Which five classes do I remember most from my Undergrad?

I am getting ready to be a TA for the Sociology 101 lecture course at Princeton this fall and I am especially excited to see what questions the students ask and how they think about evidence and data collection to work towards answer their questions. As I reflect on how I want my discussion groups to go, I am also well aware of what classes changed me as an undergrad at Yale. I want to focus on five courses in particular that gave me tools I still refine and use to this day. 

  1. English 120 (a freshman/sophomore seminar, mine was specifically for concise writing)
  2. The Year Long Political Science Thesis
  3. The History of Mexico
  4. Statistics for Social Scientists 
  5. US Immigration Law

Whenever I begin my style edit after I draft a paper, I find myself thanking my professor under my breath. I took English 120 as a senior while I was refining my year long senior thesis. I knew I had a flowery writing style -- I credit this to many years of reading Spanish and English novels with dramatic characters -- and I wanted to develop a professional writing style that was clear and concise, above all else. I learned to chop down my sentences and test my language to see how many different ways it could be interpreted, so I could try to cut down on ambiguity without wordiness. My professor was brutal with his comments, which made me ever more eager to improve. And improve I did. I learned more about writing in those few weeks than I had in my previous 15 years of school. 

The year long senior thesis was very challenging and extremely rewarding. I can reference the work I did all those years ago even now. I completed a month of very challenging fieldwork, gathered and cleaned my own data, and wrote and edited an 80 page essay very carefully. I learned to ask for help without feeling guilty about it for the first time. I saw what it took to work with several editors (my advisor, a writing tutor from my college, my peers) and what it took to complete a project of this scale. It made all future research projects more tangible and do-able to me. I was no longer intimidated. It definitely set me on a quest to become the researcher I am today and hope to be in the future.

I took the history of Mexico in the Spring of my first year of college. It was the first time I had been offered a comprehensive history of my home country. The historian teaching the course brought color into every one of our lectures through music, debates, and theatrical performances, where we had to write scripts to retell the history after we read through primary sources. After sitting through years and years of US history in my classrooms, with brief dashes of "the rest of the world" and a year of Modern European history... this was a gift. I finally saw my family in the text. I was proud to be Mexican and felt like I had better tools for the debates I entered on immigration reform as part of Yale's MEChA chapter.

Statistics. It was a challenging course in an enormous lecture hall. But when I took time to work through the homework, attend office hours, and attempt to apply what I was learning to my research, I discovered a very powerful tool kit that I am still using today. I was forced to work with my peers and ask questions about the things I didn't understand. I think of it as the first time I learned to "manage up" in that I had to identify what I needed and be able to ask for it, without fear, to succeed. When I did well, it felt enormously rewarding. I love solving all the little puzzles I learned to identify, even today.

Finally, I was lucky to take a very difficult seminar with a practicing lawyer in my junior spring. The reading load was punishing -- I didn't do much of the reading I was assigned in other courses, choosing instead to prioritize and maximize what I was learning in this weekly seminar over all else. We learned to prepare arguments using real court cases and legislation, prepare responses when cold called at the beginning of class, and we learned how to wade through decades of patchwork laws that dictate immigration laws and proceedings. I developed a very deep respect for all of my classmates. We were only successful because we were forced to regularly work as a team -- stretching our time, energy and memory to its limits for each and every debate we had in class. We became deeply aware of each person's strengths and weakness, but without judgment or resentment. The only way to win was to call it as it was and let people play the roles we knew they could shine in and support them where they faltered. For the first time in this enormously competitive undergrad experience, my entire class displayed humility and willingness to admit when we didn't know something/ask for help, because it meant we could build something powerful together. It gave me an internal strength that made the challenges I encountered while working much easier to overcome. 

Upon re-reading my list, I am delighted that this fits well within the "liberal arts, trying many different things" scope of education. Though they were very different courses, I grew enormously in ways that complimented each other from each course. Regardless of what commentators say, I do believe a liberal arts education is extremely helpful towards producing workers ready to think creatively in the ever changing labor market. As I continue my research, I am delighted to see the many ways this plays out.