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Student Success & Advising

Why do Students Struggle with Choosing a Major?

By Janet Ha Poirot

When Mia AAssar, Shannon Howley and Renata Thornton were given a list of research topics for their HONORS 330 class, one idea immediately caught their attention: Researching undergraduate major selection and advising at George Mason.  Having personally experienced the struggle of major selection, they agreed this was a relevant topic and hoped their findings could help future Mason students.  Currently, George Mason University offers 82 distinct degree programs.  In 1971, George Mason offered 24.  While the large selection of majors provides a lot of choices and adds to the diversity of programs available, it also hinders the decision-making process.

Historically, universities structured knowledge as disciplines within colleges and students could select majors which were distinct and separate from others.  As universities grew, an increasing number of subjects became subdivided and specialized into specific fields of study, increasing the number of majors offered.  Unfortunately, this expansion of choices has left students feeling frustrated as they navigate an often confusing and overwhelming process of major selection.  Who feels competent enough to choose among 82 different majors?  The choices feel endless for an adult with work experience let alone an 18 year old.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz has argued in The Paradox of Choice that an abundance of choice often leads to depression, feelings of loneliness and decision-making paralysis.  Schwartz states when consumers are faced with many choices, they are more likely to delay making a choice indefinitely.  Given the perceived importance of choosing a major, one can imagine how students might feel when selecting a major initially or considering a change of major.  Consequences could include increased financial cost (in tuition), more time, and more uncertainty about a career.  During the course of their research, Mia, Shannon and Renata found that when students delay selecting a major they sacrifice timely degree completion and overall college satisfaction (Venit 2016).

The major selection process is becoming cumbersome for students as they review the hundreds of courses, majors, concentrations, and minors the university offers.  Mia says of her experience searching through the course catalog, “I had cross disciplinary interests that weren’t reflected in a cross disciplinary curriculum.”  Mia described challenges in locating courses that could apply to more than one major.  The way courses are delineated in how they count towards a major is not clear to students.

Shannon originally started at Mason as a Global Affairs major, but after taking a few courses, she realized she was more interested in government and policy.  So she switched her major to Government and International Politics and encountered a problem: some of the courses she took for her old major did not count towards her new major.  She also had friends who had to stay at George Mason for an extra year to graduate because they changed their major.  Renata was a Government and International Politics major but after taking a few courses she realized she was more interested in domestic policy rather than international politics.  She changed her major to Public Administration, which was a better fit for her.  This switch in major enabled her to gain quantitative experience with required Economics and Statistics courses. These courses qualified her for an internship at the Brookings Institute where she worked heavily with statistics software.  Had she not switched majors, she might not have been accepted for the highly coveted internship.  However, not all students who desire to change their majors end up doing so.

According to the research Mia, Shannon and Renata conducted, 28% of Mason students surveyed reported they considered changing their majors but did not.  The most frequent reason cited was fear of losing credits and delaying graduation.  However, EAB has published a study showing students who do not change their major are slightly less likely to graduate than those who do change.  Ed Venit, a senior director at the EAB, speculates in an Inside Higher Education article, “Students who stay in a major may feel obligated to do so and end up not graduating.”  As many as 80% of students surveyed change their major at least once during college.  Considering how important exploration in academics is in helping students find and narrow their fields of interest, these three Honors students came up with two proposals to help alleviate some of the stressors of major selection.  Their first recommendation is consistent with education researchers who have suggested using the term “exploratory” instead of “undeclared” or “undecided” to describe students who do not yet have a major.  The latter terms carry negative connotations and could possibly dissuade students from taking more time to carefully consider their academic options.  The second proposal affirmed the University’s plan to introduce meta-majors.

Meta-majors allow the university to give students a better handle on a diverse array of majors outside of the college or school structure.  Instead of students reviewing the overwhelming options of 82 distinct majors with similar majors found in different schools, they can choose among nine broader categories of meta-majors.  Operating like a funnel, meta-majors allows students to explore their academic interests in a way that allows them to discover new options and connect possibilities to their own interests and abilities.   In their research paper, the students state, “it appears likely that providing an option for students to accumulate credits that are applicable to a range of potential majors could create a better avenue for students to pick a major that suits them best.”

Mason will begin to offer meta-majors to students by the Fall 2019.  Academic advisors can help students explore their interests via meta-majors and either affirm a planned major or increase student confidence that the major they choose is a good match for their talents and goals. Academic planning will allow students to explore and pivot to related majors as students learn more about themselves and the world. Mia AAssar says, “I liked the idea of the clusters that would provide me with the credits that eventually would count toward one degree.”  These three students are hopeful the work they completed for the research project will one day allow students to take time to explore their academic options and grant them the autonomy they need to become well-rounded scholars.

