MaryGrace Wajda, Talking to Current College Students About Their Choice of Major

This post was originally published in Arts and Humanities in the 21st Century Workplace. It is reposted here by permission.

By: MaryGrace Wajda

As part of my fellowship project, I met with several students to discuss their decision to major in the arts/humanities. Their responses to my questions were fascinating. Here are the profiles of the students I talked to, along with a record of our conversations, for you to read:

Karlee Bergendorff is a senior at Union College majoring in political science and art history/fine arts. She is also a Watson Fellow and will be traveling around the world after graduation to complete her project, which she describes as follows: “Textbook versions of history often focus on ‘greatness’ and monumental events, where I take the shreds of history, pieces of junk, and abandoned spaces, and piece together untold stories through my art. I hope to rediscover a history that fills in the gaps of traditional, historical narratives. I will search for meaning in material remains and create reflective art in each location based on what I discover.” After her Watson year, Karlee plans to attend law school, to which she has already been accepted, for international human rights. She kindly found time in her busy schedule to answer some questions. Thank you, Karlee! Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Me: Do you think your major is practical? Why or why not? Does it even matter?

Karlee: I believe my major is practical because it has already allowed me many opportunities. It has helped me to get a fellowship, acceptance into law school, plenty of internships, and a strenuous writing experience (thesis). I think that my past experiences and classes helped diversify my resume and set me apart.

Me: Wow! That’s amazing. So who or what inspires you?

Karlee:  My mother inspires me because she has been raising me since she was 23, and has her own business. She is resilient, and that is what I hope to be.

Me: You said you have had some internship experience. Can you tell me more about those, and about any other jobs you may have had?

Karlee: I have worked at my mother’s restaurant since I was 12. I have also worked at a local law office and as a secretary at a construction company since I was a first-year in college. I have interned for Congressman Paul Tonko and Greene County Council on the Arts.

Me: Do you think studying the arts/humanities gets a bad reputation in relation to practical concerns, such as getting a job? Have you experienced this stigma and if so, how did you handle it?

Karlee: Yes and no. Some people questioned what I wanted to do after college but most people are excited for me when I tell them about my plans and intentions.

Me: If you could advise your high school or first-year of college self in terms of your academic and professional goals and how to best set yourself up for success, what would you say?

Karlee: I would tell myself that it will all click eventually. Starting out college was a little difficult for me because I did not have a strong academic background. I would encourage myself to keep my two majors, and to use them both to my advantage because there are opportunities in both fields.

Thanks again, Karlee! I would also like to add that I attended Karlee’s senior art exhibit, and it was incredible. She also won the award for best senior thesis in the political science department at Union College. She is a true inspiration and an example of what amazing things you can accomplish if you find what you are passionate about and pursue it!

Next, I spoke with Marcella Jewell, a recent graduate of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Marcella majored in political science and computer science, and took many philosophy courses during her college career. After interning at a hedge fund, Marcella chose to focus full time on her startup, Anthill Jobs, which seeks to match college students looking for part time work or projects with local businesses needing assistance. She has given a TED talk, and is actively engaged in the world of entrepreneurship. Although political science is not a humanities major, Marcella’s focus on political philosophy and her connection to business made me want to interview her. We sat down to talk about her background and the arts and humanities. Thanks, Marcella!

Me: How did you choose your majors?

Marcella: I literally just fell into it. I took an Introduction to Government class and left feeling like I had just learned all the secrets of our government. My professor was so thorough, and offered so many new perspectives on leadership, the construction of government, and how it’s supposed to interact with its constituents. I just found the theories behind authority, civil associations, etc. to be very applicable in real life.

Me: What do you hope to do with your degree? How are you applying what you learned in school?

Marcella: My study in political theory has only helped my leadership abilities. Retrospectively, I realized that my entire education was a study of leadership, power, and human interaction, especially within organizations. I find myself quoting Rousseau or Nietzsche often at work when I’m trying to effectively communicate with someone being passive aggressive or when it’s hard to come to a general consensus.

Me: Have you ever had a job or an internship?

Marcella: Yes, I have had 9 different jobs, 7 of them working for small businesses, and two of them were my own ventures.

