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Breaking Out of My Academic Comfort Zone

Zoë describes 5 challenging classes she took to illustrate the importance of academic exploration at Carleton.

Zoë describes 5 challenging classes she took to illustrate the importance of academic exploration at Carleton.

Upon arriving at Carleton, I was wowed by the autonomy and flexibility I had as a first-year to pick whatever classes I wanted to enroll in. As a self-proclaimed “humanities gal” I was hesitant to expand my horizons and try new subjects in which I had no previous knowledge. In high school I thoroughly enjoyed my English, History, Philosophy, and Spanish classes—Math and Science never came as naturally to me. Coming to Carleton, knowing the academics would be rigorous and the expectations high, the prospect of taking classes in fields I did not consider myself naturally gifted in was daunting.

Carls Come from a Range of Academic Backgrounds

I think it’s worth noting that Carleton students come from a wide array of high schools all over the country and world. There is a range of ability and talent spanning all academic fields. Some people, like me, arrive feeling more confident in their writing and reading skills, while others feel their strengths lie in STEM. Regardless of your background and perceived skill sets, Carleton will ensure that you try out a variety of subjects before declaring your major at the end of sophomore year—how else could you discover what you are truly passionate about?

My friends come from a wide variety of high schools with different academic options and curricula.

After you read this, I encourage you to check out my friends’ blogs about their experience with Carleton’s liberal arts curriculum. In their blog posts, Kelly gives a helpful rundown of Carleton’s graduation requirements, Ben discusses fulfilling his Arts Practice requirement as a STEM kid, and Joe talks about their journey as a Sociology-Anthropology or Computer Science major.

And now, without further ado, here are the 5 classes that I took during sophomore year that at first struck me as intimidating. Despite the challenges that these classes posed to me during the academic term, I am happy by how I rose to the occasion and got outside of my comfort zone to try something new.

Spanish 205: Conversation & Composition

Though I loved Spanish in high school, taking a language in college seemed like a whole new ballgame. I’d tested out of Carleton’s language requirement by taking International Baccalaureate Spanish in high school but still wanted to take a higher level language class. By sophomore year it had been more than a year since I had engaged with the language.

Luckily, I hadn’t lost my Spanish skills like I thought I had, and thoroughly enjoyed speaking again, as well as sharpening my reading and writing skills. For my writing in particular, I picked up a lot more complex grammatical structures and was able to incorporate them into my speaking as well!

Geology 110: Introduction to Geology & Lab

This was probably the class I was most nervous about. I signed up for the class without any prior knowledge about Geology, and very little experience with completing a science lab. My professor, Cam Davidson, was incredibly helpful and encouraging, which made all the difference. Additionally, my three-person lab group was absolutely fantastic, and we collaborated so well. 

girl in arb
One of my geo labs involved going on a “Rock Scavenger Hunt” and correctly identifying about 10 of them. This large rock was one of them!

Venturing into the arboretum to test our aptitude at rock identification and measure the velocity of various streams were some of my favorite, most memorable labs. I ended up learning a ton about various rock types and formations, and also learned about environmental issues in the context of geology.

Renewable Energy Systems

I took this class in Copenhagen, Denmark while I was studying abroad. Knowing very little about renewable energy, I enrolled in the class to learn more about a topic that is becoming increasingly important in the world. No better place to learn about sustainable energy than in Denmark, either—Copenhagen is one of the most green, environmentally-conscious cities in the world.

Nell and me atop Copenhill.

Initially I was concerned that I would not gain a sufficient grasp of the material without a solid basis of knowledge going into the class. However, the professor was engaging and learning about renewable energy in a place that is such a leader in the world was an exceptional opportunity. In fact, my class got to bike to Copenhill, an enormous waste-to-energy plant with a ski hill atop it, for an experiential outing.

Linguistics 110: Introduction to Linguistics

Linguistics was another class in a field that I had no previous knowledge about. My interest in the class was piqued since I have always enjoyed learning Spanish. Additionally, I’d taken a Sociology-Anthropology course that touched on the social implications of English idioms that perpetuate negative stereotypes about animals. I also wanted to learn more about language acquisition, but had little to no idea what the class would actually touch on.

I ended up finding it really interesting! From learning about the nature of language and language emergence to more technical concepts like syntax, ergativity, phonetics, and vowel harmony, my understanding of linguistics greatly expanded.

Studio Art 113: Field Drawing

I am so glad I spontaneously decided to take this Studio Art class. I was browsing the course catalog with very little idea of what I wanted, and all of a sudden Field Drawing caught my eye. An opportunity to have class in the gorgeous arboretum during spring term, and learn how to use various artistic mediums like watercolor, charcoal, and pen sounded like a blast.

field drawing
Trying my hand at using watercolor to paint fruit.
field drawing
The tree I drew for my midterm exam using pen and watercolor.

I was so enthusiastic about the class, except for the fact I was a novice artist. With very little experience drawing I worried my artistic skill would pale in comparison to extremely talented classmates. While my peers did end up being incredible artists, I was still able to hold my own and benefit from the instruction of Dan Bruggeman, a Studio Art professor at Carleton who offered terrific advice, criticism, and encouragement. My drawing skills visibly improved over the course of the 10-week trimester.

To Sum it Up…

So there they are, the 5 classes that most scared me because they weren’t in fields I was super confident in. Yet, I ended up having great experiences in all of them, mainly because of the encouraging professors, supportive classmates, and motivation on my end to absorb the material and try my best! 

I truly do not think I would have had the joy of taking these classes had I not gone to a place like Carleton, where academic exploration is not only encouraged but required. Taking care of a Lab Science, Arts Practice, and Language requirement may initially seem taxing, but believe me, they are there for a compelling reason—for students to get outside of their comfort zone and ensure that they major in a field that genuinely interests them.

Zoë is a junior Sociology-Anthropology major who loves traveling and studying abroad, taking photos, and luxuriating in long walks in the glorious Arb. At Carleton, some of Zoë’s favorite pastimes include frequenting the various coffee shops in downtown Northfield, playing cello in the orchestra, participating in club soccer, and spending time with friends. Meet the other Bloggers!