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How I Met My Major

Michael Kim, Stanford

As of last week, I am officially committed to Her. After about two years of searching, I have finally stumbled upon one who fits me perfectly, who gives me a sense of direction, and who makes me excited for the future. Though some of my friends have already made a similar decision, most continue to explore their options. Several of my friends were so sure before, but have had a change of heart. As for me, I have a gut feeling that She will define my undergraduate experience and will continue to be with me for the rest of my life. When people ask me about my time at Stanford, She’ll be the first thing I mention.

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You must be wondering how I met Her, about the story behind this commitment I have made, about the ones I have previously considered, and how you can learn from my mistakes/triumphs. So here is my story, from the beginning. I offer but a simple disclaimer – that everyone’s story is unique. Read this and take from it little tidbits of information, but do not expect your search to be exactly the same. That said, I hope you find worth in reading my story and recommend that you hear many such stories before you embark upon your journey, which will be amazing and life-changing. Without further ado, here is the story of How I Met My Major.

It all started my senior year of high school, when I was applying to Stanford. I felt queasy about saying I was “Undeclared”, and decided to ask my peers and mentors, “What should I major in?” I knew I wanted to work with people, didn’t like natural sciences, and really enjoyed the humanities. And somehow, I landed on Ms. Economics. This is hilarious because every single one of my friends would tell you that She and I had little in common. But this was my first time playing the game, and from what I had heard, Ms. Economics was a nice major that promised a stable future. Fortunately, these initial flirtations never materialized into anything, and I never even took a class with Ms. Economics. That relationship ended as haphazardly as it started.

 

Stanford gives its students more than two years to decide and declare a major, which makes a lot of sense to me. How can a seventeen-year-old high school senior know what he wants to study? I sure didn’t. I took some good advice and decided to take classes in myriad disciplines my first year, to test the waters, get to know the different departments, and learn about my own academic interests.

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My first quarter, I decided to take various classes that interested me, so I took a Spanish language class, introductory computer science (CS 106A), and a Thinking Matters course called Journeys. Spanish was mostly a practical choice because I wanted to maintain my language fluency. CS 106A and Journeys were both amazing, pulling me in opposite directions. Stanford students are familiar with the Techie-Fuzzy divide, the stark separation between engineers and humanities majors. I found myself courting options in both camps: Ms. Computer Science was exciting and popular, Ms. Comparative Literature was so thoughtful, and Ms. Spanish Literature had that exotic feel. But I, a wee Freshman, was still quite clueless.

As Winter Quarter approached, I met someone who I thought would be the one: Ms. Symbolic Systems. Ms. Sym-Sys, as the students call her, was an interdisciplinary major that seemed to have the best of both worlds. Here is the official description of the major: “The Symbolic Systems Program (SSP) at Stanford University focuses on computers and minds: artificial and natural systems that use symbols to communicate, and to represent information.” Knowing that many students walk the fine line between Engineering and the Humanities, Stanford has created majors like Symbolic Systems. Thus, my winter quarter consisted of the next CS class (CS106B), Greek Philosophy, Phonetics and Phonology, and a Spanish Literature class.

 

It only took about half of the quarter for me to realize that Ms. Sym-Sys wasn’t for me for several reasons. First, I found that Linguistics was more of a pain in the butt than I expected. More importantly, I felt that though She could boast of great breadth, it came at the cost of depth. I decided that I would rather be an expert in one field than well-acquainted with three or four. And so, my one quarter fling with Ms. Sym-Sys ended, and I was again a free agent. As enrollment for Spring Quarter classes approached, I realized that I had to make a choice – it was between Ms. Computer Science and Ms. Comparative Literature. I would commit majorly to one, and minorly to the other.

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I ultimately decided upon Ms. Computer Science. This was a major shock to my parents and friends, because my type was definitely Fuzzy, involving reading, writing, and critical thinking. But I explained to them why Ms. Computer Science, especially here at Stanford, is so enticing: CS 106A is our crash course in CS. Taught by the esteemed Mehran Sahami, it takes students who have never taken a CS course (like me) and makes them seriously consider changing majors. The class, taught in Java, felt like learning a new language with the intent of solving puzzles – and the combined satisfaction of feeling clever and connected to a new group of people was amazingly appealing. Looking forward, I also knew that Ms. Computer Science would prepare me for a high-achieving, stable future.

And thus my freshman year ended; I was converted into a Techie. When I returned in the Fall, I was taking two very intense CS classes that consumed my life, namely CS107 and CS103. As the quarter dragged on, I panicked at the realization that I couldn’t survive taking so many CS classes. I felt that there was something missing in my education, and I missed reading novels, small group discussions, and open-ended questions. At about the same time, I heard that Stanford was thinking about me, doting upon the precarious situation of students like me, caught in the Fuzzy Techie divide. As my plans for a future with Ms. Computer Science fell apart, I fell for the newest and most exciting option at Stanford: Ms. CS + X.

 

Even the name is laced with mystery. The new “CS+X” program intends to combine Stanford’s most popular major, Computer Science, with a topic in the humanities like History, Philosophy, or Music. I chose English, my favorite class in high school. I had dismissed it as a major that would leave me ill-equipped for the future, but combined with CS, it suddenly became very appealing. Now, as the first student to declare as a CS + English major, I am a pioneer in interdisciplinary study here at Stanford. I’m working directly with professors in both departments to set the standard for the many students who will follow me.

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The best aspects of the major are that I don’t sacrifice depth, nearly completing enough coursework to get a double major. My senior project will be one of synergy between the two departments, which really helps me begin to see where my major will take me professionally. I have an academic advisor in each department, and hope to be working at the Literary Lab this summer – developing programs that analyze the tomes of literature that a human couldn’t possibly process. I’m excited to have my classes mapped out, to have confidence in my future, and try something new. I hope that thirty years from now, the CS+English major will be found all over the United States, and I could say I was the first one.

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