‘I Decided to be Undecided.’
At Scranton, students are encouraged to explore their interests before choosing a major, led by advising teams in the schools and experts in the career center.
When Brooke Devers was accepted to Scranton, she had her future all planned out. She would major in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology and get all the necessary prerequisites for medical school, then become a doctor. Devers is the daughter of a physician, and she has a genetic disorder that led to an early interest in genetics and science from her own medical appointments. Devers knew she wanted to be involved in the clinical side of health care — or so she thought at 17. When summer came and it was time to choose classes for her freshman year, Devers was having doubts about her plan, and wondering if she had specialized too soon. So she called the advisors in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and created a class schedule that combined science classes (biology lab) with humanities (Spanish) and business (introduction to health administration).
“I decided to be undecided,” said Devers, a junior at the University. “When you’re 17 or 18 years old, it’s tough to say exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life.”
Devers is one of approximately 150 Scranton first-year students who choose to enroll as undecided majors each year. Generally, 15 to 30 percent of the incoming class is undecided, which is on par with other colleges nationwide, according to Harry Dammer, Ph.D., associate dean of CAS. And at Scranton, students have the resources and support to explore subjects across the University and find a major that will ultimately lead them to a fulfilling life and career. Faculty and staff in CAS, Kania School of Management (KSOM), Panuska College of Professional Studies (PCPS) and the Center for Career Development work with students from acceptance to graduation to help them find a path to success.
Dating Your Career
At Scranton, students are encouraged to choose a major by sophomore year so that they can graduate within four years. Freshman year is for exploration, a time that Christina Whitney G’06, director of the Center for Career Development, calls “dating your career.”
“It’s about exposure and exploration with the undecided students, consistently across the three colleges,” Whitney said. “It’s about what’s available to them and them getting to know themselves; exploring themselves and then exploring the options.”
The emphasis across the University is that not only is it OK to be undecided, but it is encouraged. “Sometimes students assume that they are the only one without a major,” said Robert W. Davis Jr., Ed.D. ’03, vice president for Student Life. “The reality is that many of our students are still looking to find the major that suits them. There’s a lot of pressure on students to know right away what they want to do for the rest of their life, but our students have many interests and ideas about their future, so it can take time to identify that path.” CAS works closely with the advising teams in all the schools to meet students where they are, offering individual sessions to pinpoint strengths and interests, and where those areas align with potential majors or programs.
Laura Fay ’15 was relieved to be able to explore her career options at Scranton. A general communications course helped her narrow her major to journalism during her second semester. “I still had plenty of time over the next three years to really dive in and prepare for a career in that field,” she said.
An SJLA student, she also majored in philosophy and was the editor-in-chief of The Aquinas for two years. After graduation, she taught in the Milwaukee area for two years through Teach for America, but ultimately, she came back to journalism and is now a staff producer for The 74 Media in New York City.
“When I realized teaching wasn’t a good fit, I relied on what I had learned at Scranton, both in the classroom and while choosing a major, to adjust and find a fulfilling job as a journalist,” she said.
CAS offers Undecided Workshops every semester and encourages all undecided students to participate. The eightweek workshops start with surveys to help discover students’ strengths, then offer an overview of all the CAS majors. Much like the individual advising sessions, the workshops help students see which majors are best suited to their strengths and interests, and also show them what kind of jobs they can get with each major. Devers took part in an Undecided Workshop as a freshman, and then moved on to one-on-one meetings with a career coach in the career development center.
“For students who are proactive and take advantage of these workshops, they are great,” said Devers, who now works as an intern at the Center for Career Development. “Talking to my professors helped, too. Here at Scranton, we have professors who really have that [work] experience and can tell you, ‘This is what you’re going to be facing day-to-day [in a given career],’ and what strengths you need for that career.”
Branding and Networking
Whitney also offers an annual workshop about creating a personal brand, or “what stays in the room after you leave,” Whitney said. Through the workshops, she helps students identify who they are, and what they want to share with people in the professional realm about their skills and experiences. From there, she said, “It’s about branching out into a network. Once they start introducing themselves to people and asking questions and learning about what skills are necessary in certain industries, it really helps them be more comfortable and confident in their path.”
In KSOM, about a third of freshmen are undecided on a major but know that they are interested in business majors and careers, according to Gerry Loveless, the director of the KSOM Advising Center. The introductory Business 150 class covers an overview of the different areas of business, the business majors Scranton offers and professional communication, from how to create a resume to how to use social media in an appropriate and professional manner. The course also helps students identify their strengths and what types of careers are best suited to those strengths.
“Business 150 helps them explore and find the right fit for them. And when you think of students coming out of high school, they might only know a handful of professions,” said Loveless. After completing the course, 88 percent of students said in a survey that they feel more confident in identifying their strengths, and 83 percent of students feel confident in starting an internship search.
The foundational course equips the business students with new confidence, but they don’t have to go it alone in their search for the right career path. Loveless adds that: “In addition to the class, we meet with them at Orientation, before they even begin school, to help them choose classes. From there, we meet with them every semester. The nice thing about the KSOM advising center is that we see the students from day one to the day they graduate.”
This year, PCPS launched their own career fair for undecided students, spotlighting some of their more unique majors, which students might not be familiar with, like human resources studies and community health education. The focus was on giving these smaller programs a platform to inform students, and, in turn, giving students more information about career paths they might not have otherwise considered. The inaugural fair took place during the fall semester and there will be another in the spring. “It’s about exposure and exploration with the undecided students.”
For some students, choosing a major and career path can be a source of stress and anxiety.
“Oftentimes, there’s an assumption from students that someone who is successful and has it all together never struggled or failed at anything,” said Dr. Davis. “The reality is that we all have struggles and failures that we need to overcome, and our response to those failures is often a great learning opportunity.”
“The idea behind the work here is that it is practice in decision-making for undecided students.”
To help alleviate that perception, Scranton hosted a panel discussion called “Fail Forward” in November. “The idea for the panel was to show students that struggling is part of being a successful person,” Davis said.
Beyond this inherent community support and dialogue, Scranton also partners with graduate students to help undecided freshmen through the Professional and Academic Support for Success (PASS) Program. PASS is a PCPS program that pairs undecided students with a graduate student in school counseling.
“The idea behind the work here is that it is practice in decision-making for undecided students,” said Kevin Curry, the assistant dean for academic services in PCPS. “The student and the counselor will set goals and monitor progress toward those goals. Each small goal is part of a larger path toward identifying strengths and interests for the students to consider.”
Where Are You Now… And Where Are You Going?
For Devers, she said that coming into Scranton undecided “was the best decision, because it led me to the health administration major. I was really interested in the business side of health care, and managing patients, physicians and employees, and I declared the major the first semester of sophomore year. Being undecided led me to the path that I do feel I am supposed to be on.”
Next, she’ll apply to Scranton’s master’s degree program in health administration and then hopefully obtain a job in a hospital setting. But, as she learned with choosing a major, “I’m definitely open-minded about the future,” Devers said.
Devers’ experience is just what University faculty, staff and administrators hope for each undecided student. “The Jesuit ideal of cura personalis really means meet the person where they are and help them progress further,” said Dammer, the CAS associate dean. “We take each student and say, ‘Where are you at now?’ and, ‘Where are you going?’ It is important to us to be concerned about every student’s needs. It is important and necessary because it fulfills our mission.”