Me: How do you think your chosen field of study relates to your jobs/internships?

Marcella: I’ve done everything from being an assistant to an executive director to software engineering to being a management associate at a hedge fund. Only with an appreciation for the humanities, I think, can you bounce around like that. I would attribute my acceptance to these places as a result of having a critical mind, not really a result of having a certain hard skill set (even software engineering).

Thanks, Marcella! Be sure to check out her company, Anthill Jobs

Next, I spoke with Jenna Corcoran, a junior at Union College studying Classics. Jenna has worked in the Admissions Office at Union, and she also studied abroad in Athens, Greece. Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jenna!

Me: How did you choose your major in the arts/humanities?

Jenna: I chose to study the Classics because I loved Latin in high school. It was something for which I had an aptitude, but it still challenged and interested me in an exciting way. There is also an immersive quality to the process when working on classical texts. It’s not work that you can do while watching Netflix, talking to your mom, and at a table with all your friends. It is something you have to dive into.

Me: What do you hope to do with your degree? How do you think you will apply what you have learned after graduation?

Jenna: As far as my degree is concerned, I think I will frame it. With the education I have accumulated in this field, I hope to apply it to any number of things. One of my passions right now is food. I would really love to get into the realm of food studies/food security. I am currently applying a dual path to that goal by preparing both to apply for law schools as well as graduate programs.

Me: Do you think your major is practical? Why or why not? Does it even matter?

Jenna: I do think that my major is practical. To distill my major to a very utilitarian form, it does impart crucial and transferable skills that I could go on to use in any field such as writing or critical thinking. But I also believe my major to be more than a vessel of applied critical thinking. In spite of my assertion that my major is in fact practical I don’t think that it matters. What matters is if people are satisfied with their major, if it motivates them, and if they excel in it. A practical major is only as useful and valuable as the person pursuing it.

Me: I couldn’t have said it better myself. So, did you face any backlash from parents/advisors/mentors when you informed them of your chosen field of study?

Jenna: I receive backlash at times. Mostly I find that I encounter ignorance. Most people don’t know what a Classics major is.

Me: I have found that as well. Have you ever had a job or an internship?

Jenna: Yes. I intern at the Schenectady Greenmarket and will intern at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Me: Congratulations! How do you think studying Classics relates to those internships?

Jenna: The Greenmarket is a community run initiative. It is a large collection of people who are passionate about food, working to organize the community because they love to do so. My major is not a common choice, but when asked to explain that I love it, it shows to employers that I am not afraid to pursue my passions, and I take on what means the most to me. At the museum, I will be doing a curation internship in the Ancient Greek and Roman Art Department and I believe that connection between my major and the internship is much more ostensible.

Me: Do you think the arts/humanities gets a bad reputation when it comes to concerns about getting a job after college? Have you ever experienced this stigma and if so, how did you handle it?

Jenna: I do think that the humanities/arts get a bad reputation when it comes to corporate success. I think that people believe that it is somehow softer/easier; that the academic rigor in the humanities is nowhere near that of a business degree. I have experienced this stigma. At this point I don’t let it phase me because I am confident in who I am and what I can do. I don’t think of my education as a waste of time in the same way that others might view my major and that difference in perspective grants a lot of patience. So long as I can see the value, which I thoroughly do, I can weather any reaction. If I feel particularly up to it, I might even try to persuade them toward my point of view.

Me: If you could advise your high school or freshman year of college self in terms of your academic and professional goals and how to best set yourself up for success, what would you say?

Jenna: Do what you love. I loved the Classics in high school, amongst other things, and knew that I wanted to study it. But I let my parents and advisors convince me that it might not be the most practical choice and entered college as a biology/chemistry double major. I spent most of my freshman year in science based courses. I didn’t fail or get “weeded out”, but I wasn’t spending as much time doing what I loved. I decided to switch majors to the Classics and ended up where I had wanted to be before it all began. I would never say that I wasted my time in chemistry/biology courses because I did learn a lot and enjoyed them, but I would say that I missed out on really great courses like “The Demise of the Roman Republic” or other classical opportunities that I will never regain.

