Major, undecided: finding new intellectual paths in college

by Betty Kim | 5/19/17 2:00am

This article was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

For many Dartmouth students, a drive to learn seems to come naturally; students are constantly engaged in a rigorous 10 week-term of three — or four — highly focused courses and several extracurricular activities.

However, once we try to trace back the intellectual motivation that fuels this constant “grind,” we might not always be sure why we do what we do. The phrase “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life” is surprisingly common among Dartmouth students — freshmen and seniors, students who have a top GPA and have a less-than-average one, students who have or don’t have any idea what they’re majoring in.

Both professors and students cited a liberal arts style education and an interdisciplinary approach as important factors in their learning, especially for students who were unsure which subject they wanted to pursue.

Dean of the Tuck School of Business Matthew Slaughter said he engaged in interdisciplinary learning during his undergraduate experience at the University of Notre Dame, specificially participating in a program called “Philosophy, Politics and Economics” as an economics major. According to Slaughter, interdisciplinary learning is important as it develops valuable life skills, benefits personal relationships and career skills.

“Especially for undergrads, some version of the liberal arts is so vital for their development as human beings,” Slaughter said. “[They learn] how to understand how they view the world from a philosophical or theological perspective, and what role each student envisions playing in the world to make it a better place.”

Even for students who are set on a particular academic track, Dartmouth’s promotion of interdisciplinary work and collaboration is an essential part of an undergraduate learning experience. Kevin Kang ’18, a Goldwater scholarship recipient who will be attending Thayer School of Engineering for graduate school, said he knew he wanted to do biomedical engineering on the pre-med track but was also interested in other STEM disciplines. Kang said Dartmouth’s academic plan provided the freedom to cultivate his diverse academic interests.

Similar to Kang, Brian Chung ’18 said he realized his sophomore year how grateful he was for Dartmouth’s flexible curriculum. Now an economics major on the pre-med track, Chung said he came to Dartmouth thinking he would major in biochemistry and go straight to medical school after receiving his undergraduate degree. However, his experience in the Great Issues Scholar Living Learning Community exposed him to different fields.

Chung said the flexibility to engage deeply in his peripheral academic interests has shaped his undergraduate experience; he attributed his decision to major in economics to Public Policy 26, “Health Policy & Clinical Practice,” which exposed him to healthcare policy.

His interest expands outside of his major as well. Chung said he has never regretted taking any non-major classes,and, even as a junior, is considering modifying his current major with computer science. He has also taken a senior level art history seminar and has a self-professed obsession with hours-long Wikipedia browsing sessions.

“Once you get out into the world your job will be your life; there are so few opportunities to learn or do anything outside your career, so I want to learn as much as I can before I dive into one career,” Kang said. “The best part [about life] is constantly enriching yourself as a person.”

Kang’s exploration of different interests is not uncommon. In a campus wide survey fielded by The Dartmouth from April 16 to 20, 428 students answered questions about changes in their intellectual and academic pursuits while at Dartmouth. forty-eight percent of students have kept the major they started off with while 53 percent of students said they either changed their major or did not have an intended major when they first came to Dartmouth.

Apoorva Dixit ’17, a Fulbright scholarship recipient who is majoring in anthropology and minoring in public policy, wants to apply anthropology to issues of public and global health to bridge the gap between western science and world cultures.

Even as a senior, she said she is keeping herself open to many different tracks. She is ultimately interested in working in global health policy, and she said she is looking forward to doing many different things in the future, such as a research project, healthcare consulting and law school.

For her research next year, she will be going back to her hometown, Hodal, India. Through her college experience, she said she found a major and an opportunity to dig deeper about family and community that she comes from. In fact, she said she surprised herself upon rereading her Common Application college essay recently and seeing she wrote about wanting to go back to Hodal at such an early stage in her academic development.

