It’s registration time again, and while much of the registration process is about the prosaic- the nuts and bolts of dates, times, and requirements- over the last few days I’ve found myself waxing existential. Registration, at its core, is about students building the road, brick by Macroeconomics 210 brick, that will lead them into the bigger, scarier forest of “the real world” and career. Yes, they will strive to build careers that will provide for them financially, but as we all know, what we chose to do in life affects so much more than how many dollars are in our bank accounts. It affects how we engage with the world, the language we use, the philosophies we claim and discard, how many sunrises we see. “What we do” becomes an inextricable part of “who we are” whether we like it or not. (If you don’t believe me, eavesdrop on the conversation at any dinner party and count how many times the question “what do you do?” is asked between new acquaintances.)
Because of this, I help all my students create a four year plan. Some students enter college with a clear idea of what they want to do in life and what field of study they would like to pursue, and for these, the primary benefit of the four year plan is that it provides a sense of scope and perspective, like seeing the box top of a jigsaw puzzle on which the finished image is revealed before diving in to a sea of strange, unconnected pieces. With these students, we can usually create a comprehensive four year plan during their first semester, and barring a change of direction, they can use it as a roadmap all the way through their senior years. Other students, however, come to college having little to no idea what they want to do, and for these the conversation can span a couple of years. First, I always remind my students who have yet to declare a major that they have time.
Freshman year is mainly about fulfilling core requirements as well as exploring introductory courses in fields of study that might appeal to them, so I encourage students to take courses that will serve them regardless of the major they eventually choose. However, at some point students do have to declare, at which time I start to dig a little deeper. I ask them to start by thinking about their skills, likes, and dislikes in the abstract. If you had the choice, do you prefer to be indoors or outdoors? Do you like your daily or weekly schedule to be pretty structured, or do you prefer to manage your own time? Do you thrive on routine, or do you need new and varied challenges in order to stay interested? If you had to do a puzzle in the newspaper, would you choose the crossword or the soduku? Do you like being part of a group or working solo? When you think about the show The Office do you think, A) “I’d hate to work in that office,” B) “I’d love to work in that office,” C) “I’d love to be in/work on the set of the television show The Office,” or D) “I’d love to have so much money that I never had to work and could spend all my days in my massive mansion watching re-runs of The Office”?
As with all students, even those for whom the path seems straight and clear, I remind them of the fundamental truth that, no matter what they choose now, no choice is irreversible. In fact, I had a student just last semester who is a perfect example of how a change in major can have a huge impact on a student’s academic success. Brad didn’t come to me until midway through his sophomore fall semester, and he was not doing well, particularly in a course on business finance. I looked at Brad’s high school as well as his college grades and quickly discovered that nearly all of his poor grades were in classes that involved math. Okay, I thought, math is just not Brad’s strong suit. Soon after Brad came to me, it was time for him to register for his next semester, and before we talked about specifics, I asked him a few questions. “So why did you choose business as a major?” I asked. After a few moments of deer-in-headlights blank staring, his face furrowed. “Well,” he began slowly. “A bunch of my friends were choosing business, and I don’t really know yet what I want to do, so I figured that would be as good as anything.” I assured him that he was very much not alone in his uncertainty, and then I walked him through what the next three years as a business major would look like. Sophomore year = math. Junior year = math. Senior year = math math math. “Now,” I said. “Having looked at these classes, thinking about your strengths as well as where your interests lie, is this something you want to do?” The answer was no. “Well,” I continued, “then I think you might be happier and more successful if you changed your major.” Brad’s eyes got big. “You can do that?!” he exclaimed. Yup. That was a year ago, and now Brad is doing well as a criminal justice major. His grades have improved significantly, and he is actually interested in his classes.
I also remind students who struggle with choosing a major that many people end up doing something in life that has absolutely nothing to do with their college majors, or who change careers throughout their lives. I think about a friend from college who majored in theatre and was an absolute tour de force as an actor but who is now a veterinarian- or of one of my high school classmates who spent twenty years as a nurse before going to law school and eventually becoming a judge. Life is an adventure, I have learned, and you never know what kind of opportunities may come along. Therefore, the most important thing is that you learn how to learn, so that when those opportunities arise, you can say “yes” with confidence, competence, and curiosity.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.