Discovering Happiness: My Experience with The Liberal Arts

Ever since I was young, my mom would tell me the importance of being balanced: eating balanced meals, balancing work time and play time, and so on. As a kid, I took this advice to heart, making sure I ate my spinach and saved time to practice piano and go to music theory class on Saturday mornings after doing math homework. Music has been a part of my life ever since I was five, so it’s not too much of a surprise that I have been sticking with it even in college. In fact, I’m not an anomaly at all: Many people at Swarthmore have some involvement with some facet of the visual and performing arts. Students here do tons of activities and take classes that are outside their major, and don’t feel like they’re skipping out. How is that possible? The answer: a liberal arts education!

A Broad Approach to Learning

One of the best things about being at a liberal arts college and majoring in STEM is that I can pursue many fields outside of science and not feel like I’m missing out on the biology program. Whereas other schools have much stricter rules about the number of credits needed to earn a biology degree, Swarthmore only requires eight credits before graduation.  This means that over eight semesters of college, I only need to take one biology class per term to fulfill the requirements. This kind of flexibility lets me take other classes in psychology, English, sociology, or German! Right now, for example, I’m taking Developmental Biology, Social Psychology, Psychology of Humor, and Modern British Poetry. I love that I can learn other things that I’m interested in besides biology, and connect various concepts to each other. The way I do close readings on T.S. Eliot for my poetry class translates to similar critical reading skills when I’m reading a paper for Dev Bio on chondrogenesis. Thinking about cognitive dissonance theories in Social Psychology helps me navigate my decision-making on a daily basis.

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My entry for the Swarthmore Spine Poem contest in celebration of National Poetry Month! “No such thing as silence/for the birds/in strangers’ arms.”

Making connections across disciplines helps me think more broadly about the world, and I think that aspect of the liberal arts is what gears us toward being more knowledgeable people. Whether your major is in the humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences, there is always something to learn from another subject area that might shape your thoughts and help you be more aware of the interdisciplinary networks that exist in the world around us—even if it’s something as simple as making a poem from the spines of music books.

Pursuing the Arts

I often hear people say that science and art don’t mix in college. Not true. The arts are well-attended and very much enjoyed by people of all class years, majors, and abilities. Swarthmore has been a home for my musical passions. In my freshman year, I was thrown into the world of opera when some singers (who are now my close friends) needed a piano accompanist to perform scenes from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Through the Fetter Chamber Music Program, we rehearsed an hour a week by ourselves and an hour with a vocal coach to refine our sound. I had never before played in an opera or been in a dramatic performance, even as a non-acting musician, so it really opened my eyes to the other side of classical music. 

And now, this semester, I’m breaching new territory again! Just this past weekend, I performed on the harpsichord in an opera called Dido and Aeneas, which has been a project in the works through the collaboration of the music, dance, and classics programs. I have to say that the harpsichord is pretty awesome: though it resembles a piano, it has two sets of keyboards, plucks the strings instead of hammering them to create sound, and has quite the Baroque tone. Being in the opera the past few weeks and seeing it come together as a whole has been really special. Even though it takes a lot of effort for us in the orchestra to coordinate with the dancers, singers, and actors on stage, it is totally worth bringing an operatic masterpiece to people who might not have a clue what opera is like.

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Andrew Hauze ’04 (right) conducts (and takes a selfie of) our chamber orchestra during rehearsal: the piano-like instrument that I’m sitting behind is actually a harpsichord!

Teaching and Learning From Each Other 

One thing I’ve learned in my time here is that learning never stops, even when you step outside the classroom. I remember going to dinner one day with my hallmates-turned-friends and talking about linguistic differences between Russian and Kazakh. Another time, I was meeting classmates for a biology group project, and as we were brainstorming what to do for our presentation, my friend, who is a bio/education double major, piped up and said that we could do an active learning strategy that she had learned through her educational studies fieldwork. There are endless things to learn that can help you grow and I’ve felt that my own knowledge of biology has been influenced by my peers, too.

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Two aspiring conductors teach each other about their beat patterns.

Doing your own thing is good sometimes. But it’s also important to reach out to others, hear what they have to say, and discover something new about your field of interest, about the world, or about yourself. There’s really no place like Swarthmore. Its strong foundation in the liberal arts means that I feel comfortable and happy learning about Stravinsky in the library, languages in Sharples, and the importance of communicating across disciplines in the classroom and in the concert hall.

 

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