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Student Success & Advising

Student Success Stories: An Interview of Misky Sharif, Tau Sigma President and How Her Advisor Helped Her Achieve Her Goals

By Janet Ha Poirot

Misky Sharif is a high achieving student in George Mason’s Bachelor of Science program in Community Health with a Concentration in Clinical Sciences, Class of 2019.  She is also president of the Tau Sigma National Honor Society which is an honor society for university transfer students who earn a 3.5 GPA or higher in their first semester of transfer.  With a 4.0 GPA at Mason, she also graduated summa cum laude from NVCC in May 2017 as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.  It was her experiences at NVCC which helped her transition from high school to university.  Choosing NVCC, Loudoun County, because it was close to her home, the smaller classes allowed her to get to know her professors and explore possible majors in this new college setting which was so different from the rigid structure of high school.  The most challenging class for her was her literature class which she took in her second year of NVCC.  Being scientifically minded, she was pushed beyond her comfort zone in this class.  Her professor challenged her to think beyond the material, relate the text to historical events and learn to analyze literary themes.  Before this class, her strengths were in math and science where she felt comfortable solving linear equations, getting clear, straightforward answers and memorizing the chemical properties of molecules.  Learning how to relate to literary texts, was new to Misky and though it was very challenging, this literature class opened her eyes to the possibilities of being something other than a straight science major.  This is also the class that sparked her interest in Public Health because of its interdisciplinary angle combining psychology, sociology and the sciences.  She found that studying public health and literature utilized similar tools such as synthesizing and analyzing past research and linking this to history while Public Health utilized her science skills as well as complementing her personal mission to improve the future for various communities.  Her literature class as well as her studies in Public Health has taught her that there are many gray areas in life and often no clear cut answers to difficult issues.  It taught her how to be comfortable with uncertainty and to still be able to move forward.

Misky’s parents always instilled in her a deep appreciation for education and the opportunities it provides.  Her mother often said to her, “No one can take away your education.  They can take away other things from you but the time you spend educating your mind will never be taken away from you.”  Her mother was speaking from experience.  She escaped from Somalia during the civil war in the 1990s and left behind all of her belongings in a country where social norms favor a boy’s education over a girl’s.  According to UNICEF, a 2006 countrywide survey conducted in Somalia showed that only 25 percent of women aged 15 to 24 were literate.  This is another reason Misky feels very appreciative of the opportunity to study here.  Her father was already in the United States, many years prior to the civil war, studying electrical engineer at University of Maryland.  He later received his PhD at Mason, had worked at Mason as an adjunct professor and is now working as an electrical engineer for the government.  When Misky was in second grade, her father went to Barnes and Noble and bought a workbook for fifth graders.  After she would finish her second grade homework, he would have her work on problems for fifth graders.  She asked him why she had to do work that was beyond her level and he replied, “If you practice now, when you are in fifth grade the work and homework will be easier.”  And he was right.  When she got to fifth grade, she was well-prepared.  Her father taught her how to challenge herself and to try to see different perspectives.  Over the years, Misky had to learn how to adapt to different situations, understand her strengths and improve her weaknesses in ways that improved her overall confidence.

Coming to Mason, Misky felt overwhelmed her first semester.  There were so many choices, very large classes, a large campus and she had difficulty adjusting to rigorous university expectations.  She chose Mason because it was close to home and her father and sister went here.  However, the transition was difficult.  Compared to the small classes she took at NVCC where the maximum number of students was around 25, she took a Biochemistry class at Mason which had 175 students.  She credits her Academic Advisor, Brian Gillette for helping her get through a very difficult time.  Before arriving at his office, she felt overwhelmed by the obstacles, nervous and stressed but he was very comforting, encouraging, calm, kind, understanding, supportive and he would make her laugh.  This would greatly relieve her anxieties and her disappointments and each time she left his office, she would feel more confident and calm.  Not only did Brian make sure Misky was taking all the right classes, he would tell her about research opportunities, who to talk to and where to go.  She found out about many opportunities through Brian like OSCAR and what research projects professors were working on so she could take classes or apply for opportunities that were more tailored to her interests.  He helped her clear the confusion.

There was one day that really stood out in her mind.  It was a day she felt particularly upset and frustrated that classes weren’t going well.  Her self-esteem was flagging.  She often compared herself to her older sister who seemed to sail through school and life.  Misky was fortunate in that Brian even knew her older sister, who also went through the program, and understood why she felt insecure.  He told her something she really needed to hear, he said, “You have the personality and the abilities to succeed.  I know you are stressed out but you will reach your goals because you are motivated enough and you’re talented enough.  And you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”  With just that meeting, he increased her confidence and self-esteem.  She said, “The encouragement, compassion and inspiration Brian gave me that day isn’t something you can get from a computer.  There are so many things that are being automated with technology but with advising, you need a person.  Only a human being will understand what you are going through.  We, students, underestimate what advisors can do but they have the most important job on campus.  Advisors are not just there for your academic success, they support, help and encourage so that when you graduate, you are not just the best student you can be but you are the best person you can be.”

Misky hopes to become a medical doctor one day, a pediatrician, and will be applying to medical school.  She decided she wanted to become a doctor because when she was a child, she had multiple illnesses and went to a dozen of doctors but no one could pinpoint what was causing her illness.  She felt the doctors weren’t treating or diagnosing the disease, they were simply treating the symptoms and telling her how to live with it.  She felt lost, helpless and frustrated especially when she went through a period where she lost her voice for 9 weeks.  The experience imbued her with a deep desire to become a doctor and to be a soothing and calming presence for children, something she did not have when she was sick.  This has given her a sense of purpose and strength to continue her academic journey even when it has been very difficult.  Because she believes that though children are resilient they need to feel they are not being judged or disregarded by the medical community.  She wants to be the person who helps children feel respected and heard.