Major changes

Big dreams sometimes require major changes--Anna Staropoli '19 investigates

by Anna Staropoli | 9/28/16 1:52am

In the fall, everyone seems to have a plan. Overly optimistic ’20s crowd Foco with innocent back-and-forths about planning their majors — econ, obviously. Pre-meds, at least for now, pack into health panels, new notebooks in hand.

Many freshmen schedule their classes by pre-requisites, hoping to check off boxes that guarantee they’ll have enough room for that Foreign Study Program or perhaps for an additional minor. During Orientation last fall, I watched my freshman floormate organize a stack of papers in a McLaughlin common room, mapping out a four-year plan class by class.

It’s easy to think of dreams as linear. It may actually be easier to describe. Simply follow the steps, continue the plan and hope your interests don’t change.

But even plans don’t always go, well, according to plan. Tara Burchmore ’19 began her freshman fall with a plan to major in theater and government, but after exposure to previously undiscovered disciplines at Dartmouth, her ambitions evolved.

Exposure to new subjects prompted Burchmore to experiment with her classes. In the winter, she enrolled in an engineering course and found that it exceeded her initial expectations.

She is now an economics modified with engineering major.

Burchmore partially attributes this academic insight to Dartmouth’s distributive requirements, which led her to take the engineering class.

Though humanities students often procrastinate their impending labs and STEM students look for less-traditional ways to fulfill their literature courses, stories like Burchmore’s suggest that distributive requirements may actually be crucial in discovering hidden interests.

Fortunately, Burchmore unearthed this passion early on, as she opted to fulfill her technology and applied science distributive freshman year. This gave her ample time to begin the engineering track, minimizing the stress of switching majors after already having declared.

Many Dartmouth students, however, discover their true interests much later in their college careers.

For John Gilmore ’17, the realization that he was studying the wrong subject didn’t occur until the end of sophomore year, when he realigned his area of study from the pre-med and biology to English.

His dream of attending medical school and becoming a doctor began like many dreams: through one’s parents. As both of Gilmore’s parents followed the medical school-residency-fellowship structure typical in the health field, Gilmore assumed that he, too, would find that track fulfilling.

“That was an orderly path; I thought I would like it,” he said.

While the plan seemed great in theory, Dartmouth showed Gilmore an alternative to the pre-med track. Gilmore fell in love with 20th century English after taking “Literary History” his sophomore winter.

When Gilmore changed his major, he was driven to drop-pre med: a change common for many college students. Freshman fall it seems like everyone wants to be a doctor, yet as the term continues, the reality of pre-health sinks in, and many more shift away from the path.

For Sam Kocen ’19, a career in medicine was — and still is — the goal.

Kocen , at the start of his first term, wanted to be a biology major and pre-med. Now in his second year, Kocen still plans to follow a career in medicine — only with a slightly different route. He decided to not pursue the biology major after taking the challenging Biology 13 class, discovering he didn’t like lab and wasn’t a “huge science guy.”

Yet for all the classes that dissuade students from pursuing a particular field, there are just as many that push students toward their passions. In addition to taking the biology class that deterred him from studying science last spring, Kocen also took history 26, “The Vietnam War.” This ultimately compelled him to pursue a degree in history.

“History was just a lot more exciting to study than biology was,” Kocen said, speaking to the reasoning behind his transition. He now intends to fulfill the pre-med requirements and practice medicine, just through a less-traditional undergraduate course of study.

Since changing his major, Kocen has found himself more able to experiment with classes. Rather than follow a rigid schedule of exclusively science classes, Kocen now allows room in his schedule to try out classes he’s genuinely interested in.

“I still have structure because I have to,” he said, referring to the pre-med requirements over the next three years. “But choosing classes has become more of a term-by-term situation.”

In addition to classes, off-terms also help undergraduates carve out major paths for themselves.

The First-Year Fellows program, for instance, gives Dartmouth students the chance to experiment with policy related careers, testing the waters before committing to a field of study.

Burchmore, who interned as a first-year fellow to Senator Kirstin Gillibrand ’88, said the program confirmed her interest in pursuing a career in government.

“First-Year Fellows definitely helped show me what I want to do with my life, which is work in government relations at a tech company,” Burchmore said. “That’s why I’m holding on to my engineering modification.”

Off-terms further enable the discovery of new dreams, as Dartmouth organizes internships for students via organizations like the Rockefeller Center, the Dickey Center and the Center for Professional Development.

Through the Center for Professional Development, Gilmore found a job in journalism. He worked as a science writer for for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, synthesizing his interests in biology and English rather than abandoning his dreams of medicine completely.

“I work biology in through writing,” Gilmore said. “I see myself as kind of the middle man. I have the qualities of an English major; I know how to write and explain things to people. But at the same time, I believe I know enough about biology discovery in order to explain it well.”

Consequently, Gilmore sees his life heading in a different direction than when he first began college. Though journalism has replaced his initial dream of medical school, working at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has shown him that dreams don’t always have to be separate.

“That experience has helped me figure out what I want to do with my life,” Gilmore said. “I could be a medical writer for a science newspaper or a scribe for a doctor who needs me to explain issues to the patient. It’s a nice balance between both my interests and skills.”