One of the hardest parts about entering college, going through orientation, and even deciding where to go to college, is choosing your major. But what people don’t often tell you is that once you enter college, that decision doesn’t just disappear: there will be times you question your choice of major, there will be times you change majors accordingly, and both of those things are okay.
People often ask me why I chose chemical engineering as a major: a question that has become ever more frequent in the last year as I have become more aware of my post-grad interests in environmental policy and shifted my extracurricular involvements and internships to reflect this non-technical focus.
Admittedly when I first chose my major when applying to USC (and other engineering schools), I had little idea of what engineering encompassed, let alone chemical engineering. As many chemical engineers do, I chose my major because I was good at and enjoyed chemistry and math, and this major seemed like the perfect mix of those things. Another reason was that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after college, and I thought that engineering, especially chemical engineering, which is applicable to: pharmaceutics (which I was initially very interested in), energy, materials, and even law and finance, would give me a broad base of skills and knowledge so that I could figure out the details later. The idea of having a reliable, engineering degree to ‘fall back on’, so to say, was admittedly a big draw of my initial choice to study engineering despite really not knowing what I was getting into.
In the last three years at USC, my understanding of what chemical engineering entails has been challenged time and time again, just as I have reinvented my own professional goals several times. I came into this major expecting it to be a fusion of chemistry and math; while this remains somewhat true, chemical engineering also involves a lot of physics: in fact, on a regular basis I actually employ more physics, thermodynamic, and mathematical concepts than actual chemistry. As someone who enjoys math almost as much as chemistry, I luckily found this not to be an issue, and one of my most mathematically intensive classes (my programming class, CHE 305: Numerical and Statistical Analysis for Chemical Engineering) turned out to be my favorite upper division major class thus far. While I wish I had known this coming into the major, Viterbi’s commitment to allowing students to take engineering classes early meant that I was able to take this class in my freshman year, and thus I already had a clearer idea of chemical engineering going into my second year of college.
After spending my first two years being heavily involved with USC’s Model United Nations team (which does a lot of policy-related debate), working as an undergraduate researcher in a nanomaterials lab (which turned out to not be my cup of tea), interning at an environmental startup over the summer, and taking several sustainability related classes both in and out of my major, I began to understand that my professional interests did not necessarily align with the typical career paths of a chemical engineer. At this point I understandably went through (several) mid-college life crises, where I considered switching majors to Environmental Engineering, Political Science, and Environmental Studies among others. Ultimately (after multiple conversations with my friends and family, who had to put up with countless hours of my melodramatic declarations that I had no idea what I was doing with my life), I decided to stay with my chemical engineering major.
Why? Several reasons. One of the biggest was that I had noticed, in my classes outside of chemical engineering (in political science, in general education classes, and in a fun law class I took too), that my approach to learning and my approach to solving problems in those classes often differed to those used by my peers with a social science background. I realized that studying engineering, and the analytic mindset that Viterbi classes had instilled in me, actually wound up being the very reason I was able to analyse those political philosophy readings and to answer those legal hypotheticals, in a way that was unique to my classmates. That realization, along with conversations I had with professionals and professors in the environmental policy field, some of whom have been incredible mentors, convinced me that entering policy with an engineering background is not an aberration, but an advantage.
All that is to say, I stayed with my major because I realized that being a chemical engineer is about so much more than just the typical, technical, path. Being a chemical engineer is about learning to view the world and its problems with an analytical mindset that aims, above all, to optimize a range of different, often complicated variables. In the complex world of environmental policy today, where policymakers and implementers have to juggle environmental, economic, legal, and social variables, this certainly seems like a mindset worth cultivating.