Thank you, Jenna! Best of luck with your internship this summer.

Next up, I talked to Julianne Quinn, a senior Art History and Sociology major at Union College who studied abroad in Florence, Italy. Thanks for your time, Julianne!

Me: How did you choose your major in the arts/humanities?

Julianne: I was placed into Art History my first year, fall, 101, switched into 102 winter term from Economics, and decided to take 103 my spring term (they are a chronological survey). I decided to take Sociology winter term my first year. I know this is not a terribly good answer, but I tend to be intuitive when it comes to large decisions – meaning that I just “know” or do what feels “right.” I declared a double major spring of my first year and don’t regret it for a moment.

Me: Did you always know that was what you wanted to study? What influenced this decision?

Julianne: Not at all! I went to a small high school and was not exposed to either of my majors before college. I just put one foot in front of the other and it leads me where I want to go.

However, looking back, it seems obvious all along. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in college is that what seems easy to you may not seem easy to everyone else. It sounds so simple! But for me, art history was always easy, and it took me a while to realize that it was in actuality something I was naturally good at, not something that was easy. Therefore, the field that is meant for me is not necessarily meant for other people and vice versa.

Me: What do you hope to do with your degree? How do you think you will apply what you have learned after graduation?

Julianne: Depends. I would love to work with people and I would love to work with aesthetics, preferable together. That’s about it! But the application of these is broad. I could see myself ending up in real estate, or working in a museum. Very different things, but there are similarities when thinking of my interests.

Me: Do you think your major is “practical”? Why or why not? Does it matter?

Julianne: Yes and no. I think Sociology is much more practical than people give it credit for. I’m biased but I think it is more practical than Psychology. Because generally in the world people act as a member of a larger group, and that is more significant than how they would act solely in a vacuum.

Art History- also, I think it’s practical, but it’s convincing other people of that. We live in such a visual world now, I think it’s valuable to be able to break down and analyze these visuals.

Me: Did you face any backlash from parents/advisors/mentors when you informed them of your chosen field of study?

Julianne: None! I am very lucky in that way. My parents were always 100% supportive.

Me: Who/what are your greatest academic influencers?

Julianne: I was actually given Professor Ogawa in the art history department as my advisor my first year. He still is my advisor today. He has influenced and inspired my time at Union so much… I speak with him not just about classes but about all academic things in general. I cannot understate how amazing being his advisee has been at Union. It really has made my experience here.

Me: Have you ever had a job or internship?

Julianne: Yes! I’ve been working since I was 14… but since college I’ve had 3 internships and 3 jobs.

Me: How do you think your chosen field of study related to that job or internship?

Julianne: My internships have been at The Arts Center of the Capital Region and The Albany Institute of History and Art (I had 2 different internships there). These both definitely relate to my majors. The most recent job I had was independently running a home goods store/ gallery- there was art on the walls accompanied by home goods for sale. That also linked together my love of being with people and aesthetics.

Me: Do you think the arts/humanities get a bad reputation when it comes to corporate success/success after graduation? Have you ever experienced this stigma? How did you handle it?

Julianne: It definitely can. My dad loves liberal arts educations because instead of teaching you knowledge you can memorize, it teaches you a way of thinking, namely analytical and critical thinking. Unfortunately many employers are not this insightful. It’s hard for me because there are some jobs I want to apply to that require that you major in a field that just isn’t offered here. It’s hard to convince someone you never met that you can do a job- that basically you’re worth the risk of hiring someone that isn’t necessarily familiar with certain things but is willing to learn. How did I handle it? TBD! I’m doing the best I can for now and time will tell what happens.

Me: If you could advise your high school or freshman year self in terms of your academic and professional goals and how to best set yourself up for success, what would you say?

Julianne: That’s tough! I would say keep doing what you’re doing. One thing leads to another I’ve learned, meaning that one small opportunity may lead to a bigger opportunity. So don’t underestimate anything.

So there you have it. Thank you to each and every one of the incredible students I spoke with for their time, enthusiasm, and inspirational words!

MaryGrace Waida is a graduate of Union College with a double major in Classics and Philosophy.

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