When Arielle Rodriguez started at Montclair State University, she had no idea she wanted to study in our Department of Philosophy. This summer, however, after completing a BA in the subject, she’s off to the University of Oklahoma to study for a Master’s degree in philosophy. She was accepted into this competitive program with a tuition waiver and a teaching assistant stipend – one of only two assistantships granted per year to MA students.
Rodriguez is the sixth in a family of seven children. With older siblings who already completed undergraduate and graduate school, going to college was a given. "I knew I had to go to school to get a job, but I also wanted school to be a meaningful experience," she said.
She found her field of study by accident, by taking philosophy courses as part of MSU's general education requirements. She preferred the philosophy courses to her other courses, so she changed her major.
A passion for the subject was essential. If you don't enjoy your study and major, you're might not try as hard, she said. You might be satisfied with lower grades.
Some might wonder what you can do with a philosophy major, but Rodriguez saw it as a stepping-stone to potential careers in law, nonprofits, academia and more.
While some areas of philosophy are abstract, she said she found others to be immediately applicable — ethics, for example, or political or social philosophy. Background in these topics could be very important for any career engaging with society and the democratic process.
Philosophy coursework honed Rodriguez's communications skills as she focused on reasoning and explaining ideas clearly. Discussing ideas in philosophy is essentially arguing, she said, but in a civil fashion. She learned to lay out arguments and to critically examine other people’s ideas as well as her own.
Rodriguez polished skills outside of class too, in her technology helpdesk job on campus. There, she needed to listen and be perceptive to gauge an individual’s tech-savviness so that she could give the most effective instruction. Precise explanations were essential. She also practiced working collaboratively in a team environment—a crucial skill in any occupation.
Long term, Rodriguez would love to be a philosophy professor, but she's aware of the challenges. It’s a competitive field with few job openings. As soon as she realized in her junior year that she wanted to be a professor, she was able to talk it out with faculty members who helped her weigh the pros and cons. Then, with her eyes wide open, she set out to apply for graduate programs: taking the G.R.E., gathering letters of recommendation, and completing draft after draft of her “statement of purpose" –a document detailing the research she’d like to pursue.
Stepping outside the comfort zone
The application process helped her maximize her Montclair experience. As a shy person, asking a professor for a recommendation letter and help wasn't easy at first. But she overcame her discomfort by starting small, reaching out with an email or two seeking feedback. Then perhaps, stopping by at office hours. Slowly, she was able to get to know the faculty members, and build a network of support, people who were later able to help with recommendations and advice.
Rodriguez recommends that other students also take maximum advantage of the faculty and other resources on campus. “People want to help, and they care. You just have to let them know that you need help,” she said.
These networking skills and the willingness to try new and intimidating things, will be helpful as Rodriguez works toward a faculty position or whatever direction her career takes.
Short-term sacrifices for long-term payoff
Rodriguez was able to find success in her classes and a path after graduation because she stayed focused and carefully managed her time. She lived on campus and worked about 20 hours per week to pay for tuition and expenses. She didn’t have a car. Living on campus was helpful, she said. It was less distracting and she learned to depend less on her parents.
To manage the competing priorities of work and personal life, she tried to complete all her class work between Monday to Saturday, even if it meant staying up extra late, so she could take a break Sunday to relax, hang out with roommates or attend a family event.
Montclair’s size was a good fit too, she said. It’s small enough that you can access services but not so small that you feel under the microscope all the time.
The large, university environment lets a student get enough independence, she said, that they can be ready to take charge once they’re done with their campus experience.
In addition, to philosophy, Rodriguez also completed a major in classics and minors in religion and GLBTQ studies.