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View from the Top: Yael Katzwer

By web

Section: Features

February 17, 2012

When I look back at my past three and a half years at Brandeis, a lot of things stand out. One thing that truly stands out to me is the differences I see between myself and a lot of my classmates. Often when I speak to people, they will tell me how all the way back in our first year they joined the five clubs with which they are now involved and they had already chosen their three majors.

That was so not the case for me. I came to Brandeis with only a vague notion of what my major would be. I was all gung-ho about being a journalism major only to discover a couple of months before moving in my first year that Brandeis does not have a journalism major. That sent me into a tailspin. I quickly started telling people that I would minor in journalism but when they asked what I was considering for my majors, I would shrug and chuckle self-deprecatingly.

Oddly enough, everyone else knew before me what majors I would eventually gravitate toward. Upon telling my mother that I did not know what to major in, she laughed and said, “English …” as if this were the obvious answer. And she was right. I am an English major and I love it. I have loved English since high school, where everyone told me I would be an English major. I love reading all those “classic” texts and I love writing essays. Since my time at Brandeis I have taken English classes on Renaissance literature regarding witchcraft, Shakespeare and early American bestsellers. The last class was particularly fun because, as anyone glancing at the New York Times bestseller list can tell you, not all bestsellers are actually good books.

That being said, I declared my English major the last day of sophomore year on the last day in which I was able to do so. I made that deadline by a few hours. I did not even take any English classes my first year.

My second major, Classical Studies, was so far into left field for me that no one could have anticipated it. I have loved Greek and Roman mythology since I was little kid when I learned to read English using a beautifully illustrated mythology book. My entrance into Classics was very gradual. Upon arriving at Brandeis, I looked at the university requirements and saw that I needed to acquire 30-level proficiency in a language. I had taken Hebrew for 12 years and Spanish for four years and I did not really speak either of them. I figured that the third time is the charm and decided to start fresh with a new language. And by new, I mean old, very old.

I saw “Introductory Latin” and thought: why not? I ended up loving it. I stayed in both semesters of introduction Latin and then then took more semesters of advanced Latin sophomore year. One can not appreciate Ovid until one has read him in Latin. At the end of sophomore year though, Professor Patricia Johnston (CLAS) took me out to lunch to discuss Latin and, somehow, by the end of lunch, I was a Classics minor.

I was perfectly happy being a Classics minor but, somehow, at the end of junior year, I emerged from Professor AOK-O’s office, where I had gone to discuss a paper, as a Classics major. I am convinced that the Classics professors have some sort of Jedi mind power: (with an overwrought sweep of the arm) You want to major in Classics.

I want to major in Classics.

I am very happy though and absolutely love Latin, mythology, archaeology, all of it. I really recommend at least one Classics class, if not more, to everyone. The Classics department is phenomenal and I cannot now imagine myself not being a Classics major.

To recap, none of the classes I took my first year counted toward either of my majors and yet I still am managing to graduate with the typical Brandeisian overachieving double-major.

Let’s be honest, had I known for certain in what I had wanted to major back in my first year, I probably would not be as stressed now as I am. Although I am finishing, I did cut it closely. I am taking two Classics classes this semester that I need for my major and I had to substitute a few classes to make it work.

I still would not change my first year here. By not being focused on anything, I was able to take a lot of different classes and to spread my wings a bit. I took a class with Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) about slavery—both historical and modern—through the lenses of race and religion. This may sound cliché, but that class changed the way in which I view the world. I also took a class on environmental health—a dreaded science class!—and loved it. I have not taken another class like this since but I really am glad that I had the chance to take it once.
My advice to first-years is to take their time and let things come naturally. This goes for academic and extracurricular pursuits.

Everyone has heard the story of the first-year who leaves the Activities Fair signed up for a million clubs and who runs himself ragged trying to be active in 20 clubs. That was not me. I left the Activities Fair signed up for two listservs: The Blowfish and Hillel.

I signed up for Hillel because I felt I should. I had a very weird relationship with Hillel my first year; I obligatorily went to the first Hillel Shabbat dinner of the semester and to Friday night services that first Shabbat. I did not go again for the entirety of my first year.

