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On majors and intentionality

What’s a biomedical engineering degree worth if you only pursue one for its supposed prestige? 

Should you major in neuroscience without ever considering anything else?

Why should you use electives to take finance classes in preparation for a career in banking, when you’d really rather explore cultural anthropology? 

How can you justify taking a pre-medical track only to appease friends and family? 

Why only take “easy” classes to keep a high-GPA for law school admissions, instead of choosing classes based on topics and professors?    

Above all, are you truly engaged in your academics or does the pressure to prepare for a career after college prevent you from delving into your coursework? 

The answers to the above questions vary greatly between individuals, and the potential responses are unique functions of both the controllable and uncontrollable. There is a difference between not knowing what you want to do with your major, and not knowing why you are completing your major. The existence of the latter sentiment, not the former, is a threat to higher education as we know it. 

So what is it with students and asking “Why?” It cannot be a fear of being “that nerd—definitionally, universities are hubs for those who love learning. Perhaps it is not a fear, but rather an absence of informal spaces that inspire individuals to interrogate their chosen academic paths. 

In addition to promoting formal campus resources, which are exceedingly easy to access, the broader university climate must sponsor the realms of questioning that inspire people to live intentional lives. For example, when picking classes, it is easy to get trapped in the process of planning requirements for your major, your minor and your certificate. This doesn’t leave much time to consider the fundamental value of a class, let alone ponder why you really want a Markets and Management certificate.

Of course, people have real and conscionable reasons for pursuing majors that do not excite them. Finances, job security and familial obligations are staples of life, and its imperfections, and it is a tremendous privilege to remain unaware of these considerations. 

However, complete passivity is not a trait of the emboldened. For those who can afford to push back against constricting forces—such as the expectations of peers, assumptions about the future and simply not taking the time to discover interests—now is the time to explore. 

Curriculum changes proposed in the future, and the debates that will ensue in light of them, are irrelevant if students are ultimately not intentional and purposeful with their pursuits. 

One idea to promote a culture of unfettered academic engagement on campus is to restructure the majors fairs, so that rather than than “selling” themselves, departments seek to uncover students’ passions and find best fits for them. Better yet, what if there were ways to test out different majors in a way that is more substantial than the majors fairs, but less intensive than taking a class? For example, seminar events that focus on what degrees from various departments mean to students majoring in the field would be widely attended.

Rachael Lau, a sophomore from Illinois, coined the term “Explorations Fair” to describe a type of fair that allows students to test out various professional fields. This will allow them to develop a better conception of what life post-graduation can look like for a biomedical engineer, for example. This could build on the efforts of Sanford’s incredible EMBARK initiative, which seeks to expose students to the diversity of careers related to policy.

Perhaps the Career Center can work with major departments to facilitate strategies comparable to those of the consulting, finance and tech industries that currently strategize to recruit from college campuses. It is no accident that a large percentage of Duke students go into banking and consulting, after all. Such firms have robust marketing schemes that target elite universities and foster reputations that draw students to apply.

And, if the major options offered in both Trinity College and the Pratt School do not entice your intellectual curiosity, you may always apply to pursue Program II—an interdisciplinary course of study that allows students to meet their unique academic and intellectual goals. If interested, email Dean Rachael Murphey-Brown today. 

At the same time, I am not a Program II student and you are not a public policy major. Or at least, we are much, much more. Majors do not translate to passions, interests, values and ambitions, so let’s stop making the association.

Ultimately, for the individual, making the most of a higher education is all about openly interrogating each and every one of our choices, and not deluding ourselves with our proclaimed intentions. New York junior Jiahui Liao said it best: “I know that I want to sell my soul to financial services for at least my first few years after college. But at least I know and can own it.” 

Whatever your calling may be, resist the pressure to shape your life to the fancy of presumed norms. In this four-year long incubator, as early as possible, we must learn to ask ourselves: what do I want to get out of Duke?

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. 

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