Majors, Minors, and the Undecided
Shaquinah Taylor Wright is the Mid-Atlantic Director of College Access at Let's Get Ready, an education nonprofit that provides low-income high school students with free SAT preparation, admissions counseling and other support services needed to gain admission to and graduate from college. Shaquinah served as the founding College Counselor at a charter school in the Bronx where she designed and implemented a 9-12 college counseling program. Prior to that, Shaquinah was an Education Pioneers Graduate Fellow where she partnered with an education organization to design a project to help increase college matriculation for disconnected learners. She also worked for two years as a college advisor with the MGI/Gear Up program at an Early College high school.
Shaquinah received her BA from Cornell University with a major in Sociology and Inequality Studies and her Master's in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College. As a first-generation college graduate, Shaquinah has a passion for creating sustainable action to address issues of opportunity and access for students.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The first time I remember answering that question, I was probably around six years old. My teacher, the awesome Mrs. Hans, was trying to get her rowdy group of first graders to sit still long enough to contemplate the future. I remember there being lots of firefighters, some doctors, one or two police officers, and of course an astronaut.
I was going to be a lawyer. Mainly because my aunt would always tell me that I argued more than anyone she had ever met so it seemed fitting. In the years that followed, every time I was asked that question, I had a different answer. Therapist, librarian, writer, lady who lunches, etc.
When I got to high school, I decided I was going to be a diplomat. I had always been interested in history and spent the summer before senior year in Italy as a part of the Experiment in International Living. Besides soaking in lots of culture (and gelato), I got involved in some pretty interesting conversations about politics and American foreign policy with my host family. As someone from a single-parent household in the South Bronx, I was used to being labeled as disadvantaged by others. So it was pretty eye-opening to realize that abroad, I was simply an “American” and therefore considered privileged by the rest of the world.
After speaking with my college counselor about my interest, we decided I should research colleges that offered international relations programs. I developed a list of schools that were well-known for their emphasis on foreign service. I got into a few, but ultimately went with a school that gave me a better financial aid package. Even though my new university only offered international relations as a minor, I was convinced my career goal was still on track.
International Relations was not that relatable...
Unfortunately, my dreams of diplomacy and international jet-setting did not survive past my first semester. I ended up struggling through the one class I took in the field. I quickly realized it was a major that sounded cool in theory, but was ultimately comprised of way too many econ classes (and I hate math). Luckily, there were lots of other great programs I could choose from at my college, but students don’t always have that flexibility.
When talking to my students about college majors and pre-professional programs, I always share my ‘I was almost a diplomat’ story. I do so to remind students that college is ultimately about preparing you to be a working adult. And while they absolutely do not need to have it all mapped out when they’re 17, it’s still important to think about how what students study prepares them for who they want to be.
- Don’t just fall in love with one major at a college. Recommending to students that they apply to schools that have lots of majors that interest them is important. They honestly won’t know exactly what they’re getting into with a chosen major until they experience it (like all those riveting debates about the International Monetary Fund I was subjected to). I am super grateful that I didn’t attend one of the colleges that specialized in International Relations because I would have been stuck. If students only like a school for one particular program and then end up hating that program, they will probably have to transfer which can be time-consuming and expensive.
- It’s okay to change your mind. One of my former students spent her whole life wanting to be a doctor. Her family was highly supportive of this idea and took out a large PLUS loan to send her to a private college upstate. She did pretty well her first year, but the amount of studying and lab time she had to devote in order to keep her grades up meant missing out on a lot of the other experiences in college (i.e. a social life). She was still drawn to the medical field, but wanted a major that had a better work-life balance. She initially felt really guilty because her parents had spent so much money to send her to this school, but after speaking with them, decided to major in public health (which the school luckily offered).
- Putting a major on your application does not mean that’s your major. Students always have a lot of anxiety around this process. It’s important to remind students that most colleges do not have you declare a major until the end of sophomore year. There are of course exceptions to this. Larger universities often have their majors spread across smaller colleges (ex. College of Engineering, College of Health Sciences, etc) so knowing which majors are offered in each college is important.
- Majors do not make up all the classes you will take. In college, I am pretty sure out of the 34 classes required to graduate, 10 of them were in my actual major. Most colleges have core requirements, prerequisites, and a host of electives that students can choose from. That being said, students should understand what classes makeup their major. One student who was interested in studying Athletic Training freaked out when he learned just how much science was involved. Sitting down with students and looking at the individual courses that comprise a major can be a really important and eye-opening tool.
- Applying to colleges undecided can be a help (or a hindrance). Most people I speak with are pretty split on this issue. On the one hand, applying with a major gives colleges a sense of what your interests are. However, putting down a major can be tricky if a student’s transcript doesn’t give the best evidence that they will be successful in that field. I had two students who wanted to be nurses. Their math and science grades weren’t terrible, but weren’t strong enough to get them through the competitive nursing process. They went in undecided, took the same courses that students in the nursing major were in, did really well, and were able to officially declare themselves nursing majors at the end of this year.
- Your career might have very little to do with your major. I am pretty sure when someone hears Sociology major, they don’t automatically think, editorial assistant at a women’s magazine - but that was my first job out of college. In my various jobs in education, I’ve worked with Philosophy majors, Near-Eastern Studies and Arabic, Political Science, and a host of other fields. Yes, majors are important, but the ability to turn interests into internships and other practical experiences is ultimately what will allow students to get ahead.
What are some things you speak with students about when it comes to majors? How do you advise students who are completely undecided?