Expos Offer Support to Students Considering Charting New Course

First-year biology majors Michelle Roth and Sarah Conceicao take the Jackson Career Explorer at UML Image by K. Webster
First-year biology majors Michelle Roth and Sarah Conceicao took the Jackson Career Explorer, a career exploration survey offered by Career & Co-op Services.

By Katharine Webster

First-year student Henry Li is ready for major changes.

He started out majoring in computer science, but found it — well, too scientific, at least for his goals. He wants to work in web design, but he isn’t sure whether he should change his major to graphic design for the front-end user experience, or business administration with a concentration in management information systems for back-end database know-how — or both.

So Li stopped by a new expo hosted by the Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services (C.L.A.S.S.) armed with a handwritten list of questions:

  • What GPA do I need to switch into these majors?
  • What courses should I start with?
  • What would my degree plan look like, and can I still finish in four years?

“I wanted all the information I could get about both majors,” he said. “The C.L.A.S.S. adviser told me what I need to take to figure out if I want to be a business major. The Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences adviser told me what art classes to start with. I’d like to take all of them next fall, if I can fit them into my schedule.”

The expos — one on North Campus and one on South — included advisers from C.L.A.S.S., advisers from each college and representatives of Career & Co-op Services and Financial Aid.

C.L.A.S.S. advisers are flooded with questions at this time of year about changing majors or concentrations, adding minors and adding second majors. So it made sense to bring everyone together in one place where students could get answers to all of their questions — academic, career and financial, says Kerry Donohoe, dean of academic services.

In the most recent class for which statistics are available — those who entered in fall 2010 — 70 percent graduated in different majors from those they had declared when they enrolled, and 58 percent changed colleges as well. That’s in line with national trends, Donohoe says: Studies have shown that anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of college students change their majors at some point.

But the longer that students wait to change majors, the more serious the consequences. So after a frank conversation about needing to stay in school longer and take on more debt, some students may decide to add a minor instead of starting all over in a different major, says Sheila Riley-Callahan, executive director of academic services and special programs for C.L.A.S.S.

“We want to make sure they understand what changing their major means, from soup to nuts,” Riley-Callahan says. “We just want them to have all the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves.”

Last year, Todd Borchers, coordinator of advising and tutoring services on South Campus, came up with the idea of a coffeehouse to provide a nonjudgmental environment for students to meet with advisers from C.L.A.S.S. and explore their options. C.L.A.S.S. expanded that into expos this year to involve the colleges and other related services so that students would have a one-stop shopping experience.

Many students are uncomfortable discussing a change of major with their parents or their current academic advisers, for fear of upsetting or disappointing them, Borchers says. So they put it off — to their detriment.

“These students who want to change their major have to have an uncomfortable conversation with their current academic adviser. It’s almost like breaking up,” he says. “We can ease that bad break-up conversation.”

Other students are unhappy for reasons that can include personal crises, academic struggles or lack of support, says Kristen Rhyner, coordinator of advising and outreach.

“I’ve had students say, ‘I’m definitely transferring out of here,’ and then we have a conversation about the reasons — and they end up staying because we’ve connected them with tutoring, or counseling, or another student in their major,” Rhyner says.

“We also wanted people from the colleges to talk to their own students and find out why they want to change majors. Some of these students are doing well academically, but they’re not happy with their major,” she says.

UML students Nurshafiquah Shahirah Mohd Ghazali and Richa Gotecha consult with Carol Towle. Coordinator of Student Success for the Manning School of Business. Image by K. Webster
Sophomore civil engineering students Nurshafiquah Shahirah Mohd Ghazali and Richa Gotecha talk to Carol Towle, student success coordinator in the Manning School of Business, about adding minors.

That was the case for three biology majors who came to the North Campus expo.

“Biology’s wicked hard, and I’m not getting any enjoyment out of it,” said Julia Sabatino, a sophomore transfer student.

First-year student Michelle Roth says she’s doing well in her classes, but she’s not loving biology. She chose it because she wanted to become a dentist, but now she’s not sure about that, either.

“I don’t like the research portion of biology,” she said. “I want to go to dental school, but I’ve never worked in that atmosphere.”

Roth and fellow first-year biology major Sarah Conceicao sat down to chat with Martina Witts, director of Career Services, and take the Jackson Career Explorer, an online career interest test. They hoped to use the results to help them decide their next steps.

Sophomore civil engineering majors Nurshafiquah Shahirah Mohd Ghazali and Richa Gotecha came to the expo for information about adding minors— environmental science for Mohd Ghazali, business for Gotecha.

“I always wanted to do something in business,” Gotecha said. “My professors said that if you’re in an engineering firm, it can really help you move up to management level.”

They were pleased to find all the information and help they needed in one place, as was first-year student Caitlin Doherty, who came to figure out how to make the switch from international business to criminal justice.

“I realized I just don’t like talking in front of people, and you have to do that a lot in business,” she says. “And I want to help people, and I think I could do that in criminal justice.”