Similarly, many students at Dartmouth do not stop learning after they exit the classroom. According to The Dartmouth survey, students devote an average of 6.28 hours per week to intellectual interests outside of the classroom. For Slaughter, students at the best schools do at least as much learning outside as they do inside the classroom.

“Classroom learning builds a foundation of knowledge and frameworks,” Slaughter said. “But college is only for a finite amount of time, so an ideal liberal arts education sets up people to be able to speak and learn for the rest of their life — interacting with people, empathizing, looking at other perspectives and processing that information.”

For others, outside sources of inspiration completely unaffiliated with one’s general field can help refresh and renew intellectual passion. Music professor Ashley Fure, who was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, reported some stagnancy after entering graduate school directly after her undergraduate experience.

“I felt like everybody was myopic; writing music to get that next commission, it felt insular and not inspirational to me,” she said. “I was sickened by the culture and even reconsidered composing [as a] career.”

However, she said she realized soon that this was not the ultimate choice she wanted to make, and found a personal “intellectual renaissance” in other forms of art. Taking a brief break from being constantly immersed in music, she read Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag and browsed the art of Robert Rauschenberg. Doing this fed her sense of direction and eventually allowed her to rekindle her desire to make music, she said.

Fure elaborated, acknowledging that burnout is real and should be respected. However, she also said part of ensuring constant intellectual development is learning to recuperate quickly, crediting herexperience in art school as what taught her to not “wait around for inspiration to strike.”

“Sometimes you can’t muster that poetic insight, so you [take on] different aspects of the project, be it conceptual or expressive, pragmatic or tactile,” Fure said. “As I’ve grown as a musician, all of those muscles have gotten stronger, so there’s this [same] thread of the desire to make the work, but my ability to execute it in greater and greater complexity has expanded since I was in undergraduate school.”

Fure also emphasized the dampening effect that anxieties about career choice may have on intellectual passion, saying that questions of what students are truly enthusiastic about can often get tangled up with questions of pragmatics. However, she also encouraged students to consider embracing that uncertainty and “taking the leap.”

These worries, however, do not appear to consume students’ intellectual interest but seem instead to coexist with them. Only 1 percent of students surveyed reported that they took classes with only marketable skills and future financial success in mind. 20 percent reported they focused on both but more on practical skills, while 18 percent reported an equal focus, 50 percent both but more on intellectual interest and 11 percent only intellectual interest.

Interestingly, the percentages shifted towards intellectual interest when the classes had to do with a non-major class, with 59 percent of students reporting either only intellectual interest or more intellectual interest than easiness as their motivator for choosing non-major classes.

Regarding the pressures of career choice, Chung said that friends have reported feeling guilty about not knowing what kind of career they want after leaving Dartmouth, but encouraged students to continue exploring, as many people do not find their calling until they are in their middle years.

“Either you can get left behind or keep up with the flow in any kind of burnout; you might lose that drive at Dartmouth, but sometimes I just have to remind myself that I have to exert myself in order to get where I want to be,” he said.

He said that the most effective way students can awaken themselves academically is to take every opportunity to pursue their interests, citing a lecture series he attended about the moral limits of economics as a major influence in his academic life.

Slaughter also encouraged this kind of humanistic engagement to foster intellectual engagement. He pointed to the importance placed on information technology’s analysis of political behavior, rather than a much-needed focus on bringing together disparate voices and perspectives.

“There are subtle and not so subtle ways our culture and society values curiosity and asking questions and learning,” Slaughter said. “Advances in information technology are fabulous, but we’re not quite sure as a society what that does to foster empathy and constructive discourse.”

Like Chung, Dixit credited taking time to investigate something that catches one’s ear to expand one’s perspective, saying that the “random” classes or lectures she attended on a whim were often the most rewarding experiences.

Despite the various hurdles of academics and the fatiguing daily schedule of a college student, the continual search for academic awakening is a lifestyle for both professors and students of many different backgrounds. As Fure said, “Passion doesn’t look the same for everybody.” However, Dartmouth is a place that constantly fuels and energizes this endless search.