Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 6, 2021

Leading a double life as a double major

By Stephanie Yu | October 6, 2005

At 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday, Levering is bustling as usual. Amid the mad rush of students racing for a decent spot in the Salsa Rico line and the recruitment flyers littered across the tables, sits senior Chris Kovalchick.

Little to anyone's knowledge, he is currently skipping class to eat lunch. Kovalchick chews mechanically, finishing off his meal -- a slice of pizza and a bottle of water.

The seat next to him is filled by his book bag and his violin, which he carries everywhere. The instrument rests in a black canvas case littered with a multitude of colorful patches, like war medals on a uniform.

Kovalchick doesn't have much time to chat. He has a long day ahead of him with violin lessons on top of his engineering courses. It won't be long until he has to catch the JHMI shuttle.

But such a tight schedule is what comes with the territory when you're pursuing a double degree from Hopkins and Peabody, as Kovalchick is doing.

The double degree has always been considered one of the greatest achievements of a Hopkins education.

Hopkins students are already labeled as the brainy kids, the overachievers, the ones who always pull their own weight in group projects, even if it means staying up until three in the morning to make sure everything is done perfectly.

But double degree-ers take up to 30 credits per semester and seldom complain. To be a double degree-er is to set aside time for homework and for practice.

Though it means more work, achieving a double degree also means graduating with a B.M. (Bachelor of Music) from Peabody on top of a B.A. or B.S. from Hopkins.

Upon applying to universities, double degree-ers have to be accepted into both Hopkins and Peabody; only a handful of students in each year fall into the category.

Kovalchick's classmate, Ben Jackson, is one of those students. To the untrained eye, Jackson is just another college kid. He has a thin and wiry build, wears glasses and has one of those black Jack Daniels shirts with the white lettering from the label emblazoned on the chest. What you wouldn't expect is that Jackson leads a double life, playing trumpet concertos with the same gusto that he tackles engineering problem sets.

Last semester, Jackson took 28.5 credits. His typical day involves getting up at 7 a.m. and catching the JHMI shuttle to Peabody. After a few classes, he rides the shuttle back for some more classes on the Hopkins campus.

At the time of day when most Hopkins students finish their last class, Jackson catches another shuttle back to Peabody to play in the ensemble orchestra. And, despite multiple shuttle rides in between the two campuses, Jackson still sets aside time to practice his trumpet.

"I'm in class twice as much as a normal student, which leaves half the time to do twice as much work," Jackson said.

Kovalchick has a similar schedule. From Monday to Wednesday, his days start at 9 a.m. and end at 7 p.m., and that doesn't include evening orchestra practice, which ends at ten.

"It's a lot of work. You have to be pretty motivated; it's not just about being an over achiever. You have to like what you're doing or you'll end up dropping," said Kovalchick.

For both musicians, their love for music began early. Jackson began playing trumpet at the age of 10 and continues to enjoy playing classical pieces.

"If I was just an engineer I'd probably be crazy," he said. "I practice to relax and play all my emotions out."

At three years old, Kovalchick decided to pick up the violin after watching an episode of Sesame Street in which world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman appeared with Elmo.

"I thought that if I could play like that, I would get on Sesame Street," he says. Eighteen years later, Kovalchick is performing solo concerts and is a principal violinist for the Peabody Symphony Orchestra.

But the musical achievements aren't the end. Last June, Kovalchick received first prize in the International Student Paper Competition of the Society of Experimental Mechanics for his work in experimental techniques.

Jackson is currently working on Project ULTRA (Unmanned Land Transport) with his classmate Rueben Brewer.

The two designed Brewer's 89 Subaru to be driven by a remote control technology, which could be later used by troop or supply trucks in Iraq.

With so much under their belts, it's easy to think of the double degree-ers as the comic book heroes of the Hopkins undergraduate world, leading double lives, possessing secret powers of time management and the powerful ability to be a concert musician. They don't need the "glasses on, glasses off" secret disguise, only their instruments.

At 2 p.m., the umbrellas that shade the tables in front of Jazzman's Caf5f cast long shadows across the red brick.

It's Sunday, the last official day to finish homework before the onslaught of the weekday, and much of the campus is deserted, save for the cubicles at the library.

"It's a beautiful day," remarked Jackson. His voice was tinged with a slight shade of regret that he can't spend more of his time outside.

Before going back to finish his homework, Jackson excuses himself to make a stop at Silk Road. Even Superman had to eat once in a while.

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