I came to college thinking I knew what I wanted to do: pursue a degree in journalism, meet pre-med requirements, and eventually apply to medical school. But now I’m leaning more and more toward a degree exclusively in math and science. Am I embracing my South Indian engineering genes? Am I more like my dad and his ancestors than I had ever imagined?

Dad hails from a family of engineers. Conversations at family get-togethers drift toward JEE Ranks, GRE scores, papers, and patents. My grandmother remembers her son’s (and nephews’ and grandson’s) test scores—with their verbal and quantitative breakdowns.

You can guess how the passage toward journalism wasn’t something anyone in the family could easily come to terms with. My 20-year-old cousin in India—herself an engineering major—couldn’t grasp the concept of a Medill journalism class being tough. After all, my cousin said, all you have to do is write something. “How hard can it be?” she wondered.

I don’t blame her or any of my other relatives. Look at what we in America constantly debate.

A study published in the November 2008 issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society suggests that many girls with the potential to earn degrees in math and possibly become engineers or scientists are not being encouraged enough to go into those fields. This study looked at results from some of the toughest international math competitions and examinations: the girls who tended to compete were, invariably, daughters of immigrants originally from places like China, India, Romania, Korea, and Russia, countries that place heavy emphasis on those areas of study.

Just like the study states, I met students throughout high school who could easily have been outstanding engineers and mathematicians. But many of them opted for the humanities. Former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers is now notorious for having suggested that women may not have the same natural aptitude for math and science that men have. I remember how many women rose up in arms about this. But how many of us rose up to ask Summers why he thought the other side, namely that of the humanities, was less demanding? I’d like to sit Dr. Summers down (although he’s too busy now in the Obama administration) and tell him that life in the humanities is often even more challenging than life in the world of math and science—for girls as well as for boys.

Humanities classes can be more difficult than a math or science class simply because the concepts are abstract and vague. I’m currently taking a political science class for which the grade is completely based on one paper, a midterm, and a final. From my experience, you never quite know what teachers want when it comes to writing. To think that a third of my grade rides on that one paper is nerve-racking.

Journalism offers completely different story. Here at Northwestern, being pre-med and a journalism major means I have to make compromises. My journalism professor would like us to go out to downtown Chicago to do interviews and cover events. But how realistic is that in -20º F weather this quarter? So I’m always walking a fine line between putting in too much effort and putting in too little.

I whine about the reporting part of journalism. I’m all about the writing. My mom receives many frustrated phone calls after I’ve been unable to get interviews for my journalism stories. When I finally do find the right person, a person who’s willing to talk to me for hours—to the point that I have too many quotes to fit into a 400-word story—I realize that there is an aspect of reporting that I enjoy. But after all that—calling people to get interviews, conducting hour-long interviews, transcribing 1000-word interviews, taking pictures, and getting audio sound bytes—the return on investment is not much. It’s much harder to get a good grade in my journalism class than in math. So while journalism is not quantum physics, it is demanding—so much so that I genuinely don’t know if I can keep up this carefully carved journalism/pre-med plan of mine.

It’s only my second quarter of college and you can see I’m already in a quandary. I have word documents locked away in a folder, each titled differently: “Pre-Med requirements,” “Journalism Requirements,” “ImportantNorthwesternScheduleInfo,” “NorthwesternPlanningInfo,” “PotentialFallschedule1,” “PotentialFallschedule2,” “PotentialWinterschedule1,” and so on and so forth. I like knowing what I’m getting myself into, knowing how every quarter’s schedule should be, knowing exactly how my next four years are going to pan out. For someone who tears her hair over every decision—whether it’s choosing between coffee or tea, Thai red or green curry, Cocoa Puffs or Fruit Loops—this period in my life seems like no other. What if I make decisions I’ll regret later?

I arrived in Medill feeling very cool. Here I was, a South Indian and one of only three Indian American girls in the entire journalism school, and while it was strange, it was also nice not to be clumped with every other brown person at Northwestern. People often asked me outright, “Wait, your parents actuallysupport your pursuing journalism?” I know of Indian American parents who won’t even fund their children’s private school education unless they major in something related to math and science.

Right now, however, the logical side of me prefers to do math and science all day to protect my GPA. But the other part of me—the one that has invested years in music, dance, and journalism—longs for a better balance. And therein lies my problem: do I really want to switch to being just a biology or math major?

Medical schools are eager to find well-rounded students who have majored in something other than just biology or chemistry. They want to see that students pursued something they were truly passionate about rather than spend four years of college thinking about how to get into medical school.

To parents who think that math, science, and engineering are all that matter, I’d like to say that we need a balance. I may very well give in to my Tamil Iyer genes, and I may not end up getting a journalism degree. But I’d like to salute those who marry the two—the humanities and the sciences—and do it gracefully and successfully.

Pavithra Mohan is a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

 

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