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Philosophy major leaves legacy of opportunity for undergrads

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April 22, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

It’s not every day a superstar in your field of study chauffeurs you across campus but that’s exactly what happened when internationally recognized linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky’s GPS led him to the wrong end of Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

Luckily, graduating senior Nathanael Pierce was happy to hop in the back seat and guide Chomsky to the University Club, where he delivered the keynote address at ASU’s inaugural Undergraduate Philosophy Conference.

As president of the Undergraduate Philosophy Club, Pierce helped secure Chomsky’s participation.

“It was a little surreal,” Pierce said. “But we thought it’s just so audacious of us to ask, it might just work.”

So he composed an email to Chomsky, who responded the next day in the affirmative.

The impetus for the creation of the conference came in part from Pierce’s own experiences at other undergraduate conferences around the country, including the Southern Appalachian Undergraduate Philosophy Conference at the University of North Carolina Asheville and the Steven Humphrey Undergraduate Philosophy Colloquium at the University of Louisville.

A history and philosophy double major, Pierce is an ardent proponent of involvement in academic pursuits beyond the minimum requirements and wanted to bring that opportunity to students at ASU.

“We were motivated to contribute something that's kind of lacking in Arizona,” Pierce explained. “These conferences are great ways for undergraduate students to get motivated, be exposed to new ideas and make connections that will last a lifetime and help advance their careers.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: The summer going into ASU, I went to Norway and I volunteered at a hostel at the base of Skjolden, which is (on) Norway's largest fjord. There was a guy there who ran the hostel who was a philosophy professor from Colorado. So it was during that summer in the fjord where I got exposed to a lot of different questions and different people and I realized how relevant philosophy was. Then, my first semester at ASU, I was an engineering student. Hated it. It just was not me. My strongest classes were the ones like The Human Event, where you read and you write. So I decided to follow my strengths and switched over to philosophy.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I think I surprised myself with how far I can push myself to succeed. Going into ASU, I always struggled with self-doubt. But what I learned most here is that if I just keep pushing, if I “embrace the suck,” as one of my friends says, then I can really succeed and do well. I've grown in knowing how to dialogue with others about different things. These days, at least online and in the newspapers, things are really charged, and people don't know how to talk to one another very well. At ASU, the philosophy faculty have really taught me what it’s like to carry on a debate, what it’s like to unpack an idea, an idea that's not yours, and not to assume the worst in other people just because they think differently from you. Something else I've learned here is just the value of community, and that nothing is done by yourself. Except for your papers.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I thought if I do well here, I can do well anywhere. If I do well here, there's no limit to whatever graduate school I can go to. That's the truth. People here have gone to places like Carnegie Mellon, to Berkeley, to Princeton. So there's just no limit to where a Sun Devil can go. I also wanted to stay close to home and make sure things were affordable. And I've been really impressed with our faculty. Our faculty are very intelligent, very kind. And they really invest in their students, too, personally.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I would say Professor Steven Reynolds. Usually every semester I take one or two classes from him. He's taught me the value of asking simple questions. The virtue of the obvious is one way to put it. You take his classes and he just asks these really simple questions that almost betray his intellect, because he's a phenomenally intelligent guy. But it teaches you how intellectual humility is really important.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: There's so much you can do. So much to learn. Learning about learning is really important. Do the readings, go to class. The best way to impress your professor is to actually do the readings. They'll notice. Get involved in a club at ASU. Get connected to people. Go to office hours. Apply to undergraduate opportunities. Conferences, journals. Start now. The best way to show a graduate program that you'd be a good fit is to show them that you are a good graduate student right now.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I love the reading room on the third floor of Coor Hall. It's got a great library and people pop in and out all day. It’s kind of a hub for philosophy majors.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Right now, I'm applying to a bunch of internships and academically-related opportunities. So tentatively, some summer school opportunities at places like Rutgers and University of Michigan. I have my eyes set on graduate school. I have some choices but I haven't applied anywhere yet. But eventually I want to get my master’s (degree) and then my PhD, and hopefully teach. I might pick up a divinity degree on the side.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: You know, trash has always bothered me. You can look at pictures of like 100 years ago of places from Norway to New York, and the thing you notice is there's just no litter on the ground. So I would invest more in research of how to get rid of trash.

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