Major: Undecided

As the end of my sophomore year draws closer with each passing lecture, I think more about my decision to major in English and Computer Science (College students have to declare by the end of sophomore year). Two, three years ago, as I was applying for and heading to college, I had absolutely no idea what area of study I would end up focusing on, which is why I applied to Penn, undecided.

It seems like there’s a certain stigma surrounding the undecided major; my peers felt that they should at least put Biology or History, something they were somewhat interested in but still unsure about. However, I know that there is nothing wrong with being undecided, as trite as that sounds.

What is important about being undecided is that you still have the motivation to pursue what interests you. My favorite subjects in high school were art and biology, and I found in Penn the ability to customize my academic experience to tailor my interdisciplinary interests. Biological Basis of Behavior and Visual Studies both appealed to me prior to my arrival on campus.

Freshman year, my friends would ask, almost weekly, what my new major was to be: the joke is that I changed my mind so often, cycling through BBB, Economics, Communications, Visual Studies, Psychology, and almost everything else so quickly that it seemed like I’d never settle.

Four semesters later, I’ve realized that at the core of my passion for biology and art during high school was a love for the beautifully imperfect human condition--something that, to my surprise, is very relevant to English. I am by no means an expert in literature; formal structures and Renaissance literature, for example, are still areas I struggle in. But the excitement of pursuing something difficult, achieving some level of understanding, and being able to apply larger concepts across multiple disciplines makes quite a fulfilling academic experience.

-Julia W. '18

The Sectored Comfort Zone

I never expected to take an English class after high school. By graduation, I was convinced that my passions lie in the sciences, and I planned to fill my years at Penn with Biology, Chemistry, and Neuroscience. However, as I realized several months into freshman year, the Sectors of Knowledge would push me to take several classes outside of my quantitative comfort zone.

Putting my shaky literature background on the back burner, I figured I would try a comparative literature class to fulfill the Arts & Letters sector. I combed through the list of classes and found one that seemed promising: Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation.

While I initially struggled with the volume of readings, I found myself progressively intrigued with the class each week. One week, we focussed on Turkish short stories. The next, Hebrew poetry. The next, we read a modern Iranian novel. Each week we exploring a different literary tradition through a different genre. With only 20 students in the class, we were also able to discuss how the literature spoke to the historical and cultural context of the writers. Our conversations evolved from close readings of the texts to discussions about politics, gender, identity, etc. through the lens of the Middle East.

Within a few weeks, MMELT was my favorite class. It not only taught me how to read and analyze literature in a more profound way, but it became a space for me to explore my cultural heritage vis-a-vis the works that we read. Most of all, this class taught me that my passions are constantly evolving. While I still love the sciences, I hope to take more classes in Middle Easter Studies.

Not every Sector or Foundation class is a resounding success. There were sectors that I fulfilled with classes that I ended up disliking, or new subjects that I later learned I did not enjoy. By choosing to take MMELT, I learned that somewhere among the two thousand plus classes offered by the College, there are subjects that I never knew I would enjoy so much. And while the Sectors may seem like a burden to fulfill, they are a rare opportunity to dive into the unknown and learn for the sake of learning.

-Nitay Caspi '18

How to burst the "Penn Bubble": Courses that Take You Beyond the Classroom

Before coming to Penn, I was excited to take advantage of its "campus within a big city". I wanted to see the PMA, watch Broadway shows at the Kimmel Center, enjoy the perks of Restaurant Week, and frequent Phillies and Eagles games.

However, upon arrival, I was instantaneously swept up into the maelstrom that is NSO and the piece of jargon known by Quakers as the "Penn Bubble". But perhaps more importantly, I soon came to appreciate the classes that transported us outside of the classroom and into the wilderness city. Often times, I've found that in such classes, I've learned more than a textbook or a slideshow could ever teach me (and far more interestingly at that), and I've been able to explore and appreciate the city better. My favorite Penn-bubble-bursting classes? I’ve described a few of them below:

ENGL 157 -- Introduction to Journalistic Writing: Writing About Food with Rick Nichols

A class that not only teaches how to think and write critically, but how to think and write critically about food (...and the people, the trends, and the experiences, of course). Frequent field trips took us to restaurants around town, where we could profile famous chefs or prominent members of the Philadelphia food scene and hang out with them for a day before writing a piece on them for a final project. Not only a nice break from Penn, but also a nice break from Penn dining halls!

ARTH 106 -- Architect and History with Professor Haselberger

What better way to learn about architecture than to walk in the shadows of one of America's most culturally diverse and historically rich cities? Professor Haselberger is famous for teaching this course every fall, which attracts majors and non-majors alike. Almost every Friday afternoon, we would take the SEPTA into the city proper and look at a different building inspired by whatever time period we had been looking at earlier that week—Greek, Post-modern, Rococo, etc. A bonus? I learned how to better navigate the city for outings to come.

FNAR 222/URBS 322 -- Big Pictures: Mural Arts with Shira Walinsky and Jane Golden

This class is taught by two wonderful women—Shira Walinksy and Jane Golden, the founder of the prolific Mural Arts program that has created thousands of murals all around Philadelphia and given employment opportunities to hundreds of inmates of Graterford Prison. It’s a community-service based course in which you learn about the ways in which public art shapes the socio-economic development of an area and changes the people who inhabit it. The final project involved creating a mural with a community that was eventually installed at a school in West Philadelphia—an unconventional solution to a common problem.

The Penn bubble is, in my opinion, absolutely real. We get sucked into our textbooks and laptops and papers. And while the resources that we have here on campus are beyond wonderful, sometimes you really cannot beat learning from the real thing. There’s so much of Philadelphia to be explored, and luckily Penn provides the courses to do so.

-Helen Nie (C’18)