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Students Find a Focus in New Career Exploration Class

Course Created for Students in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Anne Apigian teaches a one-credit career exploration class at UMass Lowell Photo by K. Webster
Anne Apigian teaches a career exploration class for students in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

By Katharine Webster

First-year student Michaela Wakefield enrolled at UML this fall as a political science major because she had become passionate about political activism in high school. 

Wakefield thought she wanted to become a lawyer, but she wanted to be sure. So she also signed up for the new, one-credit Career Exploration Seminar offered by the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS).

One homework assignment requires students to do an informational interview with someone in the job to which they aspire. Wakefield, an Honors College student who had breezed through earlier assignments, realized she was avoiding this one.

“I was gung-ho until I actually had to meet with someone,” she said. “I dreaded it so much that I couldn’t make myself do it.”

Instead, she decided to interview Bernadette Stockwell, who teaches the First-year Seminar in Honors, a writing class for honors students. During high school, Wakefield had taken a summer college writing class with Stockwell at Fitchburg State, and she wanted to reconnect.
During an in-class career choice exercise at UMass Lowell, most students joined the social/helping group. Photo by K. Webster
During an in-class career exercise, students discussed why they want to join helping professions including psychology, teaching and health care.

“She got me passionate about creative writing, and I got excited when I thought about talking to her,” Wakefield says.

After the interview, Wakefield switched her major to English with a concentration in creative writing. She also applied for and was awarded the Robert J. Lechner Endowed Creativity Fellowship, a $1,200 Honors College student fellowship that will allow her to work on a novel with Stockwell as her mentor.

Not every student has that lightning bolt moment of insight, says instructor Anne Apigian, who previously worked as a career counselor in the Career & Co-op Center and now advises first-year students in FAHSS.

Some students want to be certain they’ve picked the right major before they progress too far in their studies, Apigian says. Others really don’t know what they want to study or how their studies will connect to a job. 

“There are a few that are undeclared, and they say that with such shame. And I say, ‘That’s why you’re here. College is such an exploratory time, and being unsure at times about your direction is fine,’” Apigian says. 

She also gets students who say, “I picked psychology because it sounded interesting, but now I’m not sure about it,” and students who say, “I love history, but I don’t want to teach. What else can I do?” Apigian says.
First-year UML student Michaela Wakefield changed her major from Political Science to English. Photo by K. Webster
First-year honors student Michaela Wakefield changed her major from political science to English.

The class is designed to help each of them find their focus – that career sweet spot where their values, interests, personality, skills and strengths intersect, Apigian says.

Using in-class exercises, career and personality assessments, guest speakers and a workbook with written exercises and reflections that she put together, Apigian guides the students as they explore career options and start to focus their choices. She also meets one-on-one with each student at least once during the semester.

Apigian piloted the class last spring, after teaching a career planning seminar started by another career counselor. A lot of students in that class were juniors and seniors – and they told her they wished they’d taken the class sooner. 

“Half of them knew exactly what they wanted to do and just didn’t know how to go about the job search,” she says. “Half had no idea what they wanted to do, and they were about to graduate.”

With help from her colleagues in career services and advising, she designed a class specifically for first-year students and sophomores. She teaches FAHSS Career Exploration Seminar in both semesters, and colleagues in the Career & Co-op Center teach Job Search Seminar in the spring for juniors and seniors. Students outside the target group can take the class with Apigian’s permission. 

Although FAHSS Career Exploration Seminar is offered specifically for students in that college, it’s fine with Apigian if students change to a major outside the college. About 70 percent of UML students change majors their first year, on par with the national average, and nearly 60 percent also change colleges. 
UML student Mikayla Dolan changed her major from psychology to education after taking a career exploration class. Photo by K. Webster
The Career Exploration Seminar helped Mikayla Dolan decide to become a special education teacher.

What Apigian discovered while teaching the pilot class last spring was that a few of her first-year students were at risk of leaving school altogether because they were unsure of why they were pursuing a college degree. She says the course can be a valuable intervention.

Mikayla Dolan was grateful to take the first iteration of the class. She’d already left her first college, a private university in Pennsylvania where she’d gone to study music therapy. In her first semester, she realized that enjoying music, psychology and teaching didn’t add up to enjoying work as a music therapist – at least not for her. 

Dolan transferred to UMass Lowell and declared a psychology major. But last spring, she also took a class in the College of Education, still unsure what she wanted to do. Through personality tests and informational interviews with two different special education teachers, and with help from Apigian, she switched her major to elementary education, where she will also earn certification in teaching students with moderate disabilities. She’s now minoring in psychology and planning to become a special education teacher.

“We had to do a lot of research on the majors we were looking at, and we took a personal qualities test. It really helped me clarify things,” she says. “I wanted to be sure what I wanted to do before I changed my major again.”

Renee Perusse, a senior Bachelor of Liberal Arts major with concentrations in psychology and health studies, is taking the FAHSS Career Exploration Seminar this fall because she will graduate in December. She already has a job she enjoys in human resources, but she wanted to confirm that the field is a good long-term match for her. 

It is, she says – and the class is also introducing her to tools she can use in her career.

“I’m learning a lot about myself still,” she says. “I really like the personality tests. I like understanding myself and other people around me.”