I Started College at 16

What I wish I had known.

December 3, 2019

I first registered for classes at 15 years old, during my junior year of high school. My first day of class was just after my 16th birthday. While, at the time, it appeared to be a brilliant way to get a head start in life and save me some money (dual-enrolled college/high school students had all tuition costs waived), it also laid a heavy burden of stress on my teenage shoulders.

On the one hand, I was ahead of the metaphorical pack as a nontraditional college student who was at least two years younger than the traditional students. On the other hand, throughout my last two years of high school, I was taking Spanish classes with students who had already taken Spanish in high school, I was taking literature courses with students who had already read classic literature in high school and I was an editor on the college newspaper with writers who had worked on their high school papers for years already. It was the same in every class. I was also taught by instructors who regularly encouraged us to think about our futures as adults, which I wasn’t quite ready to do yet. We were often told by professors that “this isn’t high school anymore.” I was all too aware of that fact.

I remember registering for courses for the first time, in person, and being asked what my Social Security number was. I had no idea. When I could only respond to the question with a quizzical expression, feeling lost, I realized that must be an important thing to know. From that point on, I made sure to carry it with me on a scrap of paper until I had it memorized.

I wish I’d known I wasn’t the only one who had no clue what I ultimately wanted to do for a living. When I was told to choose the major that would, presumably, lead to my future career, I had no clue what to do. I was vaguely told to choose something I would be interested in, which was good advice, but it didn’t take the economy or the job market into consideration. I loved reading and writing, so I chose English with a focus in creative writing.

In total, I took 11 college courses during high school, including one summer course. I ended up earning my associate of arts degree in English, my bachelor of arts degree in communication studies, my master of arts degree in communication studies and now, finally, I am earning my doctorate in higher education leadership. It wasn’t a straight path to get here, but I’m glad I ended up where I am.

I wish I’d known that changing majors and not feeling ready is OK. It’s normal, even. No one at 15, 16 or even 19 years old should be locked into a specific career path to traverse until retirement.

As someone who has now taught several communication courses at a nearby university, I’ve seen many of my students panic over the idea of switching majors. It’s as if they consider changing majors to signify that they’ve somehow failed in the major they’re in. I’d argue that it’s much better to have spent some time in the “wrong” major figuring out it isn’t for you than it would be to commit to your major and ultimately spend 30 years or so in the “wrong” career. The message I’d like to send to students today is: within reason (so, not three times per semester), change that major if you feel like you should. You’ll probably be glad you did.

Rachel Giles is a doctoral candidate in the department of leadership and teacher education at the University of South Alabama. Her primary research and career interests involve higher education leadership, communication, writing and student success. Twitter: @Rachel_Giles1


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