For a status that is so common on a college campus, it can leave students feeling remarkably alone.
About a quarter of incoming Grand Valley students have not declared a major, said Betty Schaner, assistant dean for advising and student services for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In addition, about 50 percent of Grand Valley students change their majors at least once.
And yet, students who are still searching can struggle with the stigma of being undecided and having a sense of not belonging, she said.
“It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know today.’” Schaner said. “And we need to remove from the thought process that once you declare you can never change.”
The reasons students wait to declare majors are as varied as the students themselves.
Some truly are stumped about what they want to study. Others may know that they are interested in a field such as science but are not sure about the specialty. Still others are hesitant to make a preference official.
“It seems there are many students who are coming in with an idea for their major but aren’t sure they want to commit to it yet,” said Michelle Redmond, director of the CLAS Academic Advising Center.
There is also a sizable number of students who declare a major only to find it is not right for them, from students who thought they found a major to match their strengths, but it didn’t fit, to those who followed in the multi-generational professional footsteps of their family only to realize that the field was not for them.
In late winter 2018 the existing pre-major advising services that supported students who had not yet declared a major were reassigned to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, specifically reporting to Redmond.
Now called exploratory study advising, the service provides students who are unsure about their major with a framework for advising, communications and more as they make a decision, giving them direction as they discover what they want to study. A new website and updated printed materials help guide students.
Redmond leads an advising team whose members are dedicated to exploratory study and have knowledge about all of Grand Valley’s academic programs. A key message from advisors to students is that they are making a conscious decision to work toward finding the best option, Redmond said.
Sulari White, senior academic advisor, said: “For me, the excitement of working with an exploratory study student lies in spending time understanding the unique way that a student’s interests, values and personality co-mingle to guide them to a major and career.”
Partnerships across campus are crucial to ensuring that students have the best access to all of the resources that can help them discover their major. Advising centers from each college and the Career Center meet regularly to equip advisors with the best tools to help students.
“We give students the certainty of seeing they are on a path, and that this is the work that they do along that path,” Redmond said.
The goal for students who arrive at Grand Valley without a major: declare by the second year. But, Schaner and Redmond noted, circumstances can shift.
“For me, the excitement of working with an exploratory study student lies in spending time understanding the unique way that a student’s interests, values and personality co-mingle to guide them to a major and career.”Sulari White, senior academic advisor
"You're Not Alone"
Exploratory study advisors have a plan of action to help students find the right field, including ways to research majors and career resources, Redmond said. They also encourage students to enroll in a one-credit career development course.
While advisors have plenty of tools, the overarching need from students in exploratory study is reassurance, Redmond said. They need to know that they can take time to figure out their major without hurting their future.
Reinforcing the “future-is-bright” message is where the Alumni Association comes in.
The group, seeking a way to establish a different kind of alumni mentoring program, worked with Redmond and her team to offer sessions in which alumni who had been undecided about their major talked with students for 30 minutes at a time, said Kyle Barnhart, the alumni volunteer coordinator.
For students deciding on a major, Barnhart said it is invaluable to get a perspective from someone who graduated recently and had faced the same challenges.
“Students got to hear from an alum who is now successful,” Barnhart said. “They hear that it’s OK not to know your major right now. Part of going to school is figuring out what you want to do.”
Feedback from students and alumni after the first session was positive, and plans are underway for more, Barnhart said.
Caylie Peet ’16 was one of the alumni who met with exploratory study students. She entered Grand Valley without declaring a major but thought she was leaning toward athletic training. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management with an emphasis on meetings and events.
She is grateful for the time exploring a major, because when she realized athletic training wasn’t the right fit, she learned that something she enjoyed doing in high school, event planning, was part of a program she could pursue. She now works as the community engagement specialist for Rockford Construction.
Peet told students: “Everyone expects you to have your whole future planned and you feel like it’s a failure situation, but it’s not. It’s going to happen for you. At some point in your life you will make a decision that is going to change everything.
“You’re not alone. Look at the alumni here. You are part of this big family.”
Zippi had attended a community college before he transferred to Grand Valley and declared studio art as a major. Studio art wasn’t working out and Zippi had no idea what to study next, and felt extra pressure as an older student to make a decision.
The key for Zippi was working with Karel Swanson, senior academic advisor, who helped steer him to the liberal studies program. Zippi is working at a hospital in a variety of duties right now with an eye toward moving to New York next year to work in theater. Zippi considers the relationship with Swanson — they still keep in touch — crucial to finding the right path of study.
“Take classes that either interest you or you are passionate about so that way you have a wide variety to choose from to help you decide your major,” he said.
Even though Bollman went directly into exploratory study upon entering Grand Valley, he was leaning heavily toward engineering because of his strength in math. But that subject matter didn’t click. He regrouped and started taking science classes and participating in job shadowing in medical settings. That’s when he realized he felt called to nursing.
Though he sometimes felt some stress when he considered how many friends had a plan, Bollman urged patience for students in his situation.
“Take a deep breath and think about what interests you most and what you do best, and start taking some classes in that type of area to help get a feel for it,” he said. “Also, job shadow if possible and do some research. The best way to figure it out is to get out there and start doing it.”
Mangahas declared nursing as her major when she entered Grand Valley. She comes from a long line of nurses in her family, including her father, grandparents and uncles. She knew from job shadowing in high school that she enjoyed the medical setting. But as Mangahas worked through her courses, she realized the program wasn’t a good fit for her.
Worried about disappointing her family members who were excited about her following in their footsteps, Mangahas tried to stick it out. Finally, she decided her best option was to enter exploratory study. She was relieved after her first meeting with Sulari White, senior academic advisor.
Mangahas said: “My conversation with Sulari was really reassuring. She said, ‘We’ll get it figured out. It’s not the end of the world if we go exploratory. I’ll give you the resources.’”