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Philosophy 101 Leads to Unexpected Path

"Sometimes I get asked why I changed my major from biochemistry to philosophy," says Jacob Swenson '07, who recently received an American Graduate Fellowship. "But if you ask 'Why' long enough, even your organic chemistry professor will eventually point you to the philosophy department."

After Swenson chanced upon Philosophy 101, "it was the beginning of the end" for his well-laid career plans. He had wanted to work as a physician. "I came to realize the power of medicine," Swenson says of two stints in Senegal, West Africa, where volunteer activities included work in a rural medical clinic.

Swenson co-authored and published a paper in a professional science journal and orchestrated student visits to local schools with the Willamette Chemistry Club, demonstrating science experiments for children. "We hoped to ignite student interest through substantial -- and exciting-- chemical reactions," he says.

But he was becoming increasingly consumed by philosophical questions, even lugging his well-thumbed philosophy books back to Senegal for his second visit. "It was kind of weird. Every night my Senegalese family and I would gather on the porch around the TV. While they watched soap operas, I read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling."

Back at Willamette, Swenson read Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in the chemistry lab as the centrifuge spun and joined in late-night discussions with the Philosophy Club. And then led discussions. And then organized a film group that discussed the philosophical and theological themes of films. Classes in philosophy and reading groups in the park jostled with required science courses and lab schedules.

"Eventually, I realized I had a deeper passion for philosophy than for science. Philosophy was the best place for me to explore the questions that fascinated me," he says.

"I can't think of any better training for philosophy than science, with its tight structure and clarity. As a science student, I was concerned with understanding precisely how physical processes came about, but philosophy introduced me to an entirely disparate set of questions about the self, God and values. These questions, it seems to me, extend beyond the scope of empirical science. For example, we can't think of God as located in time and space. If we did, we would be on a wild goose chase. Similarly, we cannot answer questions about what is good or beautiful through scientific experimentation. Just imagine trying to design a scientifically sound test to determine what one should do when faced with a particular ethical dilemma, like lying to protect a friend.
"Philosophy students are trained to think about the world in the broadest possible sense. Every discipline has its theory and ground rules. In a connected and rapidly changing world, it is important to sit back and analyze the wider picture. And you need to navigate between different fields and transcend traditional boundaries. Philosophy gives you those skills."

Swenson is especially interested in exploring how our scientific and humanist vocabularies interact, and how they diverge. His American Graduate Fellowship from the Council of Independent Colleges -- one of two in the nation awarded each year -- will provide graduate support as he heads to the University of Chicago for a PhD program in philosophy.

Swenson set aside his goals of helping others through medicine, but found a different path. "Willamette is such a socially engaged place, and you feel a pull toward tangibly helping others," he says. "But each person has something different to offer."

He wants to teach philosophy in a small liberal arts college someday, where he hopes to foster the same attitude of inquisitiveness his professors encouraged in him. "I would like to engage students in a 'life of the mind,'" he says, "to pass on the same opportunities I have received."

For information on this scholarship and others, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the second floor of the University Center.