When I was 10, I wanted to be an archaeologist.
When I was 12, I wanted to be an archaeologist on Mars.
When I was 14, I wanted to be a secret agent archaeologist on Mars.
It was all fun and games until spring semester of my junior year, when I realized I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in life.
I liked school. I was good at school. I enjoyed taking notes, making flash cards, preparing for exams. I have always been easily enthused by a variety of subjects - law, music, foreign languages, literature, history, science. How was I supposed to only pick one and commit to it for the rest of my life?
The book and movie industry has shown me various pictures of what my life would look like in different careers. I had a very clear vision of how my day would look like as a lawyer or as a scientist or as a musician. I knew I could pick any one of my interests, and end up in an endlessly interesting major - with an enthralling career that I loved. However, something about making one of the most important decisions in my life so randomly did not sit right with me. I wanted to be able to uniquely select a particular career, and prove to myself that it was the unique best decision for me and that it would be what I was meant to do. Ironically, this line of thinking was directly foreshadowing my future career.
And then my stars aligned. I went to talk to my linear algebra professor at Northwestern University, with whom I had the privilege of taking an undergraduate course as a junior in high school. After a lengthy discussion of his research, and my college admissions process - he said words that would shape the course of my life: “have you considered going into mathematics? You're not bad at this.”
Until I heard those words, I had never even thought to consider mathematics...as a major, as a path. It’s not something that is portrayed often in media, especially for women. However, I knew that ever since my early childhood, math had been one of my best subjects, and problem solving was a task I enjoyed immensely. It made perfect sense, and everything clicked into place.
At that point, I had no idea how much I had yet to learn about the world of mathematics, and what careers would be available to me upon graduation. Looking back to senior year of high school, I knew less than a tenth of what I know right now regarding careers and professional development. Yet, I knew that the skill set a mathematics degree would give me would be applicable in almost any profession I was interested in, and that was enough. I was giving myself a 4 year delay on deciding the course of my life.
Every day since then I’ve been falling deeper and deeper in love with mathematics, and I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t an integral part of my identity. I remember describing my relationship with mathematics in a scholarship interview: “love is defined as not being able to imagine doing anything else, having anything else in your life.”
I know some of my peers aren’t as lucky as I am. Some students aren’t able to find what they love most until midway through their undergraduate experience, through a graduate degree, even occasionally further - and that’s okay! The college industry teaches us that we’re supposed to unequivocally and indubitably determine our lives with one decision. In actuality, the college admissions process (while significantly soul searching) is just the beginning of a long series of decisions that are meant to bring you to your life’s work.
Don’t let the pressure of deciding your life push you into a subject area you’re not in love with. Find something you feel passionate about, and everything else: internships, jobs, careers, will follow suit. After all, finding what you care about is what the collegiate experience is all about.