Friday, November 18, 2011

Luck and Puzzles

Sometimes the oddest phenomena happen at college - and I don't mean the occasional pair of pants in a tree or graffiti on the ceiling. Sometimes, as you pursue your education, things begin to fall into place and connect like puzzle pieces. There is an inverse relationship: the more broadly you explore academia, the narrower your passions become. Your interests may remain broad, but the subjects that you're passionate about become clearer, more refined, the more material you cover and the more you can chisel off.

My first year at Macalester, I was equipped with an intrigue of human rights (and no clue what they were), a vague interest in race (with superficial knowledge on the subject), and a mild interest in psychology. So what did I do? I looked at the courses available, shrugged, and signed up for what looked interesting. This led me to my first-year course, and to the professor that has become a mentor and a dear friend to me. This was one of many important lessons I learned that semester: professors are people that you can get along with, that you may mesh with very well, and who can teach you a lot both inside and outside of class.

Now with some more knowledge in race academia and a new, shiny major in Anthropology, I moved on to second year and finally took an introductory course on human rights. My socks were promptly knocked off when I realized that I had no clue what human rights were and received about the best look into it that I ever could have hoped for. This was another important lesson for me: if you have an interest, even a vague and ignorant interest, then go explore it and see what happens. If you find that you don't like the subject, then what a relief - you won't accidentally go to graduate school for it and end up in (more) debt! If you're interested in it, then great - you have a better idea of where to go next.

I hadn't expected race studies and human rights law to be combined over the course of my time at Macalester, maybe because there was no apparent scholarship or coursework available. The professor from my first year was having none of that business, so she and I worked together on a research project this last summer. Here, I learned a very important third lesson: not only can you get along with professors, but you can share their interests or offer something to them. In my case, my professor wanted to integrate human rights into the study of race, but had no background in human rights law. She approached me because I had talked to her about my interests and remained in contact with her even after the first-year course. Lesson number four: keep talking to professors you like, even if you don't have classes with them!

Now, in the present, I am preparing to study abroad in South Africa. And already I'm seeing the connections between human rights, race scholarship, Anthropology, and post-apartheid South Africa. From this, I've begun devising capstone project that integrates human rights, my summer research, my knowledge of race studies, and the theories/techniques of Anthropology. Go figure!

Did I plan all of this out? Of course not. Could I have planned it out? Definitely not. I'm not saying that you shouldn't try to look ahead and plan things out, nor am I saying that everything depends on luck. The advice I'm trying to give is to pursue your interests while keeping an open mind about what else is out there. In addition, don't think that classes are the only way, or always the best way, to learn something. Research, independent study, conversing with a professor, campus events; there are so many ways to look broadly while simultaneously chiseling things down until you have a refined idea of what you want to learn about and do. And along the way, you may find that things start falling into place.

Nothing will happen automatically. But if you give it some effort, and with a little luck, it will happen.