Where History Students Stand at a “STEM School”

UCSD history students share their experiences as humanities majors at UCSD, a university generally known for its STEM focus. 

UC San Diego is ranked as one of the top research universities in the world, with over a $1 billion devoted yearly to research on vaccines, wildfire prevention and more. The university is acclaimed as one of the top science innovators and centers of study and learning. Though outsiders most often hear about the science side of UCSD, the history department is just one example of a lesser known — yet no less valuable — field at UCSD.

Clare van den Vlekkert is a junior in Roger Revelle College, double majoring in history and international studies-political science. She said she’s faced some difficulty in finding her place as a humanities major at UCSD. 

“When I said I wanted to go to UCSD for history, everyone asked me, ‘why?’ You go for computer science, you go for engineering,” van den Vlekkert said. 

Nick Theodore, a senior in Thurgood Marshall College, is also a history major. He’s been content with his social and academic experience in the history department. As president of the Undergraduate History Network (UHN), Theodore has felt close to the history community. 

“I would say that I’ve pretty much been satisfied in every way,” Theodore said. 

UCSD offers various fields of emphasis for history majors, including Europe, East Asia, Africa and more. Though Theodore has been happy with the variety of classes he’s been able to take, van den Vlekkert wishes that she could find a little bit more variety. 

“As somebody who has a very non-American and non-European interest in humanities, I wish that there was a little more diversity,” van de Vlekkert said.

Robert Chung is a sophomore in Thurgood Marshall College. He’s another history major, and works alongside Theodore, serving as the vice president of UHN. He, too, has enjoyed his classes within the history department at UCSD.

 “Classes here for the most part are really good at teaching you overall history, but also sort of developing skill sets that are more of the crux of the major,” Chung said. 

The UCSD history department website states that its undergraduate program intends to “​​emphasize critical thinking, good writing, effective argumentation, and the analysis of historical materials.”

Though van den Vlekkert has witnessed some of these values, she also addressed the confusing expectations that can sometimes accompany her history courses. 

“It’s very subjective,” van den Vlekkert said. “There’s no clear cut way to be a humanities student. When it comes to grading and stuff, it’s very, ‘we expect you’re gonna write the way that we like it.’ You have to write in a way that benefits you.” 

Despite this occasional frustration, van den Vlekkert recognizes her professors’ passion and commitment to their fields of study. 

“The professors here are very passionate about what they do. If you can get a seat in those very limited classes, it’s clear that it’s very much what they’re interested in,” she said.

Theodore agreed, adding that he finds the faculty to be “very accessible.”

Many students have been able to find a community among their peers through smaller, more focused classes. Theodore noted the absence of a vibrant social culture at UCSD as an obstacle to building community. 

“It’s not the easiest place to socialize and to feel connected with people, but I would say that the classroom environment makes it somewhat accessible to find,” Theodore said.

Though Theodore has been successful in developing friendships through his history classes, van den Vlekkert found this difficult at times. 

“In the history department, most of the people that I meet in history classes are not history students, it’s more to fill out a GE,” van den Vlekkert said. “There’s still this lack, this disconnect between me and other students.” 

Out of the 55 academic-department-affiliated student organizations at UCSD, an estimated five can be categorized under “humanities,” and only one, the UHN, is dedicated to history. Dozens are devoted to bioengineering, mathematics, computing, robotics, and even other non-STEM fields like finance and political science.

In order to address the lacking social community among humanities majors at UCSD, van den Vlekkert is hoping to create a club entitled the Social Network. It will function as a space for history students and other humanities students to stay connected. 

“There was a gap in communication between all humanities majors,” van den Vlekkert said. “We came together and formed this club trying to address this gap in dialogue between humanities students through social events.” 

She hopes to act as a directory of resources for humanities students, giving them a place to get their questions answered, meet people, and increase their connection to the community.

Though van den Vlekkert initially found it difficult to integrate into the UCSD history community, her experience hasn’t been one-sided. 

