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Boris Fishman '01, Editorial staffer, The New Yorker

Slavic Languages and Literatures

Why I chose Slavic languages and literatures

I was born in the former Soviet Union, and by 12th grade became interested in learning more about my heritage. That said, I was anxious about the major's utility after graduation, as were my parents. In the end, I went ahead for two reasons: I had no competing passion for another subject, and the University had gone out of its way to impart to entering freshmen the notion that targeted, practical study was the province of graduate school, whereas the undergraduate years were intended for exploration and indulgence of intellectual curiosity. I decided to take the administration at its word.

Unexpected advantages

During my years at Princeton I became increasingly interested in journalism, and soon after graduation landed a position at The New Yorker magazine. My choice of major was an inadvertent help during the application process. After hiring me, my boss confided that his eyes had been bleary from all the indistinguishable English-major applications he was sifting through; my major caught his eye and made him curious why I had chosen so atypical an academic course.

Then, there is the matter of personal attention. Some people prefer to vanish in a group, but if you thrive on access and intimacy, there is hardly a better academic venue than a smaller department. Though Slavic languages and literatures courses fill large lecture halls, there are only several actual majors, so that we three or four divided among us the counsel and insight of some dozen professors. This kind of dynamic enables a rapport unavailable in larger departments.

Lasting value

Princeton -- and, I would venture, college in general -- is less about acquiring concrete information than developing critical skills of intellectual analysis. Three years out of college, I remember far less about Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov than about how to interrogate the contents, motives, and intentions of a tremendously complex narrative. Though the book is a masterpiece, I will have far less use for its immediate content than for what it taught me about how to engage with the world of ideas, a skill I call on daily in my work and private life.

Certainly, if you wish to obtain a job in consulting after graduation, it's a good idea to have several econ courses under your belt. But I don't know of any classmates failing to obtain entry even to specialized postgraduate courses of study, such as medical school, explicitly on account of choosing to major in an ostensibly ''irrelevant'' subject.

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