Advice and Support for Students Considering a Change of Major
April 21, 2021
The following post was originally published on April 16, 2021 on Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog.
When I advise incoming Luther students on June 8, 2021, as they plan their first semester, it will mark the 24th time I have done so. Let’s not dwell on the number too long but instead use that fact to realize that I have served as advisor to well over 100 incoming students. In doing so, I have come to realize that I derive the most joy from working with students who are still deciding on a major, students who are right at the beginning of their college careers, in essence, changing their major from nothing to something they don’t yet recognize. This work has then led me to be more thoughtful with my first-year, sophomore, and even junior (yes, it can work well) students who are considering changing majors. The topic is so important to me that I could write a book on it. Here, as I share a few insights that I hope can help us all support the major-changing student, I will try to keep it shorter so that it only feels like it is the length of War and Peace.
Changing Course Takes Courage
When a student initially approaches me about the possibility of being in a less than ideal major (I am careful to avoid considering any major “wrong” or “right”), the first thing I do is congratulate them. Heartily. I tell all my advisees, until they are assuredly sick of hearing it, that the universe is speaking to them and the most important thing we can do as a college is to open their ears to what the universe is saying and to help them make meaning of it. But it is scary when you realize that the universe might be telling you that what you have wanted to do since you were nine years old is not the perfect fit. Putting your fingers in your ears and humming loudly is such a natural response that even approaching the topic of a potential major change shows courage, maturity, and growth.
The Most Important Thing
Next, we discuss how the major actually isn’t as important as many people think it is. Sure, nurses need a nursing major and accountants need an accounting major but most people can make a great path forward with any number of majors. If the major isn’t always the most important thing, then what is? I tell my advisees it is who you are, what you can do, how you have grown and what you can offer the world. So we talk about these things. I ask the question, “What things are you better at now than you were when you arrived at Luther?” Often, I get a shoulder shrug and the going is slow at first, but a little prompting regarding experiences like classroom discussion, project teamwork, writing, research, reading carefully and more, usually gets the ball rolling. The list of what we are better at gets long in a hurry. I encourage students to write it all down, including the specific experiences that helped them get better at these things and how they envision the skills and knowledge growth translating to new environments beyond Luther. This personal growth narrative can be (I believe it usually is) more important than the specific major.
Potential Paths Forward
In the cases where we don’t know what the new major is going to be, only that we need to leave the old one behind, the work of building that personal growth narrative helps us along. I will ask what classes were most engaging and why? If a political science course was most engaging, it might have been the subject matter or it might have been the approach to understanding the world that was developed there. We can look at other disciplines that could take a similar approach. Every experience the student has had helps us think through potential paths forward, always remembering that the decision is, perhaps, not as momentous as it seems.
Ears Open, Mind Present
It is important not to try to do all this work at once. For me, it is usually a conversation that plays out over weeks or even months. One of the skills that I find students often report having developed in their time at Luther is active and careful listening and that is how I approach these conversations, with my ears open and my mind present. I recognize that I have an advantage many might not, in that I have seen the change of major play out dozens of times and I know it works. I have confidence when a student approaches me about changing majors. I also know the Luther curriculum well and can nudge, but usually I don’t need to. Active, supportive listening is enough.
The act of changing majors is frightening and many students don’t recognize how much they have grown and how that growth has led them to be able to navigate the change. The best thing we can do is to remind them that they are not alone; they are ready for what lies ahead and countless people on the Luther campus are here to help.