How Could I Choose a Major When I Wanted to Study Everything?

May 14, 2021

By Sammie Stagg ’21

In high school, I loved the meticulous logic of theorems and integrals, but I also loved the messiness of painting with my fingers. It was a joy to unpack Hamlet with my English teacher, who would sit at the edge of his desk with his eyes closed when concentrating on what he was going to say. Everything excited me, and I indiscriminately tucked every new topic into a file in my brain marked “passions.”  

In the spring of my senior year, one week before decision day, I still hadn’t figured out where to go to college. At the top of a list of pros for Grinnell College versus two schools on opposite coasts, I had written that Grinnell didn’t have distribution requirements—instead, Grinnell had what they called an “individually advised curriculum.” The lack of required courses certainly appealed to someone who needed all the self-selected class spaces she could get to figure out which academic path to go down. 

My first two years at Grinnell, I took classes on the human microbiome, South Asian religion, psychology, anthropology, the structure of the universe, infectious disease, art history, rock climbing, and dance. Each class used a different part of my brain, like the sensation you’re stretching muscles you didn’t know you had. While I thought I would spend those exploratory years ruling out fields of study, I ended up finding more. 

As the deadline approached to declare a major, I sat on a couch scouring the list of Grinnell majors, imagining what my life would be like with each one. All of the choices, however intriguing, felt like they compromised something essential about myself. Maybe, I thought, I could do a biology and English double major? But the thought was an anxious one, borne from the pressure to decide rather than from excitement. 

A friend, sitting across from me, offered a relatively obvious solution. “Why don’t you do an independent major?” he asked. 

At once, my friend’s suggestion loosened the tightness in my chest that had been there since high school. Looking back, I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before: I didn’t have to compromise. Because I could incorporate two to four departments into an independent major, I could carve a path through all three divisions if I wanted to. 

I wanted to. 

For my independent major, I united humanities, science, and the social sciences under the umbrella of public health, a topic that requires approaching from many angles. I fell in love with health as a teenager, when I would research nutrition on my own and compile notes in a notebook devoted to all things food. 

My first year at Grinnell solidified this health passion when the Global Learning Program brought me to Costa Rica, Cuba, and Denmark to study global health and carry out an individual research project on nutrition and metabolic disease. This course-embedded travel opened my eyes to the ways sociology and culture fit into health, and the research project gave me my first experience writing in-depth about health from many different angles. Cross-listed under biology and sociology, the GLP Global Health course excited me for the way it knit disciplines together to more thoroughly explore what I loved.  

In my independent major plan, I pulled classes together from the English, biology, and sociology departments to make a major called health science writing. I selected biology courses that would give a foundation for understanding health, illness, and the body; sociology courses that examined the social determinants of health; and writing classes that taught storytelling and would give me the skills to write creatively about health. I contacted professors to figure out when they planned to offer each course, drew up a four-year plan, and explained in a statement of purpose how these classes came together to form a major. 

For my thesis, the culmination of everything I learned in the major, I’ve written a collection of creative nonfiction articles about the human microbiome. In pieces ranging from lyrical to snarky, I’ve mapped the human body’s many microbial ecosystems, discussed the westernization of gut microbiome, explored the brain-like qualities of the enteric nervous system, and explained how intestinal bacteria tell your brain what to crave. 

The long process of designing and carrying out this major demanded foresight, self-advocacy, and big-picture thinking. But I came out the other side with a College-sanctioned plan to pursue all sides of myself. In crafting my own major, I learned how to carve out a nontraditional path—a skill I anticipate using my entire life. 

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