Was I academically prepared for college? Yes and no. The focus of my high school instruction was breadth, not depth. Having this breadth prepared me for a liberal arts education, not the rigorous engineering major I pursued my first year at Carnegie Mellon University. In hindsight, I should have realized how unprepared I was. I took honors Physics in ninth grade. I was lucky to fit a semester of AP Calculus in my senior year.
To give a perspective of how unprepared I was for my major, let us return to my first Mechanical Engineering recitation of the year. At Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering, you take core requirements starting from your first year. In recitation, the teaching assistant (TA) instructed the class through practice problems. One question on the problem set that day involved a complex diagram of a car engine held by massive steel chains. I looked on the diagram, alarmed by how many missing forces I had to calculate. There were six in total. Three were upward forces from the chains pulling on the car engine. The other three were located on other parts of the engine. The TA remarked that solving this multi-part question required a firm grasp of “SOHCAHTOA,” a shorthand mnemonic device used to remember the ratios necessary to find the sine, cosine and tangent of a given angle, respectively. But what triangles? There weren’t any triangles, only chains on the diagram.
So what was the solution? The TA began to draw right triangles next to each chain, in order to determine each missing force. He explained that when forces come at an angle, they distribute their impact along the x- and y-axes. The force has an x-component and a y-component. I recalled these components from my Physics class from four years back. But in this problem, components made no sense. It seemed arbitrary where the TA drew his triangles.
In recounting this experience to my academic advisor, he asked me if I would consider tutoring in order to have someone help me learn the material. While I appreciated his advice, I told him that I was not invested in the material enough to want to learn engineering. I explained how in high school, I flourished in my literature classes. My interest peaked while discussing literary details of the assigned readings we studied in class.
Noticing my excitement, my advisor Kurt offered to connect me with the advisor of the English department. I exuberantly consented as I had discovered that moment that Carnegie Mellon has an English department.
Meeting Laura for the first time excited me about what I could study in English. She suggested me courses based on my passion for activism. Reading the university’s database of courses, I saw how versatile writing classes were. There were writing classes on education access in Pittsburgh, argument, legal rhetoric, graphic novel critique, critical gender studies, disability studies, environmental protection, and history. The fact that all of these courses counted for my major sparked an immense joy that resists description.
I visited Laura periodically to talk about my academic progress. She praised me for working so hard and even invited me to events of the department. She added me to the English majors email distribution list to learn about internships, courses offered in the next semester, and even writing scholarships. Hearing about all these opportunities convinced me that being a writing major was not a dead end. Writing was very much a major brimming with opportunity; it would require initiative on my part to reach for it.
Kurt led me in a new direction, whereupon I met my current advisor Laura. Their extensive knowledge of the majors they advise helped me to see the opportunity that exists in writing careers. I was convinced that writing was right for me; that’s why in August 2017, just before starting my Sophomore year, I became a Professional Writing major and dropped my major in engineering.