Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

When Choosing a Major, Put Passion Before Practicality

April 13th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

As the end the school year approaches, I find myself doing a lot of thinking about all that I’ve learned — about colleges and academia, about students and teaching — over my 14 years as a college professor .

If I count the classes I taught as a graduate student, I have at this point taught somewhere around 2000 students, ranging from first-semester freshman year to Ph.D. candidates. I’ve watched students change and grow as they’ve realized new interests and talents. I’ve watched the world open up in new ways to young men and women who’ve discovered their passion for academic areas they’d never even heard of before going to college.

On a somewhat less positive note, though, I’ve also watched students struggle to complete the required courses for majors that they have no interest in,  but that they or their parents believe to be practical. Such students often end up completing their majors, but in 5 or 6 years rather than 4; or they graduate, but with grade point averages that reflect the disinterest of a person who’s chosen a major s/he doesn”t really care about. In the worst cases, I’ve seen students drop out of college altogether, daunted by the daily reality of course after course in an area that holds no interest for them.

These scenarios result when students opt to put the subjects that they are passionate about aside, in favor of what they and/or well meaning family believe to be more practical courses and majors. Sadly, much of the perception of what is and isn’t practical or realistic in terms of college education is based on the idea that majors in the humanities and the arts are frivolous, and cannot lead to long-term sustainable employment.

In my experience, this misperception disproportionately impacts students of color — African American, Asian American, and Latino students, in particular. It is this mistaken notion that is partly responsible for the dearth of people of African descent in the nation’s doctoral programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. It’s not that Black students have no interest in these fields; but with so much at stake — in terms of loans, familiy responsibilities and hopes, etc. — Black students and other students of color are often  reluctant to declare majors that don’t seem to point directly to a specific career path or job.

How much happier both students and parents would be if they realized that when it comes to choosing a major that truly lead to employment opportunities and upward mobility after college, passion is practical. When it comes to getting into graduate school — MBA programs, medical schools, law schools — high grades and enthusiastic recommendations matter more than a student’s choice of college major.*  Students almost always earn higher grades in those fields that they are passionate about. Majors like pre-med and pre-law are no subsitution for a 4.0 GPA in Art History or Philosophy or French or Comparative Literature. And when it comes to graduate school recommendations, there is no substitute from references from professors who know the applicant well because her passion for their subject is reflected in her outstanding work in their classes.

Think of all the investment bankers who majored in English, French, Art History, Chemistry and Music; and there are physicians and lawyers who majored in all of these areas and others — Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Semiotics, Physics, African American Studies, Philosophy. What most successful professionals have in common is that they focused in their undergraduate years discovering and then excelling in majors that were truly compelling to them. Their interest was reflected in exceptional grades, academic honors, honor society memberships (Phi Beta Kappa, Golden Key, et cetera), and awards. When the time came to apply to grad school these outstanding scholars were evaluated not for their choice of discipline, but for their demonstrated capacity to perform at the highest levels of achievement.

So, the same rule applies to choosing an undergraduate major that applies to choosing your career — do what you love, and success and happiness and a satisfying career will follow.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

*I did not include PhD candidates in this list, because these applicants are self-selecting. Interest in the doctoral degree usually grows out of that same passion that fueled those students do excell at the undergraduate level.

Posted in African Americans, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education, Uncategorized

4 Responses

  1. Stephen Bess

    So true. When I left the Navy and set my sights on college, I had no idea what I would major in. So, I majored in the subject I was most succesful — English. Now, I am working as a Consultant for Plain Language Communication. In other words, I help to make sense of Government documents. I also do freelance editing and I’m an author. So, it is important to be in touch with self and to know what subject major will get you a Bachelors degree. I’m not saying don’t take any chances, but I’m certain that it would’ve been more difficult for me if I’d majored in, for instance, Bio-Chemistry. Great post!

  2. Ajuan Mance

    I too was an English major. I started out as engineering/computer science, and then I woke up and realized that I’d always loved the study of literature. Still, my concern for what was practical kept me from selecting art as a second major. I’d never really met a Black artist, and I didn’t really understand that it truly is possible to make a life (and a living) as an artist.

    This experience is one of the things that makes so committed to encourage all of my students to follow their passions and talents. If I’d had someone to tell me that so many years ago, I would probably have made different choices.

  3. Stephen Bess

    True. Art would have been a nice choice for me as well. It’s great that you’ve recognized this and encourage others.

  4. MG

    I actually just stumbled upon your blog, and was reading from your most recent article to this one. This is so ironic because I just wrote a post on my blog about exactly this!
    I’ve been feeling trapped between my desires,my passions and the desires of my family. This article was great, and very helpful at that.
    Thank You!

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