One of the many paradigms fed to college students as early as their senior year of high school is that they should “have a plan” of what they want to do with their lives and decide their academic roadmap accordingly. It makes sense to some extent; after all, “professional college student” isn’t exactly the most glamorous (and most definitely not the highest-paying) career choice. Degree programs exist to be completed and because higher education is expensive, it behooves students to earn said degrees in as few semesters as possible.
Sadly, many take the paradigm a bit too far. They mishear “having a plan” as “getting a degree in a high-demand field in order to make a lot of money.” All of a sudden, college becomes a rat-race in micro. Students are pushed into majors that they absolutely despise because their parents, teachers, and/or society told them to do so. This leads to graduates whining about the supposed uselessness of college and how the job market is terrible and their jobs are slowly sucking away at their souls.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to discover early on a very important truth about myself: I love to write, and I’d probably want to do something that involves writing in some capacity or another. Thus, I entered as an English major. Then, through a series of unusual circumstances, I decided to take a Cognitive Science course, which was taught by the man who would later become both my minor adviser in Cognitive Science and the primary adviser for my Honors thesis.
Because of a single, three-credit class that I took in order to maintain fifteen credits, my entire worldview had shifted and, with it, my perspective on writing and storytelling in general. I would later go on to take classes in semiotics, transhumanism and video game studies before spending a semester abroad in Japan, after which I realized my true calling: game design. None of this would’ve happened if I’d kept to a rigid and predetermined plan, and yet having a simple and general idea of how I wanted to progress was crucial.
There are three very important things to keep in mind throughout college: first, not all learning takes place in the classroom. If you only focus on classwork and nothing else, you miss the point of studying at a university. There’s just as much to be learned through exposure and interactions with people from different backgrounds as there is in the classroom. As such, get out of your room. Join a club. Go out to parties and/or bars (if you’re of-age.) Write for The Oswegonian. Wander aimlessly around campus, for all I care. Just do something to get out and experience college life. And don’t be afraid to throw yourself into uncomfortable or potentially embarrassing situations; you’d be surprised what having the guts to go out on a limb and making yourself vulnerable can do for your social life.
Secondly, embrace general education requirements, regardless of your major. Since my first semester, I’ve always made it a point to try to find some sort of connective tissue between the courses I’m taking during a semester and the rest of my academic studies, no matter how superficial or insignificant as it may seem. The thing to keep in mind with general education classes is that as annoying as it may seem to have to take that chemistry or English class, doing so forces you to step outside of your comfort zone and examine the world through a different lens. I hated taking some of the classes I had freshman year. To me, the laboratory sciences are a necessary evil. But I still found a way to make my chemistry and biology classes relevant to my English (and later, creative writing) major because they enabled me to expand my scientific vocabulary if nothing else. Get into the habit of looking at courses in multiple disciplines that complement each other in some way; those are where paradigms and perspectives change.
And be sure to leave room for fun electives whenever possible, even if they don’t fulfill any requirements. Sometimes the most random courses outside one’s field can influence the way one perceives the established knowledge in their area of expertise. In my case, I’m taking modern dance this semester for almost no good reason whatsoever, and yet I still manage to find a relationship between bodily awareness and game design. There’s enough technical knowledge and fitness benefits to be gained that it makes having to wear tights a little more bearable.
There’s one last thing to keep in mind when making plans for the future, and it’s best summarized in the words of writer and mythologist, Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we have planned in order to have the life that is waiting for us.” Even the best laid plans don’t always work out exactly as we’d like, and academic decisions are no exception. Whenever you find yourself in doubt about your major or your future career plans, remember that you have the great honor and even greater responsibility of blazing your own trail and living a fulfilling life, and accepting whatever consequences arise in the process. Life is short, and university life is even shorter, so if you ever find yourself lost or confused, just remember Joseph Campbell’s most famous mantra: “Follow your bliss.”
Do that, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.