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Graduate to earn 5 bachelor’s degrees spanning STEM, social sciences, humanities

Photo of Langston Tillman

Langston Tillman is earning his bachelor’s in chemical engineering, mathematics, political science, anthropology and philosophy with a concentration in morality, politics and law.

April 20, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Langston “Languini” Tillman was born in California, but moved to Taiwan with his parents when he was very young. He grew up in Taipei until he was 14 years old before moving to Tempe to live with his grandparents and attend school in the U.S.

He went to high school just down the road from Arizona State University, had family members who worked at the university and many of his friends were planning to attend. Enrolling at ASU was a no-brainer for him.

“Having connections has obviously helped me tremendously, knowing which professors are experts in which areas has really helped me focus on which classes I should take and what I expect to learn from these scholars,” Tillman said. “Additionally, being so close to the campus even before attending gave me a great feel for the campus and what it has to offer.”

When he started out as a first-year student, the thought of pursuing three degrees at once seemed like an impossible task, but he is graduating this semester with five concurrent degrees. 

Tillman is earning his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, mathematics from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, political science from the School of Politics and Global Studies, anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and philosophy with a concentration in morality, politics and law from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“It has been an odd journey, to be sure,” Tillman said. “Honestly, I don’t know where I would be without my friends’ support. Whether it’s having someone to bounce ideas off of or being able to chat about one subject or another, surrounding myself with people who care about me has been crucial.”

He started out by pursuing two concurrent degrees, but as he took more and more classes that interested him, he found it easier than he expected to add more majors. 

“The most important part is to enjoy all these disciplines so that there is always something to look forward to,” Tillman said. “Also, having so many different projects allows me to hop from one project to another. Overall, I really appreciate how big ASU is and how diverse my education has been.”

In addition to earning five degrees, Tillman was the winner of 10 awards and grants during his time at ASU, including the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and the Michael J. Konen Engineering Scholarship.

He is graduating as the current president of the Chess Club at ASU and as a member of Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honors Society. Here’s what he had to say about his time at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: I started with chemical engineering and math because, well, I liked the subjects and felt like I could do alright in them. I started taking some philosophy courses and I really enjoyed thinking about ethics and logic. Ethics, of course, is very important in engineering and design, and having a better conception of what one ought to do. Additionally, I credit a class on medical anthropology that really inspired me to learn more about the humanities and social sciences. Through that course I realized the limitations of science and how even the more innovative technical solutions can fail due to cultural or political barriers.

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

A: What immediately comes to mind was taking professor Douglas Portmore’s class on ethical theory. I had always been a consequentialist, but that class changed my mind greatly. I think that my whole conception of ethics was impacted by that class and changing how something might be justified – it would be hard to change my perspective more than that. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Well, part of it is that I have family connections with ASU, and also, I went to high school down Rural Road, so ASU was the obvious choice. In high school, I had a lot of activities that took place at ASU, so I knew the campus pretty well. I loved the large university atmosphere; I felt that I could learn a lot of the various disciplines that are housed at ASU. Additionally, being in state, ASU was financially the right move and I was fortunate enough to have been awarded a few scholarships. ASU was just the obvious right choice for me.  

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

A: Oh, dear, I don’t think I can pick just one. I think I learned a lot about how to live from professor, now emeritus, Steven Reynolds. He is a walking encyclopedia and has such a deep understanding of the world, yet he is so endlessly humble. I started to appreciate my education more during my class with him and I hope to one day be as knowledgeable as him. Additionally, I can’t go without mentioning Dr. Thad Botham, who has acted as an excellent mentor, especially with training my mind to reason clearly and logically. Understanding the subtle differences between superficially similar arguments is such an important skill, and I owe my ability to make these distinctions mainly to Thad. 

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

A: It depends on their goals, but I think the most important thing to do well in college is to go to class. I know — I’ve had my fair share of professors who essentially read off the textbook or who were boring beyond reason. No matter. Go to class. I think there are some imperceptible things that students gain by being in classes that go beyond merely learning class content. Also, this is just a personal preference, but write notes on paper instead of typing on a computer. It seems counterintuitive, but you have so much more freedom over paper than on your laptop, sketching graphs and indicating lines. I definitely don’t think it’s necessary to do that, but hey, it helped me.

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

A: I really like the Memorial Union (also known as the MU) and Noble Library. The MU is such a vibrant space and is the singular marker on campus that all students know. Perhaps engineering students aren’t too familiar with Coor Hall and philosophy students don’t know their way around Engineering Center G Wing, but the MU is always a good place to meet friends for a coffee or lunch. In my mind, the MU is the heart of campus. When I want to go somewhere a bit more secluded, I enjoy studying in the libraries on campus. Both are fantastic but I do have a bias toward Noble because of its individual study rooms. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will most likely attend the University of Chicago Law School. I was fortunate enough to have done a summer internship at the Taiwan Innocence Project where I delved into the complications in using science in court. I hope to one day work at the interface between science and law and be able to communicate between the two fields to advance justice backed by scientific reason. 

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

A: I would try to do more translational work in carbon capture and climate change. We have a lot of good technologies that can help decrease our carbon emissions, but they’ve just been held back from going into the marketplace for regulatory or monetary reasons. I would like to help in translating excellent lab results into actual implemented solutions.

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