Turning Over a New Academic Leaf

Students reflect on changing their minds and career ambitions in college.

by Nicolaus Dahl | 5/18/22 2:15am

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by Elaine Pu / The Dartmouth

Somewhere beyond the veil of sleep, the implacable shrill of my alarm yanked me back into consciousness. Without my knowledge, my hands went searching for the source of the sound, hoping to silence it before my brain kicked back into gear. Cruelly, my last-night self had set my phone out of reach. I groaned a small protest and righted myself, letting the fog clear from my weary eyes. 

Ignoring the dirty looks from fellow late-night studiers, I silenced my alarm and opened my laptop to the wonderful world of chemical reaction rates. I tried to ignore the desolate face that stared back through the reflection on my computer screen —a face that would much rather be sleeping, or doing anything, really, than chugging through calculations of the chemical variety. I had hoped that a brief library nap would imbue me with some newfound love for chemistry. After twenty minutes of aimless staring and scrolling through The Principles of Modern Chemistry, I concluded that it hadn’t. I set a new alarm and let the couch cradle me to rest. 

Coming into Dartmouth, I was set on completing the pre-med track. Just last week, I dropped out of CHEM 6, “General Chemistry II,” a key part of the pre-medical curriculum. After many nights struggling to stay focused on reaction rates and valence levels, I realized that the pre-med path just wasn’t for me. 

Most of us come into college with at least an inkling of what we will do with our time here and beyond. For some people, those plans follow through. For others — myself included — plans change. It’s not a bad thing, but for people gearing up to enter the workforce, deviating from the path they had laid out for themselves can be a harrowing decision. This week, I spoke to a few Dartmouth students who took the leap. 

Aislinn Mitcham ’23 is now a psychology major on her way through the pre-med track. But coming into Dartmouth, she had her mind set on engineering.

“I kept my head down, didn’t really look at any other options, because I had just decided that’s what I was going to be,” Mitcham said. 

In high school, Mitcham was a top student in math and STEM classes. She wanted to use those talents to help people, and she believed that becoming an environmental engineer would fulfill that goal. Despite the fact that she had no real passion for engineering in particular, she set out on the engineering track, using her freshman year to fulfill all of its prerequisites. It wasn’t until COVID caused her to take her sophomore fall off that she had time to explore any other options. During her off term, Mitcham worked as a vet tech, exploring veterinary medicine and putting her love for animals to good use. For her, it was both a break and a period of reflection.

“I think just having that pause, and getting a little view inside medicine… that’s what made me realize I might want to be a doctor,” Mitcham said.

Mitcham’s switch to medicine wasn’t immediate. Coming back to Dartmouth for 20W, Mitcham tried her hand at both engineering and pre-med courses. But by then, her choice had become clear. 

“Even when I was struggling through Bio 14, I could still see the light at the end of the tunnel, and why it was worth struggling for, versus for engineering 22, I just really couldn’t see the bigger picture for it, and didn’t really have the passion to keep struggling to do well in the class,” she said. 

Mitcham was lucky — her break from Dartmouth and work as a vet tech catalyzed her shift into medicine. But if it weren’t for that break, Mitcham believes that she would have kept going with engineering, despite her lack of passion for the subject. 

“I was pretty set on my path before COVID made me take a break for a second and really evaluate what I wanted my college experience to be,” she said. 

Mitcham’s experience made me wonder about others at Dartmouth who might be staying in departments they don’t like, simply because they haven’t had the chance to take a break and explore what is meaningful to them. Dartmouth’s rigorous pace can make it difficult to find time for introspection. When you’re constantly worried about approaching midterms or final papers, it is hard to make time for exploration, which is something I spoke with Sam Reynolds ’23 about. 

After graduating from college, Reynolds is looking to pursue a Ph.D. in bioinformatics, a discipline that meets at the crossroads of statistics, computer science and biology. Reynolds started at Dartmouth as a pre-med student, switching his path during his junior fall, and he recalled a freshman year experience similar to Mitcham’s.

“I didn’t explore as much freshman year as I would’ve wanted to. I wish I’d started CS earlier… [but] I was too much like, ‘I’m going to do my pre-med, take a couple of layups on top of that, then call it a day,’” Reynolds said.

This is a sentiment shared by many students — pre-med in particular. With GPA being such a crucial factor in medical school admissions, many students try to pad their GPA by taking easy classes, or “layups,” further limiting their chances to take academic risks. For students sent to a liberal arts college supposedly designed for exploration, this can be a very limiting path. This feeling of academic confinement and the need for flexibility were driving factors behind Reynolds’ switch.

“I’ve always been a little wary of going through med school and residency because you are taking on debt, and it is such a long path and journey to becoming a doctor,” Reynolds said. “I also wanted some flexibility in terms of jumping around from company to company, and working on different projects throughout my career. Whereas, becoming a doctor, you specialize and are a little more boxed in.” 

I also spoke to Decker Jackson ’25 and Sylvie Benson ’25, who reaffirmed Reynolds’ sentiments. Jackson and Benson perform together in a band called Pegasus, pursuing their love for music and setting Dartmouth’s student body dancing. Outside of Pegasus, their pursuits differ: Benson is a prospective music major, while Jackson hopes to double-major in anthropology and economics. However, both agree that the possibility for flexibility is deeply dependent on the major one chooses. 

“If you’re an engineering major, pre-med, economics, those sorts of things, I think that there’s a lot less flexibility,” Jackson said.

However, Benson noted that compared to other schools, it seems like “Dartmouth does offer a more flexible curriculum.” 

With four whole years at college, it seems like it should be easy to find the time to explore. However, between the rigor of Dartmouth and our own set of expectations, it can be all too easy to fall into one path and avoid any moments of variation during our time here. 

The first step off of this path is recognizing when we’ve fallen into it. And maybe once we’ve realized we’re in an academic rut, we can break out and expose ourselves to some wonderful opportunities.

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