Majors, schmajors: Helping students choose

April, 2013

Some college freshmen possess only a faint idea of what their future major might be. Others are drawn to multiple subjects. And then there’s Kate Bjorklund of St. Olaf College.

Kate BjorklundAs a high school student in Eden Prairie, Minn, Bjorklund volunteered on political campaigns and studied French for five years. That’s right, she doubled down as a senior, immersing herself in two sections of the language in a single academic year. So the idea of a double major in political science and French seemed like a fait accompli.

But then she realized a double major required coursework devoted almost exclusively to those subjects. That would minimize new intellectual pursuits, something Bjorklund hoped to pursue.

“I wasn’t totally sure what to do,” she said.

Charting a course

Luckily for Bjorklund, St. Olaf had just launched Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat, a free weekend event designed to help students chart their course. (Quo Vadis translates from Latin as “Where are you going?”)

Bjorklund signed up for the retreat, held at a nearby YMCA camp, and listened to professors, recent grads and upper classmen recount their personal journeys. One speaker, Professor David Booth, discussed the impact of how personal narratives — the story we tell others about ourselves — greatly influence future decisions.

In Bjorklund’s case, her personal narrative centered on a passion for electoral politics, French and a possible foreign service career. Booth invited the sophomores in attendance to question whether their personal narratives might be false or outdated.

“He planted the seed that it’s OK to love something in high school, but maybe that’s not what my future will be,” Bjorklund said.

Which is why Bjorklund, a soon-to-graduate senior who is in her second year of serving as a student advisor at the retreat, dropped French from her docket. That freed her up to enroll in classes on the Middle East, Islam and Russia. Those courses expanded her worldview, an oft-cited purpose of a liberal arts education.

Quo VadisBjorklund said the retreat, now in its third year, played a key role in charting her future, which is now likely to focus on social justice issues.

The Quo Vadis Sophomore Retreat is just one of the ways St. Olaf assists students. At its Piper Center for Vocation & Career, peer advisors (usually juniors and seniors) are the first people undergraduates encounter when seeking advice.

“They’re our front line,” said Branden Grimmett, director of the center. The idea, he says, is that students will be more comfortable talking to other students — at least initially.

A major decision

The college offers many other tools to help students choose a future path, including online resources. In the “Assessing & Exploring Majors” section of its Piper Center website, there’s a list of 10 statements describing how a student might be feeling about choosing a major. Click on a feeling (“I don’t know what I’m interested in,” for example) and one gets sent to a page offering more information.

“Anxiety around choosing a major is something most students have,” Grimmett said.

Generally, the choice of major doesn’t close other doors though. Grimmett points to a colorful circle chart created by a Williams College professor showing how the majors of 15,600 university graduates connected to their careers. The result: No single major led to a single field. Instead, every major led to multiple fields, creating a burst of possibilities for students.

“This kind of data can be reassuring to students,” Grimmett said. “While professional schools allow you to do a narrow path of things, a liberal arts education builds a base for continuing the ability to ask tough questions and problem solve regardless of expertise.”

Making time for reflection

Sherrie Fernandez-Williams is also a big believer in a vibrant liberal arts education. Years ago, she earned a master’s degree in writing at Hamline University. Today, she leads the university’s innovative Bridges Program.

“We know how busy college life is for people,” Fernandez-Williams said. “Students are engaged in activities on campus, classes, homework, research projects and many also work at part-time jobs. There’s not much time for reflection.”

That’s one of the things Bridges does best. The four-credit course, which is offered every semester, is billed as a “personal and career exploration.” Fernandez-Williams leads students in multiple activities, exercises and discussions aimed at self-reflection.

“My goal is to help students find out who they are authentically so that when they embark on a career, work feels less like work and it’s more an extension of who they are,” she said. “We encourage them to go for the passion.”

Life-changing experience

Ayn Rassier at the Great WallThat’s exactly what Ayn Rassier did after enrolling in Bridges during her freshman year. “I signed up for it because I wanted to study Spanish and something else,” said the native of Minocqua, Wisc.

But she wasn’t sure what the something else should be. After interviewing her hometown Spanish teacher as part of a Bridges assignment, she decided to delay a possible education degree until graduate school. Which freed her up for other courses. Her ultimate choice: A double major in Spanish and Global Studies and a minor in Chinese.

“The purpose of Bridges is trying to find our strengths, our interests, our passions and identify our values,” Rassier said. “As cheesy as that sounds, that’s the goal. But it’s really important. Choosing a major at a university can be a life-changing experience.”

It seems to have been for Rassier. During her junior year, she chose separate continents for her personalized study abroad program: Valparaíso, Chile and Nanjing, China. By the end of her semester in Chile, she was engaging in in-depth political discussions of the Pinochet regime with her host family (en Español, of course). Her Manadrin isn’t as advanced, but after three years of language courses at Hamline and months immersed in the language, she could barter with cabbies for her visiting parents.

After returning to Hamline for her senior year, Rassier became a proctor for Bridges and continued turning to Fernandez-Williams for advice. “She’s an extremely open-minded person,” Rassier said of the Bridges leader. “She wants to get to know you as a person.”

Which is one reason Bridges is helping Hamline students connect to their futures.

By Todd Melby

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