By Tatiana Sanchez
During her sophomore year, Primrose Waranimman ’22 felt unfulfilled and frustrated with her computer science classes, and wondered if she’d picked the right major. A switch to pursue music therapy opened up her world to new possibilities.
When she first enrolled at SCU, Primrose Waranimman ‘22 saw herself as a computer engineer. In high school, she dabbled in robotics but for college, she wanted to dive into a new, challenging aspect of engineering—learning how to code—and go into artificial intelligence or healthcare for a career.
But by her sophomore year, Waranimman was struggling with her coursework and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. A lifelong musician and singer, she was stressed and eager to express herself more artistically.
“I was really upset and frustrated,” recalls Waranimman. “I was struggling with a lot of mental breakdowns.”
Thankfully, Waranimman wasn’t alone. She confided in several faculty members, including her music advisor, director of choral activities Scot Hanna-Weir, and Navid Shaghaghi, a computer science lecturer and researcher, who showed compassion and supported her decision to leave computer science to pursue a different path.
Waranimman also spoke with Professor Matthew Bell about pursuing psychology, a track she had considered when she first started at SCU.
“He encouraged me to make the switch and emphasized that it is never too late to change paths if I know I am unhappy with where I am,” says Waranimman. “He reassured me that I would be able to catch up and that I wasn’t as far behind as I would think. Even though a lot of the friends and family I had confided in gave me the same advice as these professors did, it was the professors that convinced me to make the switch.”
A trip to Thailand in the summer of 2020, where she interned for an occupational therapist in a private practice in Bangkok, helped Waranimman realize that she could incorporate music—her lifelong passion—into this new career path.
Come June, she will earn degrees in music and psychology with the hope of becoming a pediatric occupational therapist focused on using music to improve the lives of children with autism. Music therapy has been shown to help people psychologically, physically and cognitively by enhancing communication and social skills, improving memory, reducing stress and managing pain, among many other benefits.
Waranimman joined the Pacific Autism Center for Education in Santa Clara in April as a part-time behavioral therapist and plans to work there full-time after graduation. She hopes to pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy in the coming years.
What has it been like to be at the intersection of psychology and music?
I always knew I didn’t want to abandon my passion for music. When I was pursuing computer science, I thought that I could teach kids how to sing or play piano on the side or something like that, but I realized that wasn’t enough. After learning more about the occupational therapy track the connection and overlap between the two were much more organic. I realized I could take music classes to strengthen my skills and learn how to incorporate music into psychology and therapy instead. And that’s what I did. It’s been really, really fun and fulfilling for me. There’s a neuroscience class that goes over the psychology of the brain. It talked a lot about brainwaves and how sound tones can help with brain development and health. I thought, “That is so cool, that’s exactly what I want to do.”
What are some of the things that you do with kids at the Pacific Autism Center for Education(PACE)?
Since the children are on the autistic spectrum, their developmental and verbal skills aren’t always strong, so they can get distressed easily. Our main goal is to make sure they’re safe and to teach them skills they need to communicate. We work with the kids to meet the goals their parents set for them. For example, parents may say, “I want my child to be able to say ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ to people or ask them to open a snack, or open the door without getting frustrated. We work with them throughout the day by giving them positive reinforcement.
How do you bring music into your work at PACE?
There’s a music therapist who comes in and plays nursery rhymes and incorporates the names of the kids into songs to get them to look up and interact. I’ve noticed the kids who are shy really come out of their shell when they hear the music, which is really great and makes me super excited. That’s exactly what I want to do through music. I think there’s a lot of promise in that. Sometimes you come across kids and you try to talk to them and they won’t want to talk. But then they hear music and they’ll grab instruments and try to play them. It’s the best feeling. It’s huge. Especially when I see a kid smiling that usually does not look at people at all, I’m like, “Wow, that’s great.”
How has music been meaningful to you in your life?
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Mozart effect. My mom believes if you play music for kids in the womb, they’ll grow up to be smarter. I don’t know if that’s true—I came out to be a little weird—but she did that for me. She fed music to me from the start. I started violin when I was two. I wasn’t really good at it because of my tiny arms, but I stuck with it until eighth grade. I started piano around four and singing around age five. I wasn’t a shy kid but I also didn’t love the spotlight. Music gave me a way to express myself without having to use words. It was comforting to me. When I heard new songs or tunes, I would pick them up easily. My mom saw that I really loved it so she supported me. It became a thing for my entire life. Whichever stage I was in, even after I quit violin or piano, I was on to something else. I recently switched back to guitar and piano because that’s a little more needed in the music therapy industry. So it’s a continuation of music in ways that will help me more in the future. But the love is still there.
Music can have a profound impact on people. Describe that effect, especially when you see it play out in others.
It’s honestly such a fulfilling feeling. A lot of people see comfort in music realizing it has healing properties. Music reminds a lot of people of their childhood or great times they’ve had with friends. I’ve read a lot about the use of music in end-of-life care as well. Some older adults can’t always find the will to keep going, but then they hear their favorite song and suddenly so many memories flood back to them. I feel like music does so much for us and we really don’t realize it until we’re in a bad spot. For me it’s like a warm hug. I love that I am actually going to get to be a part of something that helps people who need it.
What advice would you give to students who are having trouble finding a career that fits their passion?
I would say if you have something you really love and you know that you’re never going to be able to let go of it, don’t be afraid to pursue it in some way. It doesn’t have to mean you add it as a major or even a minor, but make sure you keep it in your life somehow. Don’t be afraid to tell people you love something. Don’t be afraid to make time for it. At the end of the day, if you’re too stressed out, you can’t produce the work that means the most to you. If you can’t produce good work, then what’s the point? Stick to your passions. If it makes you feel better, do it. Forget everything else.