It was the end of my sophomore year when I decided to do a double major. Until then, I was a molecular cell biology, or MCB, student with an insatiable hunger for the humanities. While my friends took their R1A/B classes complaining about the assigned readings and essays, I found immense pleasure in studying literature at college level.
By the end of my third semester at UC Berkeley, I was thinking about switching to another major. I wasn’t satisfied with the MCB classes I was taking which, funnily enough, had nothing to do with MCB at the time. I was taking organic chemistry classes, math classes and physics classes; while all of these are extremely important for a biologist to be familiar with, of course, only taking these classes in my first few semesters meant I wasn’t getting a good sense of molecular biology itself.
I was struggling to remain interested in my classes, waiting impatiently for days when I would be an upperclassman engaged in biology deeply, and enjoy it. How could students be expected to declare majors if the lower division requirements don’t teach them about their field of interest?
With these questions in mind I was contemplating a complete shift in my academic career. I considered studying cognitive science, data science, even computer science — and I didn’t even know any coding at the time. But I had loved biology in high school, and not having seen enough of it in college, it didn’t feel right giving it up. Plus, I was scared. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future, what career I would want to pursue if not science. All I knew was what else I loved at the present, which was reading, writing and the French language.
In the spring of 2021, I declared comparative literature as my second major, and started working toward a minor in French.
The first few months I couldn’t believe it. As a student who always had good grades growing up, I was constantly pushed toward STEM. “You should be an engineer, you’re good at math!” “You should be a doctor, you’re good at biology!” Nobody ever told me I should be a writer because I love to write and read. So for me, looking at myself in the mirror and saying “I’m a comparative literature major” out loud was a dream come true. It was synonymous with saying, “I choose myself.”
To this day, I have never regretted declaring my comparative literature major. But I also never regretted not dropping MCB. Every time I tell someone about my two majors they react in the same way: “Those two are so unrelated!” they shriek. Or, “That’s so random.” Or, “What a weird combination!” They are, indeed, different and unrelated, but what nobody understands is that for me, these two fields were the perfect combination.
My second half of college was significantly better than the first, academically speaking. Once I started taking upper division MCB classes which were actually MCB classes, I started enjoying science once again. I was taking electives on specific areas of biology that interested me, such as cancer biology or bacterial pathogenesis, and I was learning so much. I also got involved in research around this time, and I loved going into the lab every day. Step by step, I was growing into the scientist I always wanted to be. But at times when the technical chaos of science and facts felt too much, I found room to breathe in literature, which was no longer just a hobby for me but also a study.
It is true that double majoring significantly increases your course load. I am graduating in four years, but for the last two years I have been enrolled in 20+ units each semester, where the minimum number of units is 11 and the average is around 14 at the school. I have certainly been a busy bee for the most part of my college experience. There have been many weeks when I was studying constantly.
But I never felt burnt out nor did I feel like I was studying all the time. When I lay on the comfortable couches at the Doe Library reading room, reading an interesting piece of literature assigned by my French professor, excited to discuss it in class the following day with the five other students in my small class, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like taking a break from the 100+ people classrooms where a professor is lecturing as you frantically take notes, preparing for a test like it’s a marathon, comparing grades and making sure you hold an enormous amount of information in your brain at any time.
While I love biology and research, the way it is taught in a school as big as UC Berkeley can be daunting. Everyone finds their own way of coping with the chaos. For me, it was my love of the humanities. By taking on more, I managed to feel like I had less on my plate.
So yes, I say to everyone who is shocked by my academic choices. My two majors truly have nothing in common, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go well together. If there are any incoming freshmen feeling torn between STEM and the humanities, just like I was four years ago, my biggest advice would be to shut your ears to the world around you. Do not listen to anyone who tells you it’s not possible to do it all. Only you know yourself better than anyone. You know what you’re capable of, and you know what’s best for you.
So, believe me when I say, I successfully did it all. And you can, too.