal.

FEBRUARY 14, 2018