Amo Manuel is a senior at the University of Michigan, majoring in history with a minor in computer science. He was a summer intern on ACTA's What Will They Learn?® initiative.
Why did you choose the University of Michigan?
I first heard about it from my college counselor in high school and he recommended it just on the basis of its academic reputation. I looked into it more and I liked the fact that all of the humanities departments at Michigan were well regarded. There were prominent professors teaching there in strong programs. Going into college, I already had a sense that I wanted to study the humanities. At the time, I was thinking English but it turned into history later. So I just kind of wanted to get the best experience possible and get a taste of what a high-level program would be like.
Was the University of Michigan a popular destination for students at your high school?
I’m from Beverly, Massachusetts and went to a boarding school in Massachusetts called Phillips Andover. There was a very diverse international group and everyone branched out to different schools all over the country and some international schools, too. I think there was probably six other people from my class who ended up at Michigan.
What courses have you taken in college so far that have really ignited your interests to pursue further?
As far as history goes, I think the real influential class for me was a Soviet History Seminar I took during my freshman year. Our classroom was very small with one table so that we could all see each other. We would talk through some literature on the subject with our professor, Ron Suny, who was an authority on Stalin. For part of the course, we read his rough draft for his upcoming biography on Stalin, which was fantastic. I really liked the atmosphere of debate. That was really nice for me. I’ve always been keen on jumping into the discourse. It was really surreal in a way because I’d be sitting in this classroom arguing with my professor over his upcoming biography. Well, I’d be respectful. I don’t think arguing is the right term. But I would write a paper on it—parts of his biography and say, “Well, Suny says this, but…”
That was an environment that I really liked. There wasn’t any pressure to conform to a particular point of view. So, yes, that’s really what hooked me on history.
Did this class lead you to pursue other related subjects?
Yes. Within my history major, I’ve focused on Russian history, Soviet history, and a couple of semesters after that Soviet Seminar. I took a course on Russian history and culture beginning at the formation of Russia as a nation in the 1500s. We would often learn the history through the great authors like Pushkin, Tolstoy, etc. I think the class was cross-listed as history and literature and I really, really liked it.
I was able to throw in some of my interests in literature there as well, and it was interesting to see how culture, history, and politics can intertwine. That was probably the other course that really sticks out in my mind.
You mentioned that your professor in the Soviet Union Seminar really encouraged open discussion and debate. Have you experienced other professors teaching in this way, or have they opted to do something slightly different?
Yes. During my freshman year, I took an intro philosophy survey with Carl Cohen, who had been in the philosophy department at Michigan for forty years—a real old-school guy. We worked through a broad range of philosophers like Hume, Comte, Plato, Marx, and then even a couple of newer philosophers as well. But that was the very nice open discussion set-up which, as I said, appeals to me. What was really engaging about that class was that every other week we would write a paper, or there would be two groups in the class that would alternate on writing papers each week based on the books that we were reading. The professor would choose someone’s paper that he thought had some insight to it and we would flesh it out. We delved deep into that student’s ideas, which I thought was awesome. And I think it was a little nerve-wracking for people being on the spotlight like that, but it was cool because then you could, after class, talk with someone about their ideas on something that they otherwise might not have had the courage to really speak up on.
What do you like about being a student at Michigan? What things do you participate in outside of the classroom, and is there anything that you’re looking to get involved with in the future?
Well, I’m going into my senior year here so I’m not really looking for too many new activities. In general, Michigan is a pretty exciting place. It has a great campus atmosphere, especially around sports. It’s funny because when I came to Michigan, I wasn’t really much of a sports fan, but it’s infectious there with the football and now basketball—sports are a great way for the campus community to come together.
I am also the Executive Editor of a publication on campus: The Michigan Review. I’ve been able to work on my writing outside of class and for the first time, publish a piece in a public space. It’s interesting seeing people commenting online on the things that you write—people who you don’t know at all—and just seeing how that works.
What was that like for the first time when you published your first article and somebody either approached you in person about it or wrote online?
I remember the first article I wrote, I had two comments on our website and they were both really nice, so it was—I have to admit—it was a huge ego boost. That’s all I’ll say.
Have you had any negative responses to anything that you’ve written?
I have. I’ve written a couple of articles on more controversial issues, like one article I wrote on affirmative action at Michigan and my thoughts on that, which got some negative responses. But actually, after one negative response in particular that I saw on Facebook, I reached out to the person commenting and I started an online chat with them to discuss their viewpoint and really understand where their position was coming from. In the end, that negative feedback turned out to be a productive thing. I think people are a little taken aback when you ask them to actually extrapolate on their one-off comments.
As a rising senior, is there anything that you would go back and do differently?
For one thing, I wish I had taken a more serious approach to learning a foreign language, especially after working on ACTA’s What Will They Learn?® program where we emphasize foreign language so much. Right now, I’m trying to wrap up my Spanish requirements with it being my last year. I really wish I had decided early on a language and invested the time to finish it and reach proficiency.
Do you think that you will pursue a foreign language after graduation?
The good news is that with online services like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, I think it’s probably easier now than before to learn a language outside of school. I’m definitely going to look into that at some point. But at the same time, it would have been nice to get that classroom experience.
What are your concerns for higher education either nationally or at the University of Michigan?
There are a couple things: First I think that specialization is a problem at the undergraduate level at least. At a school like Michigan, for example, it’s very easy to choose a science major such as chemistry and pretty much devote all your time as an undergraduate to chemistry, while filling in the blanks of general education requirements with easy one-off classes that don’t really have a lot of weight to them. I’ve heard this from other people at other schools as well. Not to promote What Will They Learn?® too much here, but I think that a core really is important to get a broad sense of what’s out there.
Secondly, I think athletics has an undue influence on the way that schools are run and how they operate. My brother is a college football player and he talks a lot about how it’s run as almost like a professional business within the university and how it’s pretty removed from the academic environment. Sports are important, and, like I mentioned earlier, are good to have at a university. But at the same time, I think they need to be better integrated into the academic environment.
What careers are you thinking about for after you graduate?
At this point, I don’t feel like I know enough about the different life paths to make a firm decision. But for the time being and the short term, after I graduate, I’m planning on working for a think tank or a nonprofit, possibly one focused on higher education, but I’m open to other things, like foreign policy.
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