This short essay was first published on The Octant.
One of the main selling points of Yale-NUS College is the ability to come in without having declared a major and to switch majors at virtually any point of your four-year education. A Public Affairs feature showcases students who changed their minds, and I recall in particular a member of the inaugural class who switched from Economics to Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences (MCS) at the end of his junior year, after his semester abroad at Harvard gave him an epiphany.
Unlike these students, I am graduating in the same major I intended to major in: Literature.
This is not to say that I’m special for remaining faithful to my plans; I am sure there are many students like me, who end up graduating without an exceptional Yale-NUS story about having switched majors from a humanities subject to a social science subject and then to a science. And that is okay; the option is there but it does not mean we have to conform to such a narrative.
Yet, to say that I am graduating in the major I initially intended to take would be a gross simplification. At many points in my time as an undergraduate, I harboured thoughts of switching majors.
Got a B+ in Literature and Humanities 2 when the prospective MCS major scored an A? “I should just switch to Global Affairs.”
Read a particularly boring book written by yet another Dead, White, European, (Cisgender, Heterosexual) Man? “Ugh, I should have followed my passion for creative writing and majored in Arts and Humanities.”
Stuck in an uninspiring cul-de-sac while working on your capstone? “I knew I should have tried out Anthropology!”
Changing majors in Yale-NUS is so easy that it is almost the equivalent of getting a haircut or dyeing your hair blue when you are going through a phase.
As I find myself on the cusp of graduating, however, I have yet to get through what I had thought would merely be a phase of incessantly second-guessing my choice of major.
This could well be amplified by my transition into job-hunting. After all, it would be so much easier for me to find a well-paying job and stop being a burden to my parents as soon as possible if I had majored in MCS or Philosophy, Politics and Economics, which are two of the biggest majors for a good reason. This is not to put anyone down, and, fashionable as it might be for liberal arts students to label hopefuls in banking and finance as “corporate sellouts” after one class of Modern Social Thought, we owe no one an explanation for trying to survive within a morally unconscionable system the way we want to.
My very choice of major reflects both a level of risk confidence and awareness that, even if I don’t find myself in a job earning big money, I am certain that I will be able to find employment and make ends meet while living the kind of life I want. Like many of my fellow schoolmates, I made a conscious decision from the start, electing to matriculate into an education pathway that privileges learning for the sake of learning as opposed to dragging my feet along a straight path leading to a discernible future in law, medicine, or engineering, assured that the payoffs would outweigh the costs and risks that come with a liberal arts education in a new school.
Furthermore, as much as my journey as a Literature major was met with many frustrations that inevitably come with any intellectual endeavour meant to challenge the mind, I learned so much that I would not otherwise have had I majored in something else. The Literature major at Yale-NUS is so incredibly flexible that, even though there isn’t a Gender and Sexuality Studies department in this college, my Literature education was essentially a training in Gender and Sexuality and Post-Colonial Studies.
Why, then, do I still feel like I could have majored in something else?
The short answer: simply because I could indeed have majored in something else.
The long answer: throughout my education at Yale-NUS, I have found myself taking classes in something that wasn’t ostensibly related to my major, like International Migration or Urban Singapore. More than this, I have found myself wanting to take classes outside of my major but being unable to do so, simply because there are only so many classes that one can take in a semester, and I value my mental health far too much to overload every semester.
What if, instead of taking three classes each in my intended major and minor out of seven possible electives in the first four semesters, I had reduced these numbers to allow for greater exploration in the other majors?
What if I had taken an Urban Studies class and discovered my fascination with the relationship between society and space far earlier than in my final semester?
What if I hadn’t allowed my dismal performance in an introductory class to a social science subject deter me from majoring in it?
What if a class I took in my penultimate semester had been offered earlier, such that I could’ve realized much earlier that I wanted to work on a migration studies capstone project?
Some time last week, a Literature-turned-Physics-major friend of mine posted a dedication to a formative professor-mentor of hers, in which, citing the Many Worlds Theory, the professor asks, what if they had each followed different paths in an alternate universe and never met?
I realized then that this was precisely why I have always felt, and will always feel, the weight of “what if,” especially pertaining to my major decision. At the risk of making exceptionalist statements about Yale-NUS, one of the beauties of a Yale-NUS education is, indeed, the amount of control you have, with which to decide on the kind of education you want. This is not to say that there aren’t challenges along the way. Some majors are perceived as being better funded than others. Some majors would lead you to your personal and professional goals with far less resistance than others.
When people cheat in romantic relationships, a common refrain (when they’re allowed to be completely honest with their own feelings and not perform the kind of dumb remorse that they are expected to perform) is that they missed the thrill of being single. The butterflies. The giddy feeling. The ability to chase a glimpse of a newfound object of beauty instead of checking oneself and assuring oneself that it isn’t cheating if you don’t act on it.
Although choosing a major obviously cannot be equated to choosing a monogamous romantic partner, the latter is a pretty good metaphor with which to explore the former. After all, at Yale-NUS we are only allowed to choose one. No double majoring. No going after a new one without renouncing ties to the original one or at least relegating them to the secondary position of “minor”.
Perhaps then, the tinge that I feel, which can never quite be clearly defined (“regret” comes close but “what if” even closer) is due to the fact that there are so many other disciplines in which I have glimpsed a sliver of beauty but never managed to commit to, for one reason or another.
And I suspect that I am not alone in this feeling.