Major Rites of Passage

From First Exposure to Declaration to Graduation: Paths Through the Majors

Article by Inci Anali and Natalie Couch

Photos by Mikayla Mann and Michelle Lum

Officially, your major starts when you click “submit” on the major declaration Google Form. (Well, more like when you see your major appear on the portal.) But is that really when you become your major? Here’s what some of the upperclassmen we interviewed had to say. 

“I began to feel like an engineering major when I first got to go into the machine shop after passing by it so many times and dreaming of making the famous E4 hammer,” said Yoselin Prado, a junior engineering major. 

The class Yoselin is referring to is Engineering 004: Introduction to Engineering Design and Manufacturing — commonly known as E4 — which is taken by every engineering major in their first or second year at Mudd. Students in the class learn their way around the machine shop and make an assortment of projects, including a hammer.

“Being in the machine shop for the first time made me feel like I was close to becoming a real engineer, since building the E4 hammer is something every engineering major at Harvey Mudd does and is almost a rite of passage for us,” Yoselin said.

Senior chemistry major Jason Misleh identified collaboration in introductory major classes as time that cemented his experience in the chemistry major. That’s the time, he said, “when you’re in the thick of it with all the other potential chemistry majors… doing homework together, [meeting] your fellow chemistry students who are going to work with you a lot in the coming years.”

Another important development for Jason in becoming a chemist was in his junior year, when he was given more freedom in the lab. “What really makes me feel like a chemist is when I’m in control of my own lab space, running my own experiments,” he said. “When I came here, I initially wanted to be an engineer, because I liked working with my hands. But really, chemistry was the subject where I got to go in and touch things and smell chemicals — like smell the flowers, smell the acetone. I’m an insanely hands-on worker, and chemistry is the field that I feel best meets that need.”

Senior molecular biology major Becca Blyn also mentioned introductory classes and lab work as central to her experience in her major.

“I think I first started to feel like a true bio major in my sophomore spring. During that semester, every sophomore who is planning on declaring a major in some flavor of biology (pure bio, mathematical and computational bio (MCB), or joint bio-chem) takes Biostatistics and Experimental Biology Lab,” Becca said. “That was the first time that I got to see who else in my year was joining me in the biology department, and I had the chance to form closer friendships and bonds with other bio students.”

In terms of lab work, Becca said, “I started to really feel like I was engaged in the biology community when I started hanging out in the physical department more, to do research during the summer before my senior year, and currently for my senior thesis work.”

Maya Abo Dominguez, a senior CS major, had similar sentiments regarding her major. 

“Being a grutor really helped [make me feel like part of the CS department]. I’ve grutored since spring of my freshman year,” she said. “[Grutoring] has really helped me feel like a part of the [CS community here at Mudd] — in terms of both asking for help at grutoring myself really often, and also being able to help other people feel welcome in the CS department.”

Maya also mentioned that things started to click into place when she found herself excited about her work on the subject.

“When I was excited to work on my homework — that’s really when I felt like a CS major,” she said. For Maya, CS homework was much more exciting than core math or physics problem sets. 

As Maya searches for jobs, she finds that she’s still excited to learn more CS after college. “I’m really excited about the technical work I will get to do, and about being able to learn more about computer science. That really makes me feel that I chose the right major.” Maya also mentioned that some of the moments when she felt the most like a true CS major were the small ones, such as when she switched her laptop theme to a dark theme. “It was really small,” Maya says, “but that’s when I thought, ‘Okay, [me being a CS major is] real.’”

Senior math major Mason Acevedo started feeling like a math major when he noticed the contrast between his abstract algebra class and the classes his engineering friends were taking.

Abstract algebra “felt like pure math in a way that I hadn’t seen before” because it “pushed the level of abstraction up a notch,” Mason said. It was also “a huge jump in vocabulary and notation — we were suddenly talking about abelian groups, homomorphisms, and Euclidean Domains, [and the] alien symbols [that] represent all of them.” 

This diverged from Mason’s engineering friends’ work. 

“My homework problems involved proving theorems about abstract mathematical constructions with no connection to the real world, whereas my friends were learning about how the real world worked so they could better make machines and systems for solving real-world problems,” Mason said. “I would talk to my friends about the work they were doing, and seeing how different their work was made me feel more like a math major.”

When junior MCB major Shoshana Novik began Mudd, she wasn’t exactly sure which field she wanted to go into. 

“I thought MCB sounded like a cool major even before I applied, but I thought I would probably major in bio or bio chem because bio is what I’m most interested in, and I wasn’t confident at all in my CS abilities, and also math abilities to some degree. But then I really liked Math 19 and CS 5 Green seemed super useful, so I started feeling more like an MCB major!” she said.

The thread that holds Shoshana’s interests together is a feeling of “something finally [making] a lot of sense” which “happened to [her] quite a few times in both math and bio core classes [and] also in CS, “ when she would “finally figure out where a bug is, [and her] code would start working.”

In addition, Shoshana is “interested in neuroscience- trying to understand how we learn, form memories, lose memories. [She’s] doing research in a lab that studies Alzheimer’s disease this summer, which [she is really] excited for [as] it [is] a very important and meaningful topic” for her.

Alicia Lu, a junior CS-Math and Physics double major, had different paths to each one of her majors.

 “I was very confident that I was going to major in CS-Math when I applied to Mudd, but my enthusiasm in physics [just grew,] like a gradual crush on someone you see daily,” Alicia said. 

“When I was an undeclared frosh and soph, I had a hard time choosing between the joint CS-Math major and the Physics major. Interestingly, I had never considered Physics as a potential path prior to our Spec Rel class, which I thought was mind-blowing and highly intriguing.”

Alicia mentioned, however, that Spec Rel was not what made her declare Physics as one of her majors. “I have always felt welcomed in the department, even though I frequently doubt my fitness for the subject, as I never thought myself as particularly gifted, so likely won’t contribute much in the field. The physics faculty and my physics cohort are all super supportive. It is what people in this place have achieved that’s been giving me courage to achieve whatever goals of mine” she added. 

Today, Alicia feels strongly connected to all three disciplines, and to interdisciplinary thinking. “I share the same view with Ralph Waldo Emerson that the height of the pinnacle is determined by the breadth of the base.”

To conclude, Harvey Mudd has some really cool majors. Overlaps between the majors include similarities like collaboration and engaging coursework. Differences include abstractness vs. tangibility. But the heart of the matter is that whatever field(s) a Mudder chooses as their major, they will always have a home in this wart-astic place.

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