I had gone to a Jewish high school and, as much as I hate to admit this, I had come to look at Judaism as something in which I was being forced to participate, not something in which I wanted to participate. I saw Brandeis—although it is sometimes called a “Jew school”—as my out from Judaism for a while. And I lived the life. I maintained my kashrut, but that was about it.

By sophomore year, however, I realized that I missed going to services and I missed doing something special for Shabbat. I began my time at Brandeis, basically, as an un-practicing Jew but came to realize how much I loved Judaism. Religion is incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling when you do not feel like you are being forced into it.

Sophomore year I began to go to services again and I started going to Hillel events; I made a bunch of new friends. I was often asked that year as I met new people: Oh, are you a first-year? Awkward. (I still get that a lot from people in my class—oh well.) I have now become a fixture at Hillel dinner and Friday night services and could not be happier about it. I am slowly expanding my involvement with Brandeis’ Jewish community and am falling in love with my religion anew. This year I even learned how to lead certain religious services that I had never led before and gave my first d’var Torah since my bat mitzvah!

The only other thing I signed up for my first year—The Blowfish, Brandeis’ best newspaper—I also integrated myself into slowly. I was so shy my first year that I would go in, copy edit the hilarious articles and then leave again; I was so quiet that apparently some of the editors did not know I could speak. By sophomore year I had begun to write and the editors realized that maybe there was a reason that the mute new girl had joined the comedy newspaper. It turns out I can be funny sometimes—not always, but sometimes.

I am now an editor at The Blowfish and our new members find it difficult to believe that I was not always the outspoken and immediately noticeable person I am now.

Now, you may have noticed that it says “Editor” under my byline at the top of this column. Yeah, I did not join The Hoot until my second semester sophomore year. I know, I know, for someone who considers journalism to be her passion, I waited a ridiculously long time. Part of the reason was a vacillation between The Hoot and the Justice and part of the reason was that I was afraid to take on too much. Just like with my majors, with Hillel and with The Blowfish, I fell in love almost as soon as I joined The Hoot and quickly rose within the ranks.

I love working on The Hoot for journalistic reasons—I think we put out a damn good paper—and I love the people with whom I work. My fellow editors at The Hoot are some of my best friends at Brandeis. I am not going to go into specifics and name names because, if you are still reading this, you will quit if I do that. It’s OK, I know. Whereas I had once found myself always doing work on weekends and staying in my room, I now find myself hanging out with friends and going places. (I still do work of course; I just have to plan my time better.) Joining The Blowfish and The Hoot were two of the best decisions I have made at Brandeis (I highly recommend it—nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

In summation, when I was an underclassmen at Brandeis, I was almost always panicking that I did not have these clear plans about what I wanted to do and how exactly my future in academic career would play out. It always seemed that everyone else always knew exactly which classes they were going to take semesters in advance, had planned where they were going to dorm in the coming years and had a trajectory for their involvement in their clubs. Honestly, I still feel like that sometimes but I have learned just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I may not have always known exactly which classes I would be taking weeks in advance but everything always worked out. I have learned to somewhat embrace this philosophy (at least about these things—do not take this as a permit to plan nothing). It is important to let things happen naturally.

I did not come into Brandeis telling everyone that I was majoring in English; I waited it out, took some chances with other classes and then returned to my old love. I did not come into Brandeis boasting about my Classics major; I discovered a new adoration of Latin, rekindled my old passion for mythology and learned to appreciate the subtle beauty of ancient architecture and wall painting.

I was tired of Judaism when I entered Brandeis but, by allowing my innate passion and spirituality to grow, I came back and am happier in Judaism than I ever had been before.

Entering Brandeis I knew I loved newspapers and copy editing, yet the only publication I joined was The Blowfish. I took my time to decide which serious newspaper to join and am confident that I made the right decision as I have made the friends of a lifetime.
Underclassmen, don’t make any hasty decisions when picking majors and clubs. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else and assume that just because you are doing things differently that you are doing them incorrectly. Four years is a long time and during that time you will change—a lot. Things that you may love your first year, you may feel lukewarm about by senior year. If you are trying something new and do not like it, do not be afraid to abandon it for a new pursuit. Let your majors and clubs choose you; wait until something calls to you. Do not force it; let it all come naturally.

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