Senior Retrospectives: Steven Park

Steven Park is a cognitive science major with a correlate in both biology and computer science. During his four years at The Miscellany News, he has served as the science columnist for the Opinions section before rising to the position of Opinions Editor and Webmaster.

As my final semester draws to a close with graduation season just around the corner, I can’t help but be reminded of that one article I wrote for The Miscellany News at the end of my second year at Vassar. Back then, I was a member of the newspaper staff as a science columnist for the Opinions section, writing about the latest exciting research that had caught my attention and using various sources to break down common misconceptions that society loves to perpetuate. The article that I wrote in early May was titled “Moving beyond the science/humanities dichotomy,” and it was essentially an opportunity for me to rip apart the popular notion that studying STEM is a surefire path to success that the humanities can’t hope to provide.

As evidence, I pointed to studies conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation and the Urban Institute that failed to substantiate the incredible claim that STEM fields have this terrible labor market shortage with countless job openings just lying around for anyone to pick up. I’m sorry, overbearing tiger parents and indecisive trend followers who bandwagon onto a STEM major solely for its name value—scientists and engineers aren’t immune to high unemployment rates, either.

But the point of the article wasn’t to badmouth STEM (I mean, I’m still a science major, after all) or suggest that the humanities will solve all of your problems (they won’t). Rather, the message that I wanted to direct to all the students reading was that they should find ways to combine elements from both the humanities and STEM to introduce a new perspective to a pre-existing discipline. By mixing and matching aspects from both sides, an endless landscape of career possibilities is born. That’s why I love Cognitive Science so much and why it ended up practically defining my four years at Vassar College. After taking an introductory class with Professor of Cognitive Science Kenneth Livingston and then the absurdly work-heavy “COGS 211: Perception and Action” course taught by Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science John Long, I was so completely enamored with its ingenious vision of integrated learning that pushed against the traditional segregation of subjects and instead embraced the interspersing of countless different areas of study. What other department at Vassar would let me combine my love for animal research, robotics and long-form essays?

At this point, enrolling at Vassar and majoring in Cognitive Science of all things almost seem like fate, even though I don’t believe in such things. In truth, integrated learning was what sparked my interest in school in the first place. While attending Radnor Middle School, I was the type of person to draw in notebooks instead of paying attention, and would fall asleep in class on a regular basis. Needless to say, I felt aimless and didn’t see the appeal of shuffling from Math to Social Studies to French to learn what I thought were things that would never be relevant outside of school.

What woke me out of that mindset was Soundings, the eighth grade Integrated Learning Program. Created in 1998 by former Radnor teacher Mark Springer, it was a radically alternative curriculum with no letter grades, which shaped its lesson plans based on what the students wanted to learn. For the first time, math, science, English and history were each used as a tool to tackle a topic of our choice in different and creative ways. Once given the freedom to pursue what I wanted to learn, I ended up writing a 20-page final research paper on the connection between mental disorders and creative genius that drew from more than 20 sources, including an in-person interview with the school’s psychologist. So naturally, when I stumbled upon Cognitive Science for the first time during Orientation week at Vassar, I felt a peculiar sense of déjà vu. That spine-chilling feeling didn’t return again until this year, while I was looking over my completed 74-page senior thesis on morphological computation and snake locomotion.

The parallels don’t stop there, either. Besides Cognitive Science, the one other defining element that has shaped my time here at Vassar over the past four years is, of course, The Miscellany News. For some reason, student newspapers never fail to ensnare me in their grasp. I started my first year as a member of the copy staff, wrote articles so frequently that my name (and one other person’s) was set as the default text for the author bylines in Adobe InCopy, officially joined the staff as a columnist by my second year and finally rose to the position of Opinions Editor by the end of my third year.

What I find amusing about this progression is that I originally never planned on investing this much time into my college newspaper, much less becoming a section editor. And yet, my experience with The Miscellany News became remarkably similar to my experience with my high school student newspaper, The Radnorite—right down to becoming the editor of the Opinions section. All of it by accident, honestly. How truly bizarre.

Looking back on my four years at Vassar, I’m surprised to say that I have no regrets. Absolutely none. My time at Vassar was an absolute joy, and even with the late-night homework grind and my unhealthy sleep deprivation, I wouldn’t change anything if I had the chance to redo this experience. That’s certainly something I didn’t expect from a liberal arts college I knew nothing about when I sent in my Common Application and supplemental essays.

In the senior reflection I wrote for my high school newspaper, I concluded my piece with the following statement: “[M]ost importantly, remember that where you go for college doesn’t matter; it’s what you do there that really counts.” While I won’t take back those words, I will confess that the college you attend will greatly shape you as a person. To all my friends, peers, faculty and others, thank you for granting me these wonderful past four years.

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