How and why students are opting to explore options their freshman year

Sydney Pope/Generation Next

At 4 years old, Sadie Webb hoped to be a cat when she grew up.

Early in high school, she decided she probably wouldn’t attend college and made plans to instead attend culinary school.

As a junior, college was back on the table and, at that time, so was pre-law.

Today, Webb is pursuing dual degrees in international studies and political science at Denison University in Ohio — and who knows, maybe she’ll choose a different path in her sophomore year.

Webb’s story is not uncommon. Plans change in childhood, and they continue to change over and over again throughout one’s lifetime — especially in college, experts say.

According to the 2018 Your First College Year survey developed by the Higher Education Research Institute and the Policy Center on the First Year of College, 34 percent of students changed their career choice by the end of the first year and a similar 36 percent decided to pursue a different major. Additionally, while some 69 percent reported having a clear idea of how to achieve their career goals, one-third of first-year students remained undecided.

Although students enter college with a wide array of contrasting priorities, one thing is clear: The freshman year is a safe window to embrace a shift into adulthood and reevaluate dreams.

Oftentimes, students who had a favorite class or club in high school decide to pursue a related major in college, perhaps oblivious to other options, says Irina Veramidis, the Senior Advisor for the Division of University Studies in the Academic Resource Center at Temple University.

Christine Spiers is one such student. Since her freshman year at Santa Fe High School, she’s known she wanted to pursue a major in political science due to her love of debate and politics, in clubs like Model United Nations, Speech and Debate, and Mock Trial.

What Spiers didn’t anticipate her first year at Western Colorado University, was that she’d discover a new passion. Because of her college’s general education curriculum, which requires students to take classes in a variety of disciplines, Spiers discovered an unforeseen fascination with economics, and she soon declared a double major.

Other students, like Domenica Nieto, end up pursuing subjects not offered in high school.

Nieto, a New Mexico School for the Arts graduate who will be a sophomore this fall at the University of New Mexico, declared her major in Chicano studies, intrigued to learn more about immigration, culture and identity. Her love of learning new things was further stimulated via an introductory Latino studies class, which lead her to pursue that major instead.

“I was always excited to go back. … That’s not a feeling I had with any of my classes except for that one,” she said.

Students may be surprised that taking initiative to ask for help can help strengthen newfound independence.

According to the Your First College Year survey, 41.6 percent of students reported they had used career services. Having just finished her first year at UNM, Alysandra Jackson emphasized that there is no right way to ask for help.

“I will go to my adviser to ask a dumb question I’ve already asked in order to reassure myself,” said Jackson, who will be a junior this fall due to credits she earned at Santa Fe High School. “Make an appointment, stand up for yourself, don’t let your problems get disregarded because they feel you’re too anxious. It’s their job to help and your job to be polite and not fail.”

Jackson is pursuing a major in psychology and a minor in chemistry.

For students like Jackson who have interests across multiple disciplines, the anxiety around choosing just one or two areas of focus can stem from the idea that once a major is decided, their career path will be fixed and their options limited.

But, “choosing a major actually opens up more job opportunities than not,” said Amy Treboni, who provides academic advising at Ohio State University.

“And if [students] work with an adviser and are willing to be creative, they can still connect to all their interests … through coursework, student involvement, volunteering and internships,” she added.

All in all, developing and discovering what one wants takes time, she said.

“Having a general idea of where you want to go … whatever your long-term end goal is, is scary to start getting to,” agreed Theo Goujon, a student at Montreal’s McGill University, who knew he wanted to enter state diplomacy but wasn’t sure how to get there.

With the guidance of an academic adviser, he spent his first year exploring different introductory courses for specific majors. That was the approach he needed to feel confident in declaring “rather than coming in with a plan and truly following it.”

But why do students feel pressured to declare so early in the first place? A lot of it has to do with getting into classes of interest. (Webb explained that if students declare their major as a first-year student and want to take certain classes required for that major, they’re given priority.) Another factor, Veramidis said, is the pressure parents can put on their children to have a finite plan.

However, Veramidis cautioned against rushed decision-making and recommended that students be as informed as possible and take time to learn about themselves; research thoroughly; and have conversations with advisers, professors and department chairs.

“It’s better to begin undeclared, explore majors and declare once, rather than changing from one major to another to another,” she said.

For many students, the first year of college is an opportunity to experience culture shock, and then to adjust and adapt. This, some say, allows growth and the self-confidence needed to move forward.

“I think students should be encouraged to explore more … so they can meet new people and take classes that are different and will challenge their own personal beliefs,” Nieto said, noting that having an open mind helped her enjoy her freshman year more than she would have otherwise. “Every college student should be able to experience that.”

Sydney Pope will be a sophomore in the fall at Williams College in Massachusetts. Still undecided, she has one more year before declaring. Contact her at sgp2@williams.edu.