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From the Archive: Changing Majors

The Google 2001 search engine inspired me to use the Internet Archive to find my old Carnegie Mellon student website. The furthest instance back had links to my Fall 2001 class schedule (first semester sophomore year), my “résumé in its entirety” and a real gem — a manifesto I wrote on why I had decided to switch majors from computer science to professional writing.

This is an amazing find and I’m thrilled to be able to re-post it here. I suppose you could say that this was my very first blog post. I’ve left in all the typos and embarrassing parts. Gimme a break, I was 19!

The major changes in my academic career

10/08/01

What is there to say, really? “To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human,” a line from The Matrix, which I often quote. For too long I was trying to stick it out, trying to make it work, trying to give it time. And the bottom line was unaltering: computer science is not for me. I spent four years at Dalton a steadfast computer scientist, or so I thought. There was only once course to take, one teacher (head of the department of course) to teach, one classroom to be taught in. Needless to say, my world view of computer science was rather limited. But alas, I excelled in it and when it came time to apply to colleges, I set my sights on exploring what I was good at. My comp sci teacher, good ol’ Mr. Chuck Rice (Captain, as refered by some) encouraged me to look into Carnegie Mellon, mostly because a good friend of his was (and still is) the Assistant Dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science. I visited CMU, met with Mark Stehlik and the rest is history. Fell in love with the school, the department, Mark, Pittsburgh (if you can believe it–it was October and the leaves were changing colors, pure beauty). I applied early decision, was accepted on December 18, 1999 and recinded my applications to all other colleges. And there I was: about to start my career in computer science.

I got here last fall and immediately knew I had made a mistake. The first tip-off (prematurely) was the people. My classmates and I are and continue to be worlds apart on the surface. But despite the superficial differences, what really struck me was that everyone seemed to actually enjoy the work we were doing (basic programming and discrete math) whereas I was pulling my hair out every Sunday night when our 151 assignments were due. It wasn’t the hard work that I hated, but rather the entire experience; our professor, Klaus Sutner (who, if you close your eyes, sounds eerily like Arnold Schwartzenager), told us that we weren’t there to learn the material, per say, but rather we were there how to learn how to think like a computer scientist.

What the hell?!?! You’re gonna teach me how to think? Um, I don’t think so. You obviously don’t know who I am and where I’m from. Like they say, you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the girl. And I’ll be damned if you’re gonna get this hard-assed, stubborn, Manhattanite biatch to think your way. You hear me?!

Yeah, it went something like that. So the distaste was there, and my eyes began to wander. I found refuge in my freshman writing course, Interpretation and Argument, a class widely considered a joke across campus. But I took it pretty seriously. Not only was it my chance to meet kids outside my major, but I actually got to write something in ENGLISH. It was a great relief. Another upside to the class was that my teacher, a doctoral student named Susan Swan, actually liked my writing. I knew I had significantly improved my writing in my senior year of high school (the indication was in my grades and the fact that my teacher–Mr. Johnson–read aloud one of my in-class writings citing it as one of the best papers in the class; I had written in off the top of my head in less than 45 minutes while Ben Tisch (of the prominent Tisch family) was jabbing me in the side with his pencil). But the ultimate confirmation came unexpectedly. Two friends and I were late to class, only a few minutes, because we had stopped for a bite to eat. I was the one to open the class door, and when I did, Susan gasped “There she is!!” and everyone in the room turned around. I didn’t know how to respond, so of course I was a jerk about it and simply answered, “Yeah, here I am,” in a very sarcastic tone. The only open seat was in the front of the class directly opposite the teacher, so I made my way through the desks and took my seat. Before I could even put my bag down, Susan was reaching into hers. She pulled out a stuffed Kermit doll and thrust it towards me. “This is for having the best paper in the class.” It was far and away my proudest and yet most embarrasing life experience. I didn’t know how to control my array of emotions, but I just smiled, took it, and thanked her. And then everyone clapped. It was mortifying, and yet thrilling.

And that’s when I knew. That’s when I realized what had been tormenting me for the past few months. I don’t want to be in computer science not only because I don’t like computer science. But because there are SO MANY OTHER THINGS that I want to do and that I’m good at. I was wrong to ever think that computer science was the only path I could explore. I walked a few miles down the path, realized I was on the wrong one, saw a detour sign and decided I had to take it.

Breaking the news to my parents (who had adamantly supported my leap into one of the most lucrative fields in today’s market) was the hardest part, so I did what any normal teenager would do: I took the easy way out and left a message on their answering machine.

“Mom, Dad, I spoke to Mark Stehlik and he said that if I left computer science and decided I had made a mistake, all I would have to do is go to him and say ‘Mark, I made a mistake’ and he’d let me back in. Isn’t that great news? I’m going to talk to an advisor at H&SS, the school I’ll switch into if I decide to leave computer science, and see how I can make the move and how soon. I want to write, and computer science just isn’t for me. It’s so great to have this kind of support and understanding. It makes the move much easier. And what a relief. Yeah, so isn’t this great? Mark said that he doesn’t want to see me leave, of course, but he understands that I want to pursue my passions and…”

It went something like that, I can’t remember it all now. What I do remember, however, was the call from my father I received on my cell phone a few hours later. I heard a bunch of yelling and a bunch of words of disappointment. It was hard, and thinking back it’s still hard. I think he and my mom we just shocked. And it’s not like I handled the situation with the utmost maturity, either.

Nevertheless, they came to understand the situation, and today (almost a year later) they are completely supportive in my switching majors. At their request, as well as because of my own self-doubt, I gave computer science two full semesters to convince me that I love it. It failed, and alas, my decision is made. By the end of this week I will have switched affiliations from the School of Computer Science to the school of Humanities and Social Sciences. I’m going to be a professional writing major (after much deliberation between that and creative writing) and in the spring I will applying for a double-major in Human-Computer Interaction. So things are finally beginning to fall into place, and to make sense. I’m glad I didn’t make a hasty decision because the past year in computer science has taught me invaluable lessons: 1) people are not always what they seem. I have made lost-lasting friendships with a bunch of my classmates. Underneath the surface, I’m more like them than I ever thought. And 2) while seeing things through is an honorable quality, so is recognizing a mistake and making a change. Never deny your impulses, because they’re all we really have that are our own. Not taught, but known.

And the rest is history.

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  • http://www.perfecttuna.com Samantha LeVan

    It's nice you told your parents before you changed your major. In my recollection, I'm not sure I told my parents I had switched from a double major in graphic design and illustration to art history until shortly before graduation. :)

  • http://www.rachelhpeters.com Rachel

    Aww, this is great! Thanks for sharing. I switched from Civil Engineering to English Education. Talk about having a hard time breaking the news to your parents. Then in my first year of teaching I realized there was no way in hell I wanted to teach. At least I was an adult by then. So I went to work for a software company doing tech support (I'd always loved computers anyway). And that's when the tech writing bug bit me. Five years later, and I'm still at it. :D

    Good for you on not being scared to change majors. Or at least, ignoring that overwhelming fear and doing it anyway!