Get stories and expert advice on all things related to college and parenting.
Success Looks Different for Every StudentJennifer Sullivan
Before I entered my first year of college at the University of San Diego, I confidently told my parents that I wanted to major in Environmental Studies.
They were supportive and excited, but definitely surprised since this idea essentially came out of nowhere. The main thing guiding me in this direction was a general concern for the natural world; I was never obsessed with any science classes I took in high school and didn’t take AP Environmental Science my senior year. Nevertheless, I started down this uncertain path, registering for multiple Environmental Studies classes my first year.
I ended up loving the Environmental Studies classes I took freshman year even more than I expected to. Highlights were the Intro to Geoscience class, where we got to camp in the Anza-Borrego Desert amidst geological features that I'd only seen pictures of in class. Another was my Organisms and Ecosystems class, where a common lab was heading to local tide pools to examine organisms that we'd studied the day before.
Despite my enthusiasm for all the classes I was taking, by the end of my freshman year I was faced with a tough question from some of my friends and other adults in my life: “So, what are you planning to do with that major?” I HATED this question — mostly because the hard truth was that I had no idea.
I love the idea of my entire life being planned out, so the pressure behind this question started to get to me as I traveled back home for the summer. Seeds of doubt grew fast, as frustrated conversations with my parents centering on me having no idea what I wanted to do with my life became nightly occurrences.
At home and far away from all my peers, advisor, and favorite professors, it was easy to convince myself that the Environmental Studies major didn’t make sense for me. I told myself that, since I didn’t know what I would want to do with that degree, I needed to change.
My summer turned into a desperate search for an alternative as I looked for a new passion that might turn into a feasible and more realistic career path. Throughout high school, I'd volunteered every year at a summer camp for elementary schoolers at my church. It was always a highlight of my summer and I loved spending time playing with kids. This summer, I started the camp with a different outlook — maybe this love for kids could turn into a career.
After a week of leading at the camp, I came home to my parents with a new conviction. I was going to switch my major to Elementary Education. My parents were surprised — again! — but yet again also very supportive. They told me they thought I would be a great teacher and cheered me on as I frantically tried to change my class schedule before the start of fall term.
I felt confident in this decision because it made sense — I love kids and, in the grand scheme of my life plan, I would know exactly what career to expect for the rest of my life. It was comfortable.
I entered my sophomore year optimistic that I was now finally on the right track. I was excited to take classes like Intro to Elementary Education and Elementary Math for Educators. My Environmental Science advisor was sad to see me go, but she assured me that if I ever needed her help, she would be there.
My semester in my new major started off great but by October, I was burnt out. I found myself constantly frustrated as I did my homework of addition and subtraction problems, wondering how I would ever have the patience to teach this to young people if I couldn’t handle relearning it myself. Yet again, I found myself doubting if this was the right major for me.
I ended up reaching back out to my old advisor, asking her for any guidance. While I didn’t know what I wanted to do with an Environmental Studies degree, I loved the classes so much more. After lots of conversations, we came up with a plan that made sense for me. I switched my major to Environmental Science (rather than Studies), where I would take a more research and science-based approach to the environmental field, allowing for multiple career options for my future. This way if I wanted to, I could teach middle or high school in science topics that I love, but I could also head into the science field and do research as a career. This also meant that, hopefully, my junior year I would get to do my dream study abroad program studying the environment in Kenya.
I remember the phone call to my parents well — I laughed as I told them that, yet again, I was changing my major. However, we all knew that this time would be different. There was a certainty in my decision that I hadn’t felt the other two times I'd declared a major.
When people ask if I'm frustrated that I “wasted” a semester, I tell them that it doesn't feel like it was a waste at all. Now it’s so clear to me that I needed to change my major the first time in order to understand where my true passions lie. My sophomore fall semester led me slightly off course, but also put me back on a track that I could not be more confident in.
So, with that, my advice to my fellow undeclared/indecisive students is don’t be afraid to try things and take classes that might not make sense in the moment! If I hadn’t taken a semester to explore something else, I would still be doubting a major that didn’t entirely suit me. Without the support of my parents, who patiently listened to my panicked phone calls, and my advisor, who graciously dealt with my indecisiveness, I wouldn’t have been able to switch my major and feel good about that change.
Through this process I learned that it’s okay to not have all the answers about my future. I still don’t have a perfect answer as to what I want to do with my degree when I graduate, but I know that I'll have good options and that whatever it is, I’ll be doing what I love — and that’s enough!
It’s time to celebrate with the perfect gift for your new grad!