Reflecting back, I recognize that most of my life’s most transformational choices happened within a short (at least it seems short in hindsight), window. Decisions about where to attend college, a marriage partner, a professional direction, children, two cross-country moves, and a first home of my own were all packed into a single decade. Life has certainly had major twists and turns since, but looking in the rear view mirror also has me wondering—how did I manage that? I had zero experience and don’t recall having any great counsel. Of course, that may account for the part that’s easy to recall—STRESS! I really would have benefitted from some good coaching.
For our students, the first in a series of life-changing decisions is where to earn college credit. While proximity, or campus culture, or family legacy contribute heavily to that choice, the WHAT is often the key to WHERE. Choosing a major can dictate where students decide to attend, whether to stay, and how to prepare for the next big decisions in those “top ten” years. While many of our students may have chosen UNW for other factors like our faith-based community, the proximity to the city, or our award-winning campus, their academic major is one of the first choices that sets their future direction in motion.
For some students, the choice of a major is the easy part. It’s an “Of course, I’ve always planned on that,” decision. However, it is every bit as typical to have college be a part of the exploratory process, using general education courses, discussions with advisors, and help from mentors to choose a direction—sometimes more than once. When I taught a course in Career and Life Planning, I called this process my “Pie Theory of Life Choices.” I asked the students to imagine that each one of us has a pie where each slice is a different flavor. French silk, apple cinnamon, strawberry rhubarb, key lime, and rum raisin might all be options. A few of us already know our hands-down favorite. I would pick bumble berry every time—no need to experiment! However, the majority of us need to taste test a few slices, eliminating the pecan and the gooseberry (pardon the example if I just nixed your winner) on the way to a solid favorite. Neither strategy is wrong because both the one-and-done and the try-a-bite approach get us to the goal of a favorite, whether that’s testing pie or testing vocational interests.
Where is your student in finding his or her direction? Are they already a sophomore but still undeclared? Are they firmly committed to a major and looking for the fastest way to the finish line? Are they a PSEO student knocking out general education requirements but needing counsel on what’s next? As a full-fledged college student, they hold the reins on their future and the choices that will move them in the right direction. Regardless, even though it is common for students to take a few semesters to land on a major, it is just as common for parents to feel concerned when time is ticking and the decisions are still in limbo. Short of serving a different pie at every family meal (just kidding), what can we, as parents, do to support timely decisions?
Imagine your student as an “academic athlete.” They are responsible to manage their own training, participate in practices (classes), do the workouts (homework), keep track of their training schedule (degree plan), and figure out what to do after the finish line (graduation). However, athletes reach their peak performance with the help of good coaches. You are naturally a part of a coaching staff and it is helpful to identify which part of your athlete’s training you can rely on from your campus partners.
Personal Coach: Parents and Family
It is still true that our students often need our guidance when making all sorts of personal choices. Enhancing our awareness of campus coaching resources can help us be prepared to offer constructive comments and helpful advice about selecting a major or preparing for graduation. Although it is tempting to tell our students what we hope they will choose, sharing our opinion, rather than helping them find resources, can backfire. You’ve heard them comment, “I knew that was what you’d say,” so they might not ask if they expect a predictable response. If they do ask, I recommend replying with good questions that get them to begin connecting their own dots. “What are you thinking about for a major/career direction?” “What appeals to you about that choice?” “How is it a fit for your skills and interests?” Of course you can include, “Where can you get more information?” and “Who at Northwestern could help you explore that option?”
Academic Coach: Advisor
An academic advisor serves as the coach who helps students set a plan for reaching the graduation finish line. They provide counsel on what courses need to be completed, in what order, and by what time. They are a great point of contact on campus. Transfer or traditional students who have declared a major are assigned to a faculty advisor with specific expertise in their chosen area of study. PSEO students have a professional advisor from The Office of Dual Enrollment. The advisor can help students evaluate their progress toward their intended major and refer them to additional campus resources, like the team in Career Development, to support their decision-making.
Career Coach: Career Development Professional
While the academic coach helps students plan for the finish line, career coaches help students plan for the life that happens after graduation. UNW’s Career Development team urges students to start visiting them early and often. Services include interpreting surveys of interests, strengths, personality, and motivations to gain self-understanding in relationship to their choice of major, helping students research how majors intersect with job choices, and getting connected with internships, summer jobs, and professional opportunities through events or Handshake. While every major opens doors of opportunity, very few majors lead directly to a job title. More often, training leads to a range of occupations. It’s important that students understand how to apply the skills they acquire in order to find professional success. Northwestern students have a team of experts ready to help.
Life unfolds at a more rapid pace for our students than almost any other time in their lives. It’s a relief to know that we can count on campus experts to help our students make the choice of a major—and help them move through other major choices (pun intended)! The more we, as personal coaches, encourage our students to invest time with their academic and career coaches, the more likely they will feel confident in evaluating the next milestone.
We have plenty of challenges in life that it is worth recognizing the victories. I like marking the milestones. While you might not throw a party at every step, each major decision represents another leap off the launch pad. Life choices just might be worth celebrating with a slice of pie—in your student’s favorite flavor, of course!