How art history and statistics helped a graduating student understand herself
When Alice Xie moved from China to California as a teenager, she experienced major culture shock. She understood the words people spoke, but conversations were still hard to follow. She often felt isolated and underestimated.
Through art, Xie found a way to explore and communicate about this period in her life. So it was no surprise when she came to UC Berkeley and became an art history major. What caught her off-guard was that her other major – statistics – helped her understand herself, too.
“How stats [statistics] works is just how our brain works,” said Xie, remembering the moment her sophomore year this idea clicked. “We receive the data – the information – from all over the place. We process them in our mind and the mind is like a ‘layer’ – a gateway or a hole. Then we create our own interpretation and knowledge and reflect it back to us or to the world.”
After this realization, Xie said, she felt “relief and also clarity in how I think about myself and my work in so many aspects.”
Xie is the only art history and statistics double major at Berkeley graduating this year. But she is one of many – 70 percent of declared statistics majors in spring 2023 – to have more than one major.
To Xie, the two majors play different roles in her life and have helped her grow in separate ways. Art history has led to her upcoming master’s degree research at School of the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, where she will research transnational activities of artists from Asia in the United States and vice versa. She said she hopes to use her studies in the field to provide a voice for herself and the cultural clash faced by communities in diaspora.
“I think it’s beautiful how cultures encounter each other and how people get to know each other, but somehow sometimes misunderstand each other,” said Xie about her experience coming to the U.S.
Statistics, on the other hand, connects Xie to her past. Her dad was excellent at math, she said, and now she can do it, too. It also balances out her work in the art world, providing her with a more structured system of analytical thinking and a scientific problem-solving approach, she said.
What she learned in each major fed the other, Xie said. Studying statistics helped her think through and structure her art history papers, for example, and art has helped her visualize statistics’ information and theories.
In the future, she may combine her interests. She said she’d like to use her understanding of data from statistics to build a database that identifies artifacts taken from China during its modern colonization and warfare. Citing the regions where these items were created and what institutions house them now could help with the restoration and potential repatriation of this work, she said.
Xie was grateful to be at Berkeley, a school with so many majors that are among the top in their disciplines where she could learn so much about disparate fields. She’s worked hard to succeed in both majors during her years here, she said.
But that academic opportunity presents its own challenges. That quest for excellence can be grueling and overtake your world, she said. She urged students to focus on balancing their desires for academic success with the need to have a more broadly fulfilling life.
“Be aware. Work hard, but don’t try to get an ‘A’ all the time,’” Xie said, speaking to future students. “For me, I appreciate how much I learn instead of how excellent [the] grades [are] that I achieve. That gives me more flexibility in my life.”
The Department of Statistics will hold its commencement ceremony at Zellerbach Playhouse on May 16 with invited speaker Joy Bonaguro, chief data officer for the State of California.
Article By Rachel Leven | May 2, 2023