I was a first generation, “undeclared” college student back in the 80’s, when there were few resources for someone like me. I knew I wanted to “help people,” but at the time I had no idea what that meant. I had taken a psychology course in high school and liked it, but when I broached the subject with my parents, they were not supportive, questioning how I would find a job and support myself with that major. I too was at a loss, because I could not think of another major of interest. I know now that there were many other majors and careers I would have been interested in and good at had I known about them. After ten years of working in this industry advising undeclared students, I understand that. But at the time, I was in the dark about how such things worked, and to whom I should go to for advice and support. Like many first gens, I thought the degree itself was a ticket to the world of work.
My parents relented, but in one respect, they were 100% correct. Fast forward to graduation, with that psychology degree in hand, and I had no idea what to do next. This was a major that required me to figure out what I wanted to do with it.
It took me a few different tries to figure that out. I had an internship at a juvenile detention center, I interviewed for jobs with my school’s career services office, and I made my parents happy by working at an administrative job for the state. Each of these experiences helped me develop more skills and taught me more about my career interests.
Eventually, my experiences led me to advising college students – specifically, freshmen who are unsure about their own majors. Each year at orientation I share these lessons that I have learned, and lessons that my former students have taught me with students and their families. Here are a few that I would like to share with you, whether you are a student yourself or an instructor trying to help your students navigate their majors and careers:
Trust your student’s instincts. Tell them to pay attention to the obvious, even when it may not be so obvious to them. For example, I worked in an advising college for three years as an undergrad and loved it. It took me four more years to learn there was a master’s degree and an entire profession for advisers and higher education professionals.
As long as you can pay the bills, embrace being a late bloomer! By the time I “figured it out,” many of my friends who thought they knew what they wanted were already disheartened with their “chosen” fields, and ready to make a change.
Take the pressure off! Students are choosing a major, and in many cases they take more general courses than major courses. Focus instead on what they wish to do with their degrees someday, and strategically encourage them to pick up skills and experiences along the way.
Remind your students that career paths are rarely straight lines. It is only through working that we are ready to stretch in new directions, based on our work experiences.
And finally, breathe. Just breathe. As a parent of a rising college sophomore who changed his major mid-year, I understand from an interesting new view. When he said “…it’s okay to change, mom?” I said “…Yes, yes of course it is. You are a typical college freshman, and this is to be expected. Follow your heart. Follow your instincts. And go with what sparks the fire and makes you want to learn more. We will figure out the rest as you go.” I’m excited to see the rest unfold.