“I do think that when you do start taking more classes in your field of emphasis, it gets a little bit easier, but it’s still hard trying to get through that stigma,” van den Vlekkert said. 

Chung has been fairly satisfied with the social component of his experience. 

“Coming to a large public resource university, I was surprised at how easily I think connections can be made, especially among a rather small department,” Chung said. 

Alongside the social aspect, access to research opportunities acts as another important part of students’ experiences with their major. STEM students are encouraged to participate in UCSD’s  well-known research culture. In comparison to their STEM counterparts, some history students have felt neglected with regard to these and other resources. Chung thinks that more accessible research opportunities within humanities would be a helpful addition to the history department. 

Van den Vlekkert also expressed frustration with the absence of accessible research opportunities. 

“I have to go to five different academic websites, talk to three different professors for resources, just for them to say, ‘we don’t know,’” van den Vlekkert said. “And that’s the hardest part, I’ll always be hit with an ‘I don’t know.’”

One can make a quick comparison between the resources for history majors and those of  popular UCSD STEM majors like biology. The biology major resource page is home to information sessions and workshops, experiential learning and internship opportunities and lists related student organizations. 

On the history undergraduate resources page, students can access information on academic integrity, petitioning courses, enrollment unit caps, and grade appeals. These resources appear to be much more surface-level, rather than provide opportunities to advance or apply students’ learning. 

Though Theodore has found what he’s needed in his four years at UCSD, he recognized the discrepancy between resources for different majors. 

“We might have a unique situation there where we’re kind of picking up the slack of a smaller department at some level,” Theodore said. “It’s a little bit of an uphill battle that we kind of have to work for ourselves.” 

UHN is building an internship resource, as well as a mentor-mentee program. 

“I have had people remark that in our case of UHN, some of the duties that we take on as an org might not actually be left up to students in other departments,” Theodore said.

For instance, other departments like engineering or biology would provide readily-made mentoring or resources without the necessity of a club to facilitate it. 

Despite Theodore’s understanding of humanities students as more curious and unsure, van den Vlekkert doesn’t think UCSD gives its students enough ways to clarify these doubts. 

“There’s so much emphasis on students having to pave their own path. STEM majors don’t have that problem,” van den Vlekkert said.

Although some history students feel that resources are lacking, there are other values to being in the minority at UCSD. 

“You’re at a prestigious university; this is a really good school. To be in a smaller major means that you still have access to that upper sort of faculty, really good instructors, but you’re also in smaller class environments, especially in upper division,” Theodore said.

Regardless of major, students at UCSD can take classes across countless fields of study. Chung expressed his gratitude for the breadth of classes available on campus. 

“One of the goals coming into college that I had was getting that well-rounded sort of education, at least having the opportunity to pursue that,” Chung said. 

Theodore, too, is grateful for the wide range of classes. 

“I never really wanted to narrow my choices, that’s why studying history here at UCSD was a pretty good option,” Theodore said.

Even with a smaller presence at UCSD, humanities majors can have an impact on their peers. Chung believes humanities students can help others understand different aspects of their futures and careers. 

“I think we fight to sort of showcase what pathways and pursuits could be viable for STEM majors as well,” Chung said. “Humanities and social sciences play an essential role in connecting the sciences to the real world.” 

“I want [STEM majors] to walk away with a more holistic view of what it means to be human, because that’s what the humanities study,” van den Vlekkert said.

The UHN continues to provide resources for students to explore future pathways, talk to their older peers and pursue the topics they’re most interested in. 

Though van den Vlekkert has experienced obstacles throughout her time here, she’s excited to witness and look forward to changes in the future of UCSD humanities students. 

“There is a sense of accomplishment in paving the way for future humanities students. It’s sort of turning the stigma away from being a STEM university, and saying, ‘we’re here, we do matter.’ Being a presence here at UCSD and going against the grain is just something very important in itself,” van den Vlekkert said. 

Photo courtesy of Skylar Kang of Pexels.

One thought on “Where History Students Stand at a “STEM School”

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