Major Decisions: Mapping my Journey to Public Health

When I graduated high school, I was still uncertain of what I wanted to focus my studies on in college. There was so much I wanted to study that stretched over a variety of fields – computer science, cognitive science, international relations, psychology, linguistics, marine biology, creative writing – until they all just simply ran into each other and promptly melted into a blank cloud of indecisiveness. In the end, on the college application I clicked “Molecular Cellular Biology: Neuroscience,” punctuated with huge question marks. My reasoning was this: I wanted to be able to learn more about how our brains work in order to understand how to improve health.

At the same time, something felt a little incomplete to me. I craved an exploration of how one major can cross the expanse of various disciplines and deliver a nuanced approach. For some people, their majors provide the foundation and underlying lens for how they approach their careers after college. These people can twist something seemingly straightforward and set in stone and apply it to pursue their passions, tackle huge issues in a variety of fields with seemingly little connection to their original major. As my coursework began to pile on the prerequisite courses for my intended major, I found myself increasingly more excited to talk with my parents NOT about those classes, but instead the elective breadth classes that explored other topics.

Cells are interesting, I’ll give you that, and it’s absolutely fascinating to learn more about how the world works around us. But I wanted also to talk about other topics, how to combine biology with the social sciences. MCB wasn’t a great fit for me. That’s not to say you can’t do amazing work in MCB or apply it to a variety of topics you are passionate about. You definitely can, and I have some friends who are fired up to talk about research projects in the field of molecular biology at a moment’s notice. This one was just not for me. Instead, I thought back to another major that had piqued my interest.

At my college orientation, they had grouped the biological sciences together when we split up for major-oriented Q&A sessions. In that room were representatives for MCB that I had applied as, Integrative Biology (a cool major that explores biology on a holistic scale, where you can choose to emphasize in Human Biology or Ecology and Organismal Biology), and Public Health. The actual representative for Public Health was unable to make it to the panel, but they briefly described it as an intersection of biological sciences and social sciences.

My ears perked up. This sounded right up my alley. You might be wondering still what public health is exactly. Health that is public? Public programs for health? The answer is: kind of both? The short answer is that public health seeks to address health on a preventive level. I describe the major as something that aims to address health by understanding not only the biological factors but also the social determinants that shape health outcomes, such as the environment you live in, the kind of lifestyle you can afford to access. It’s the kind of major whose definition changes according to who is answering, emphasizing the variety of values and meanings that people imbue it with. A quick glance at the available prerequisite courses offers you a glimpse of intersection of disciplines and interests within the major: biology, statistics, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, etc. I was lucky enough to apply to the program and be accepted, and be able to pursue classes that address a multitude of factors that impact health.

I want to address structural barriers that prevent communities from being able to access health care and healthy living, that disadvantages them by virtue of their gender, race, religion, or socioeconomic status. I want to work with populations whose voices often go unheard amidst a world against them. How do we tackle these issues of chronic disease, food insecurity, sexual violence, mental health, poverty, gun violence; and how do we do so in an appropriate and sustainable manner?

There are a lot of possible career paths that can stem from public health, which I am still currently figuring out. The thing is, public health isn’t the only major flexible enough to grow with people’s dreams and to expand into the horizons of their imaginations. The best part is that any major can do that for you, as long as you let yourself pursue something you are passionate for. In the other articles for this month’s InterCom, you will read about how my fellow writers found their way to their current or intended majors, or the deliberations that they are making while exploring their options as undeclared. Please don’t be discouraged if you are having trouble deciding. Your major should be something you are passionate about learning more about, how you want to build your baseline rather something that defines you and puts you into a rigid box. Your career comes later, building from your experiences here to blossom into a flower of your own design.

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