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Making the Most of a 5th Year in CollegeVicki Nelson
As I was preparing for my junior year, I took time to reflect on what I’ve accomplished thus far and to envision what I want my future to hold.
It’s hard to imagine that two years ago I had no idea what I wanted to study, and now I am more than halfway through my sociology degree.
As is common at liberal arts colleges, I declared my major during my sophomore year. I'll always be grateful for the time I was able to spend exploring areas of interest through experiences in the classroom and discussions with professors and my peers. As an incoming student I was completely untethered; my interests ranged from visual arts to computer science and environmental science. Over the course of a few semesters I considered majors like peace and justice studies, international relations, geoscience and art history. Ultimately, there was no one thing that cemented my course of study. My decision to major in sociology arose from the confluence of many different experiences I had throughout my freshman year.
While it is more than possible to change your course of study within undergrad and beyond, declaring a major is still an important decision. From my own experience I can recommend that students experiment, ask questions of professors and their fellow students, research career paths and reach out to experts, all while committing to following their intellectual curiosity.
Freshman year I explored courses in many different areas. They all helped me discover what I valued in the classroom, but my two most unexpectedly positive experiences were in sociology courses.
One was an urban studies class I chose on a whim, and the second was a required writing course taught by a sociology professor. I was surprised to find that even the most difficult projects in these classes didn’t feel insurmountable to me. For maybe the first time in my academic career I was engaged in work not because I thought I should be, but because I was actually curious about the material.
I certainly don’t mean that they were easy. I’ve never been very confident in my skills as a writer, and both of these classes involved writing paper after paper. However, my interest in the field made suffering through long papers possible, and over the years I've gained more confidence in my writing.
The professors I had were extremely passionate about their fields, and their excitement in talking about their pursuits helped me to imagine myself doing similar work. As I began to pursue the idea of the major more seriously, I researched historical and contemporary figures who had also studied sociology, and was impressed by the variety of people and career paths that I encountered.
In the course of this exploration, my college’s career mentor was able to connect me with alumni who were interested in talking to me about their academic and professional experiences in sociology. Getting to know all of these professionals helped me to address my questions and concerns and feel more optimistic about my own future.
Although older mentors were very helpful to me, my biggest consideration was the kind of students I had the opportunity to work with in my classes. I found that so many sociology students were passionate about their studies and were using their academic pursuits in inspiring ways. I enjoyed the atmosphere in my classes and found that students were willing to talk about their observations of the department. Many of my peers were also able to engage in meaningful study outside of the country, which was something I'd always hoped would be a part of my education.
It wouldn’t be fair to pretend that I don’t still face doubts about my decision — after all, it's a rather large and expensive one. Sometimes I feel guilty about choosing a major that defies my parent’s expectations. My dad would have preferred me to major in biology and become a doctor, and sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice to ignore his wishes. Shouldn’t my parents have a say in what I study if they’re paying for my education?
Whenever these thoughts are brought up, I’m reminded of the experiences of a friend from high school. On the request of his parents he made it barely one year into college on a pre-med track only to change majors because his grades and mental health suffered so terribly. He is now infinitely happier studying in a field that he is actually interested in and is able to get so much more out of the financial investment his parents are making in his education. I know that my parents can’t always see the value of my sociology degree, but I know I'm getting more out of my education because I am intrinsically motivated to pursue it.
It also helps to remember that what I study in college doesn’t have to cement what the rest of my life will look like. Many working professionals are successful in areas which have nothing to do with what they studied as an undergraduate. For example, my mom has a degree in microbiology and just retired after a successful career as an elementary school teacher and administrator.
For now, I can relax and enjoy learning, knowing that my education will continue (in some capacity) far past these four years.
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