Though declarations begin in the spring of one’s sophomore year (with the exception, of course, of first-year students accepted into the College of Letters, College of Social Studies, or College of East Asian Studies Programs), the exploratory process for many students begins early on in their University careers with the fulfillment of prerequisites and general education courses in preparation for that fateful February day.
Even at a liberal arts college with an open curriculum, choosing a major is a defining moment of students’ academic careers. A major may be the first step to lifelong academic work in a given field, directly shape a career path (academic or otherwise), or just create a stimulating and comfortable environment during students’ time at the University. Conversely, a certain course of study may disenchant or discourage.
However, it is not all cut and dry. I came to the University intent on applying to the College of Letters. It was all I could talk about all summer; I enrolled in a first-year seminar offered by the department, one that I unceremoniously dropped within two weeks. Instead, I enrolled in a math course, opting to bide my time fulfilling core requirements in the event I needed them for another major. As it so happens, I found not one, but two majors of interest and am now almost done with both. I fell in love with one major and fell out of love with another but am overall content with my choices, given that I am not interested in a career in academia anyway.
As expected, students are shaped by experiences inside and outside of the classroom. Career aspirations shift, as do academic interests. In some cases, frustration mounts, while in others it dissipates. While hopefully not inviting an existential crisis, it is common to reflect on the University experience and the level of satisfaction associated with it.
On a more positive note, early ambivalence can fade. Stephen McCarthy ’18, an economics major currently studying abroad in France, finds fault in the structure of the major’s early requirements but has come to truly enjoy his experience as an upperclassman.
“In short, the [economics] major is amazing once you have finished the core classes,” McCarthy wrote in an email to The Argus. “The faculty support of students in the Econ major is also really great, and I always feel welcome into any of my former professors’ offices. But I also really dislike my major for how much the department as a whole doesn’t seem to care about students in the first two of those courses, which are Econ 110 [Intro to Economic Theory] and then Econ 300 [Quantitative Methods in Economics].”
McCarthy acknowledged the necessity of having students successfully make it through a rigorous introductory course in order to determine who will ultimately be successful in the major, though he does consider the difficulty of those early offerings rather extreme.
“I love my major for its upper-level electives, and dislike it for how much it throws freshmen into a trial by fire their first semester,” McCarthy wrote.
Hannah Skopicki ’18, a government and Italian Studies double major, did not have it all planned out from the start. In her first year, she found the Italian department, with a fairly small number of majors, a perfect fit.
“When I arrived at Wesleyan I was apprehensive about picking a major,” Skopicki said. “Luckily, I stumbled into an Italian class one day and instantly fell in love with the subject, the language, the culture. This is definitely due to the sheer intelligence and dedication to the students that the professors have. I’m very glad to have found my place in the humanities at Wesleyan.”
For others, things have not necessarily gone as smoothly. For one student who, as he holds a position in which he serves as a representative of the University, wishes to remain anonymous, his decision to major in government has been a source of constant disappointment stemming from a lack of interest by all parties involved.
“The quality of classes in the government department is extremely low, and a huge part of that is the teaching,” he said. “I’ve been greatly disappointed with most of the professors I’ve had….The students and the people in it don’t care, which makes for bad class discussion and just for a bad learning environment when you’re the only one who wants to get into it. And that only gets fixed when you get to an upper-level seminar with fifteen people who are self-selecting and actually want to be involved. They’re not really offered frequently, and you also are discouraged from taking them until you’re at a higher level.”
Additionally, he feels that there is an undue emphasis on workload over course quality, which, over time, has led to the formation of an overall negative opinion of most courses offered by the department.
“So, [Constitutional] Law, which everybody talks about as the most amazing class ever, all it does is make you really stressed and put a really bad grade on your GPA for no reason,” he said.
Skopicki has had a rather positive experience with the same department. Her chosen career path closely aligns with the major’s academic offerings.
“I absolutely think it’s been equally fulfilling [to the Italian major],” she said. “Italian was something I didn’t expect to love as much. My experience in the Government Department is something that I expected [to have] more coming into Wesleyan. I ultimately want to work in international relations, so I think the interdisciplinary approach to my chosen field has been very rewarding.”
Career readiness has long been a topic of discussion with respect to a liberal arts education. On the one hand, employers may value the quick-thinking, versatile Wesleyan grad in a dynamic work environment. University President Michael Roth acknowledges the advantages a liberal arts graduate can bring even to more technical, specified fields.
“I think that a major in liberal education fields prepares one exceptionally well for life in a very quickly changing culture and economy like we have today,” Roth said. “All of the studies show that people who have more technical training might start off with some advantages in some fields, but over time, people who have a broad education that shows the interconnection among different fields and different issues have great advantages in the workplace.”
On the other hand, however, the struggle to adapt the academic, liberal arts mindset to the workplace still goes largely unaddressed. It is up to both students and faculty to seek to fill this gap in the educational process.
“I think the ability to think through what one’s doing at Wesleyan in relation to what one’s going to do after they leave is an important thing to develop while you’re a student, and I think we have to do a better job at that,” Roth said. “In other words, I don’t think it’s right that if I’m a history major, that I’m actually making believe I’m going to be a historian when I graduate. Just because the professors are professors doesn’t mean they should treat the students as if they’re mini professors. Students should learn skills about thinking historically that are going to serve them well after they graduate.”