Major decisions

After returning home from my Duke Engage in Charlotte this summer, I spent a good chunk of my month before school thinking about school. Perhaps too much of that time. But this year is an important one. Sophomore year is major declaration year.

For someone like me, whose interests vary widely and don’t seem to make any sense, that idea is intimidating. It doesn’t help that I’m a planner. That tab in DukeHub that allows you to plan out your courses for your entire time at Duke? Yeah, I’m the person who’s made at least five different potential paths, depending on varying combinations of majors, minors and certificates.

People keep telling me that it’s not a big deal, that your major doesn’t determine your life path. And they’re right. I know they are. But that doesn’t diminish the anxiety I feel when someone asks me what I’m studying. I wish I were able to say with certainty, “This is what I want to do. This is who I want to be.”

I came to Duke thinking I would be a public policy major and headed to law school after graduation. My first semester, I thought I might do environmental sciences and policy. Second semester, I tried physics. Over the summer, I had a job in education. Now, I’m taking computer science 201, public policy 155, art history 232 and French 304, along with doing a Bass Connections about girls' math identity.

It’s the same with my extracurriculars. They are all things that I’m passionate about and really interested in, but together they don’t exactly make the most cohesive story. The Chronicle, obviously, is a big one, but so are Science Olympiad, frisbee and APO (the service fraternity).  Then there are also my on-campus jobs: the Duke Innovative Design Agency and recently, a collections repair assistant in the libraries.

I have a passion for art, science, athletics, journalism and service. All of these pursuits have given me something, and they have also allowed me to explore a different part of my identity. But the question for the future is, how do these fit together? And how can I choose just one or two of these to pursue more deeply?

Well, at one point this summer, I stumbled across some videos of art conservation. I took a sharp turn away from policy and science to think about art for a while. I spent hours watching conservators from various museums test and clean art objects, then treat them to better display and preserve the pieces. I pored over websites detailing requirements for art conservation graduate schools and compulsively searched for information about gaining experience and exposure (read: internships) to the conservation field.

I think this idea seemed a little odd to my parents and friends. Even I thought it was a little strange. I hadn’t expressed an interest in continuing to pursue art history beyond my high school AP class. I think I may have suppressed that interest due to expectations from peers, friends, family and even myself. The expectation that I do something grand and important and distinguished. Now, that doesn’t really seem to matter so much.

I think — I hope — that stumbling across art conservation and rekindling that interest in art history will be good for me. It’s a small field, and requires excellence in understanding and creating art, as well as a firm grasp of chemical principles. It’s a field that will push me to be better and to continue to learn. To me, the preservation of art and culture is vital because future generations deserve to experience art in the way that we can now. It’s a shame that so much has already been lost to the ravages of time.

At this point, this is the path that I may pursue: work that preserves our cultural heritage for the future. It’s not terribly glamorous or prestigious in the eye of a typical Duke student — it certainly doesn’t make much money — but it’s important to me.

I’m still apprehensive, though. I feel like I’m taking a fairly large step away from the beaten path, heading into a field that I don’t think my parents ever expected and that not many Duke undergraduate students go into, as far as I know. I’m still in the process of feeling out the field, attempting to find guidance and learning more about what working in conservation would really be like. That’s a big part of why I jumped at the opportunity to work in collection repair, and so far, it’s been good. The first day was a little crazy, with the thunderstorms, flooding and potential conservation emergencies. The work I’ve been doing wasn’t quite that exciting, but I like it.

I hope this spark continues to grow into a lasting passion for the work that I’ll be doing. I worry that it could just as easily die down again in the face of social pressures and diminishing novelty. But for now, I’ll try to let go of those worries and enjoy what I’m doing. Ask me again how I feel in March.

Selena Qian is a Trinity sophomore and Recess features editor. 


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