Blog Post

From Astrophysics to Linguistics, why I changed my degree

Since I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic and reflective over the past while, today’s post is more personal and less informative than usual. I would like to share some of my personal journey to discovering linguistics with you, along with the process of transferring from BSc to BA.

The other day, at a dinner party I wish I’d avoided, I told my best friend’s extended family that I study Linguistics and English Literature. They looked at me as if “that’s nice”, but their eyes were actually saying, a) I know about 100 other girls who study that, b) shame she’s never going to get a ‘good’ job, and c) well she’s obviously not at bright as him (the BSc Computer Science student).

I immediately justified myself, by adding that I initially started my time at UCT studying a BSc in Astrophysics. That, as always, was met with “oohs”, “ahhs”, “wows”, and “oh, you must be smart then!” To which, I further always felt the the need to clarify that I changed paths not because I failed – I actually passed, not even scraped through (ok I lie, I scraped through maths with 52), but I am proud of the 64 I got for physics – but because I wanted to. I needed to change. I was ‘living a lie’, in the least cliché manner possible.

After over a year of explaining to people why I changed from a BSc to a BA, from physics and astrophysics to linguistics and literature, I still hadn’t accepted my own intelligence and the difficulty of my courses. Yes, BSc’s are hard. Everyone knows that. It’s crazy to say a degree is “more difficult” than another, but it’s not crazy to acknowledge that degrees hold varying prestige. Telling someone you’re studying an Arts degree definitely doesn’t incite the respect and awe that a Science degree does.

But the problem isn’t with the people who judged me for not understanding entropy. I still believe that the first law of thermodynamics is that we do not talk about thermodynamics. The problem doesn’t lie with the tutor who couldn’t explain triple integrals to a girl holding back tears in his tutorials every week (yours truly). The problem isn’t even with the cocky physics professors who would drive me up the wall as they continually made fun of people who study a BA because ‘they just couldn’t pass a real degree’. The problem is that I was made to feel stupid. I let myself think I was dumb. The problem… was me.

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A photo from a lazy Sunday afternoon, where I am loving all of my literature instead of drowning in physics formulae (Photo by Joan Redelinghuys)

In high school, I was told I’m a wonderful, intelligent student. I measured all my self-worth and intelligence based on academic achievement. My first year at university disillusioned me completely. I went from being one of the top students in school to the only one who hadn’t done AP maths and didn’t know how to use radians instead of degrees.  Until recently, I hadn’t realised how I validate my intelligence by the ability to study really complex theories and apply them. By having this crazy mathematical intuition that I simply do not possess. I have so much respect for those who do, but it’s not in me, and that’s okay.

An entire year of late night drives on the Hiddingh Jammie passed. Every Tuesday, tears threatened to overflow after a 3-hour long whiteboard tutorial where it felt like I was the only one completely lost. Where it felt like I was worthless. After all of this, I transferred to English literature and Linguistics. Now this may seem like a no-brainer, I was after all awarded top of my grade for English in matric and I placed in the Top 100 of the 2013 De Beer’s English Olympiad (70th, if you needed proof) – but I’d forgotten all of that. When I walked into my first linguistics lecture, I had absolutely no idea what the course was even about, I’d taken it on a whim.

Now, in my final year, I love my BA. I freakin’ love linguistics! I’ve finally found a field that balances science with art so beautifully. The science of language. Some days I get so excited about what I learn that I just wanna tell everyone who will listen – for those who do listen, thank you.

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Praat oscillogram and spectrogram of a recording of me saying “I freakin’ love linguistics” (Image by Joan Redelinghuys)

In the past I may have wished that others would hear me say, “I study linguistics,” and instead of asking how many languages I speak, they would stand in awe and say “WOW! You must be so smart.”

But now, I don’t care what they think of my intelligence. Because where previously I was scraping by and hating myself for not studying something I love with all my heart, I now enjoy studying for every exam, I am excited for every lecture. Work in linguistics isn’t a burden, it’s not even ‘work’. It’s my passion, and I find that so invigorating. I don’t need someone else to think I’m their idea of ‘clever’ or to be impressed by my degree. I’m impressed by my degree.

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