Should Students Major in What They Love?

When we advise students about their academic pathways, we must understand diverse students’ practical concerns as well as their distinct cultural value systems, argues June Y. Chu.

October 21, 2016
 
iStock/jian wang

As an adviser to college-age students, it could be easy for me to say “major in what you love” and be done. Research shows that employers often recruit for transferrable skills, and there is no direct correlation between one’s major and career. In fact, Forbes magazine has presented research findings indicating that only 27 percent of college graduates are working in a job that relates to their major.

The story I most like to tell is of a former student who studied religion and went on to immediately work for a National Basketball Association team in marketing and sales. However, I then recall one of my most challenging advising situations with an Asian-American student whose passion was English, but her parents held to the idea of a “practical” major that would assure her employability. In that situation, an English major alone would not be the option for her -- she could never satisfy cultural values surrounding interdependence and filial piety and be content with following her passion. This situation resolved itself with a compromise: she double majored in English and finance.

Google the phrase “Does your major matter?” and you will find that most articles out there succinctly state, “Nope, doesn’t matter.” Yet, sometimes, it does. To be better advisers, we need to consider the cultural baggage a student brings to a conversation when discussing their major.

We should not presume that factual arguments surrounding employability, regardless of major, will suffice in discussions with parents and other family members. That can appear ethnocentric, as it fails to consider cultural values and norms that are outside American ideologies of independence. If we continually advise without understanding diverse students’ practical concerns, while appreciating their distinct cultural value systems, we inadvertently project the idea that independence is the norm and interdependence is an erroneous way of thinking. In short, we add to the already pre-existing dissonance that a student is bringing to the academic discussion.

For example, one student whom I queried recalls focusing on biology and medicine because she wanted to make her parents happy. While a discussion with an adviser about alternate options would have been fruitful, advisers who merely espouse majoring in one’s own personal interest could have devalued the real, interdependent factors at play in her decision-making process. Although some experts such as Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci may argue that decisions made based on one’s own interests may be less depleting than those based on external factors like family wishes, a confounding variable must be considered: If the intrinsic beliefs of interdependence are held strongly, how does a college-age student balance that conflict?

When I asked a Korean international student about her major, she said that had her parents not been happy with her major, she would not have been happy herself. A Nigerian-American student said to me, “The family that helped you get to a point where you could make a choice between what you love and what pays better: When it comes time to choose, how could you not choose them? [It] is no longer a choice between two careers but a choice between loves -- the love for your family and for your career. It also becomes a choice between two futures -- one where you are happy and your family miserable, or vice versa. That is when you look at how they helped you get to where you have this choice, and you realize that there is really no choice.”

Happiness in pursuit of one’s own interest may then sacrifice happiness in areas of interdependence. The question for advisers is how our own cultural values influence our advising and potentially devalue the cultural history a student brings into our office.

As culturally competent advisers, we need to allow students the space to share their employability concerns, ask the questions of where their concerns come from and engage in conversation about how feasible it is for them to minimize family conflict (if it is incongruent to their well-being) while pursuing a passion. It is our responsibility to ferret out reasons why a student may not readily adopt the idea that majoring in a passion is a path to consider -- and that it may not necessarily be the “right” and “only” path a student can and should take.

As we advise, it is also important to consider acculturation in discussions with students from diverse backgrounds. For Asian-Americans, studies have shown that differences in acculturation levels between parents and young adults can lead to an increased likelihood of family conflict. But they have also highlighted the importance of family social support in mitigating psychological and bicultural stress.

In addition, many studies continue to indicate differences between white American college students and those from ethnic minority groups. Thus, when we as advisers only advocate following one’s passion, we should ask of ourselves if we are microaggressors, telling students that is the only right way to engage in education. This generation of college students will probably be the first that does not outstrip their parents in earnings. Therefore, a practical major and earnings potential are a real and true concern for our student population.

That is not to say, however, that we, as seasoned advisers, should not continue to encourage students to major in their areas of interest. Indeed, our goals are to help students discover what they enjoy and want to engage with more deeply, and to encourage them to consider education as part of their engagement in developing their identities. Surely, we can all easily identify a vast number of students who have majored in what one may consider an “impractical” major and gone on to make more money than we, with our doctorates, may ever see.

But given the vastly different backgrounds of the students whom we advise, to be an effective adviser, to connect and encourage, we must also be cognizant that our roles will also entail tactful discussions that go beyond merely saying, “Do what you love, and it will all work out.”

Bio

June Y. Chu is dean of Pierson College at Yale University.

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