I can still recall the day college admissions results were released in the spring. In my own hubris, I was expecting a plethora of options from top schools around the country. I actually ended up with only two schools to choose from, Caltech and Columbia University, before Decision Day. “This is gonna be easy” I thought to myself. I was not thinking correctly. I was being a fool.
Contrary to the typical stereotype of a Caltech student, humanities were a big issue for me in deciding where to go to school. While many of my peers (somewhat understandably) may moan and groan about the humanities requirements here at Caltech, I was looking to take more. One of my greatest passions lies in the humanities. In college, I wanted to take as many courses as possible about music and maybe even get a degree in it. The heavy STEM nature of Caltech was off-putting; were there going to be enough classes for me to take in music? For a degree? Would I even be able to learn about it in any capacity? I knew Columbia had the resources. A much bigger school with many departments and a wider focus will tend to have them. I was torn between going all in on my major, mechanical engineering, or branching out and pursuing more opportunities. It felt like I was facing this unforgiving fork in the road, two options that were polar opposites. Picking one would forgo all that the other had to offer. However, things weren’t as dire and simple as that.
I talked to a lot of my peers in discord servers for both Caltech and Columbia. I expressed my concerns, namely that I would be lacking humanities at Caltech and engineering at Columbia. I received strong reassurance from both sides. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t go wrong. I mean, I was choosing between Caltech and Columbia University for crying out loud! I soon came to realize that I wouldn’t be missing out completely on something if I chose a school. In the end, both schools have plenty to offer and are fairly well rounded. Well then, how did I come to a decision? Honestly, the decision process for me involved several other factors. In the end, all these factors pushed me to choose Caltech, and I haven’t regretted it since.
--> Me: Happy with my decision.
My journey with humanities didn’t stop when I made my college decision. In fact, once I got to Caltech, I realized that it was just beginning. The first term of my freshman year I had the opportunity to take a freshman seminar. A freshman seminar is a class with only freshmen centered around the discussion of a somewhat niche topic. Generally, there’s not a lot of work and most of the grading comes from class participation. I knew immediately what I wanted to take: The Science of Music. It combined the art I wanted to learn with the subject I felt most confident in. It was perfect. Unbeknownst to me, it was being taught by 2004 Physics Nobel Prize Winner David Pollitzer. Honestly, when I found out, it was just one of those “only at Caltech” moments. At the same time, I was also taking a humanities course on the ethics of how we conduct AI. I knew next to nothing about programming or computer science. Amazingly, I didn’t need to know anything about anything. I received a really solid and surprisingly broad foundation in philosophy before diving into the philosophical issues of AI. I was blown away by how comprehensive, multidisciplinary, and straight up interesting the class was.
At Caltech, you are required to take roughly one humanities course per term (3 terms in a year). Of course, you can always take more. You can take courses in social sciences, English, history, foreign languages, philosophy, the fine arts, and more. You have the ability to major and/or minor in some of these fields as well. Of course, we all know that not a lot of people necessarily come to Caltech for the humanities courses, but I encourage prospective students reading this to not completely forget about non-STEM courses. Just as you were attempting to be well-rounded in high school, you should continue to diversify throughout college. Although they are a requirement, simply glossing over these classes would leave you missing out on a lot of really cool stuff. I used to not care at all about AI, but now I see it as one of the most interesting dilemmas facing humanity today. My second term humanities course blew my mind as I learned about tons of different forms of pollution, environmental issues, and social dynamics fueling the ever growing climate crisis. Third term, I discovered a passion I had for Victorian literature by branching out and taking an advanced, writing intensive English course. It wasn’t easy, but I really went out of my comfort zone and I’m glad I did. Sometimes at Caltech, we get bogged down in numbers, data, or computers. Humanities at Caltech aren’t there to just give you a break from all that. They’re also there to help you grow in ways you never thought you could.