By Miranda McCann
Think about when you were 17 years old, graduating from high school, and making the biggest decision of your life thus far, choosing a college. It seems that selecting where you will spend the next four years is heavy enough, but once you figure that out, you have to make an even bigger decision – what you will do for the rest of your life. I know that when I was 17, I had no business making either of these decisions, and I have the mistakes to prove it. I began my first semester of college at Auburn University, as a fashion merchandising major.
Fast forward a few years, and now I am a student at the University of Central Florida (UCF) majoring in writing and rhetoric. Clearly, a lot has changed. I have always felt that there is a large amount of pressure to know what you want to do with your life as soon as you graduate from high school. I wanted to know if other students felt this pressure and if so, how students can take their time in finding their path. So, I sought out a few of my peers to learn about their experiences.
I first spoke with Jessica Vargas, a fellow UCF student. As an incoming freshman, Jessica thought she wanted to pursue a career in the medical field, so she declared herself a nursing major at orientation. She quickly learned that she was disinterested in the field of science and felt that she was not as enthusiastic about the field as the people around her. So, she tapped into another interest of hers and became an education major.
When she began taking classes in the education program, she realized she was unhappy in the major and no longer saw herself as a teacher. She then took the time to really ponder what direction she wanted to go in that would make her happy. Eventually, she decided to enter business School and become an accounting Major. Once she began her first class in the school, Microeconomics, she found the enthusiasm she was looking for and knew she had made the right decision. I applaud Jessica for exploring multiple different paths and not stopping until she found what her true passion was. So many are pressured.
Jessica said that she felt lucky that she figured it all out early on. “I know some people who have changed their major almost 7 times, because they were unsure of what they wanted and when they did figure it out, they felt as though it was too late. These people stayed in a major that they did not want to pursue anymore because they were already taking classes for 4+ years and just wanted to graduate.”
I also spoke to Beth Weissman, another fellow UCF student. Beth attended orientation unsure of what she wanted to major in. She had an interest in science. During the enrollment session, rather than signing up for general education courses and remaining undecided while she took some time to explore her options, an orientation team member urged her to declare being a biomedical sciences major.
Beth expressed to me that this decision had a majorly negative effect on her school career. She said she felt a great deal of pressure to declare a major and stick with it, although she was struggling in her classes. She switched to biology and eventually environmental studies, all the while she was withdrawing from classes and failing others. “Specifically being told to declare biomedical sciences affected me significantly, since that major has a larger difference with environmental studies than the general biology track.” Beth expressed to me that she also felt a lot of pressure to graduate in four years. Maybe if she had waited to declare, she could have escaped some of the stress she experienced.
Lastly, I spoke with Sierra Solaun, a UCF alumnus. Sierra graduated in 2014 with a degree in Statistics and a minor in Actuarial Sciences. Since she was a young teen, she had imagined she would work as an actuarial analyst. Her grandfather had suggested it once, and from there, that’s what she had decided she would do. She never changed her major and graduated with the same plan she had begun with. Only, towards the end of her college career, she realized that she was not so sure about the choice she had made. “The summer going into my senior year, I took a two-month internship at an actuarial firm in Texas. The day to day was brutal. I hated being stuck in a cube all day looking at a computer screen. This was the first real look into a life that I had chosen for myself. At this point, I certainly started to question my decision to become an actuary, but felt like I was too far along to turn back.”
Today, Sierra works in real estate. She has grown her portfolio over the years to almost double what she started with and has fallen in love with the field. She looks forward to getting her broker’s license and continuing to grow her business. Sierra is an example of someone who thought she knew exactly what she wanted to do but ended up somewhere else entirely. “I almost mindlessly followed the path of being an actuary… I had spent 4 years of my life dedicated to a field I had no interest in. I have since come around to a different way of thinking. College was an incredible experience. It wasn’t just about school. It was learning what freedom and independence felt like, it was meeting incredible people and going on amazing adventures.” Sierra does not look back on those four years with regret. She was able to get a lot out of college and had a great experience. However, she did say that declaring a major early had limited her ability to explore other options.
After discussing all of the facets of each of these women’s stories, I wondered if there was a solution to fixing the pressures of declaring a major–and I think I found it. Students are required to complete 36 hours of general education classes during their time at UCF. That is almost a third of the required 120 hours total.
This means that a third of our education is not focused on our major, rather it is focused primarily on classes we have already taken during our prior 12 years of school. Think about how many times you have taken Earth Science or U.S. history over the years. So, instead of continuing to repeat these classes, why don’t we let some of those 36 hours be dedicated to taking introductory courses for a few different fields of study? This way, people like Jessica, who have an interest in science, education, and business, can tap into each interest and see which one they feel suits them.
This path would eliminate the pressures of declaring a major before beginning your first semester of college. It would also eliminate the stress of graduating on time, because it would allow students the time to explore without the clock ticking since the time would be built into that four years. People like Beth would have the time to educate themselves on the different fields of science before deciding which one is right, which could ensure that no one falls behind. Students like Sierra would have the ability to explore and maybe figure out that the path they thought was it, might not be.
Let’s stop wasting our time on classes we have taken for years. Let’s make it okay for students if they aren’t ready to declare a major yet. We need to support each other in the process of figuring out what it means to be an adult. So, let me be the first one to say that it is okay if you don’t know what you want to major in. It is okay to decide that your current major is not for you. Let’s take the right steps to figure out how best to support students as they grow and figure out what they want their future to look like.