President John Hennessy and Reverend Scotty McLennan, dean of religious life, led a discussion titled “Translating Your Passions into Academia” yesterday. The session kicked off iDeclare Week, a newly established event series designed to assist sophomores with the major-declaration process.
The discourse led by Hennessy and McLennan was a lively one, punctuated with anecdotal accounts of their undergraduate careers.
Hennessy spoke about his longstanding passion for computer science. He recounted the rewards of approaching computer science — at a time when the field was relatively new — from an electrical engineering background.
“I was interested in computers, but [Villanova University] didn’t have a computer science major at the time,” Hennessy said. “People interested in computers either majored in applied math or EE.”
“When I went on to grad school to study CS, most students came into that class with a pure mathematics background, which I was lacking,” he added. “It was a real scramble. There was another branch of mathematics I’ve never had to do before, like group theory, and I was excited to see if I could apply the math concepts to computer science.”
While Hennessy’s academic interests remained fairly constant, McLennan’s undergraduate career was much less linear, as his law school prospects expanded to make room for his growing interest in religion.
“I was trying to pursue a psychology major and wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “I was following my passions and actually ended up being very interested in religion. I ended up going to both divinity and law school.”
McLennan acknowledged the difficulty that students face when confronting their parents with their decision to pursue a “less-than-practical” field of study.
“The parent piece can be hard,” he said. “I never forgot the day when my dad said to me, ‘Oh, wait a minute, divinity school? I mean we’re all religious, but that’s something you can do on the side. Go get a real job!’ I had to push back on that a bit and show him my passion for social justice.”
Hennessy encouraged undergraduates to take academic risks while they still can.
“You learn by doing,” Hennessy said, “[The undergraduate years] are a time when you can afford to take risks. It becomes much more difficult later on, when you’ve already invested so much time and money into a field you want to switch out of.”
When one attendee asked about what course students with multiple academic interests should follow, McLennan strongly cautioned against double majoring.
“To double major is to destroy the concept of an undergraduate career,” McLennan said. “That is, achieving both breadth and depth in a particular field. With a double major, you aren’t going to get the breadth and depth of the two subjects.”
President Hennessy agreed on this point, adding that “overseas studies, honors theses writing and independently run research” truly make the undergrad experience worthwhile.
“Choosing a major is like going to a dance,” Hennessy said. “It’s fun to have a lot of partners to dance with but it’s nice to go home in the end with the partner you’re going to stick with.”