Three Ways to Weave Your Personal Passions into Your College Academics

Growing up, I viewed my mother as the master of tricky tactics.  Determined to make me, her pickiest daughter, eat something other than pizza or spaghetti, she would find ways to fool me into eating healthy food. Usually, she would sneak light pink vitamins underneath scoops of vanilla ice cream with the stealth of a ninja. I can still recall her mischievous grin and stare as I chugged glasses of “chocolate milk,” or what I later found out to be protein-packed PediaSure nutrition drinks.

Many years later (and many light pink vitamins healthier), I formulated a new approach to my college academics that was influenced by my mother’s method of integrating her interest in my health with my interest in pizza.  No, I’m not talking about college cafeteria food –  I’m talking about my course selection, projects, paper topics, and overall approach to learning.  Just as my mother found ways to sneak vegetables into my meals, I found ways to sneak in-depth analyses of my “non-academic” interests – hip hop music, ballet, anime, and even fried chicken – into my courses in social negotiation, literature, sociology, philosophy, biology, and religion.  In my first semester of college, I quickly learned that what is considered “non-academic” can actually be an invaluable teaching tool; what is disregarded as too superficial for a deep level of analysis can actually offer substantial insight, and even increase student motivation to absorb course material.

Many studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between student motivation and achievement in comprehension.  Presenting students with subjects, texts, or assignments that resonate with their personal interests and identities increases their investment in learning, leading to more engagement with the material—from more frequent reading, to increased willingness to participate in class discussions.  Altogether, such engagement typically strengthens both students’ grasps of the concepts covered, as well as students’ abilities to see how these concepts relate to real-life situations.

I have found that there are three ways through which you can weave your personal talents, hobbies, and/or extracurricular interests into your college academics:

1.   Take unique courses.  In between mandatory courses for your major and general education requirements, you’ll have the chance to explore other interests you might have through elective classes.  From “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé” at Rutgers University to “Demystifying the Hipster” at Tufts University, many colleges offer a range of interesting courses that connect more traditional subjects—Mechanical Engineering, Theology, Philosophy, and many others—to pop culture or “non-academic” subjects that you’d be surprised to learn about in a classroom setting. You can even find courses similar to these through other avenues – for fun, I’m currently taking an online class that explores bioethics through manga, as an example.

Similarly niche courses currently offered at American colleges include the following:

  • In the “Philosophy & Star Trek” course at Georgetown University, students explore topics in metaphysics and epistemology, as well as read the writings of Kant, Aristotle, and other philosophers—all with the goal of understanding the moral and philosophical issues in Star Trek.
  • Boasting an alleged three-year waiting list, “Death in Perspective” at Kean University aims to teach students to appreciate and reflect upon life through a range of assignments, such as drafting wills, engaging in debates about the death penalty, and going on field trips to cemeteries.
  • “Physics for Future Presidents” at the University of California – Berkeley covers important topics in physics and their applications to current events – energy conservation, nuclear weapons, radioactivity, and other topics that presidents should understand in order to make certain critical decisions.

To read about more unique college courses, check out the following links:

2.  Incorporate your passions into your papers.  Even if the college you end up attending doesn’t offer these sorts of courses, you may still have the ability to incorporate your personal interests into other writing assignments. Many professors are happy to see students approach the problems presented in their classes from unique angles, and appreciate students synthesizing course material with their own passions. For example, my final paper for a philosophy course I took examined how Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul applied to the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, while in a sociology course I had the opportunity to apply Ray C. Rist’s notions of race relations to the biographies of Nicki Minaj, Tupac Shakur, and Childish Gambino.

3.  Apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to your community.  While community service opportunities can be found at nearly every university in the United States, many of these universities actually require students to complete a unit of volunteer work, otherwise known as “community-based learning,” in order to graduate.  From teaching the youth to assisting the elderly, community-based learning seeks to connect students’ academic work with purposeful engagement through service projects or internships. For example, the School of Engineering at Santa Clara University pairs students with community partners in afterschool programs to teach young kids about engineering through hands-on projects.  Such experience promotes student engagement as well as civil engagement, allowing students to engage in activities that address community needs.

College should be fun, and fun shouldn’t necessarily only mean going to parties or joining a fraternity or sorority.  Fun can also be imbued into your learning—into the way that you approach and understand the topics covered in your college courses.  Analyzing your personal talents, hobbies, or extracurricular pursuits through an academic lens can actually deepen your fascination with them while also diversifying your knowledge.  In college, I observed that students were more willing to engage in courses and activities that they found to be relevant or integral to their senses of self. If class and academics are the light pink vitamins that we sometimes have to force down our throats for our own good, then our passions are those tasty scoops of vanilla ice cream connecting film and philosophy, politics and physics, music and sociology, and countless other fields.

Arienne Calingo is an Educational Consultant and graduate of both Georgetown University and Harvard University. 

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