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UNC gives students opportunity to explore majors, but with it comes uncertainty

Catherine Cameron waits with other students for academic advising services in Steele Building.

Junior Leo Li stepped into Steele Building to declare his double major in math and biostatistics last November. It was the seventh time he changed his major. 

However, his experience isn't uncommon, said Lee May, the associate dean and director of Academic Advising Program.

“We find that when students come to orientation, you know, before they start classes at Carolina. About half of the students say that they want to be biology majors and go to med school,” May said. “But what we know is biology graduates about 500 majors a year out of a class of 4,000. So that means something happens.”

May said it takes a while for students to explore different areas of studies in a liberal arts university and find out what their interests and strengths are.

“Students are only exposed to certain subject areas when they are in high school," May said. "So for example, most students in high school don’t get to study exercise and sports science. But a lot of biology people who think they got to study biology end up going for a different science major." 

Li was accepted to UNC as a pre-admitted student for business administration in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business school, which he would later find did not align with his interests. 

“It requires a lot of socializing to make connections and social networks with other people, but I’m not that type of person,” Li said. 

Senior Joseph Cox shared the perspective when he transferred from UNC-Asheville.

“When I transferred to UNC, I just heard a lot about how UNC’s journalism program is really strong and I was interested in journalism because I have written for the school newspaper in my high school. So I thought it might be something that I want to do. So I declared journalism,” Cox said. “But in the summer when I was thinking about what classes I should sign up for, I decided I don’t even want to take any journalism class because it just sounds boring.”

While there are different reasons for changing majors, concerns about job markets seem to be the priority among students.  

“I changed my major based on my interests, so I changed to some social science major such as econ, global studies, and history. After a while, I thought that it was very hard to find a job with these majors,” Li said. “I don't know whether I should choose those subjects that I like or those majors that will bring me a better job. Sometimes I feel that I don't even know which subjects I am interested in.” 

Sometimes change for students can be inspired by extracurricular activities. Right before studying abroad, Cox learned about UNC's School of Information and Library Science. At the same time, he started volunteering for an organization called WiderNet, a non-profit organization that had a partnership with the School of Information and Library Science. 

“I taught kids how to build computers and I had a lot fun doing it. When I was in France, I was kind of able to promote this organization, but just in the French-speaking world," Cox said. "So while I was working on this program, it’s something that I’m really into it, that I spend heart and soul. I just started realizing that I should really be doing information science."

While some students such as Cox and Li don't find it necessary to declare majors on the college application, May said it would be difficult for the academic advising department to pair and advise students if everyone came in with no declaration.

"So when students come in to the University and they say that they want to do biology, we know that they might be a science major," May said. "They may not be biology. So we can pair them with advisors who are experts in all these disciplines.”

Nevertheless, Li said because advisors are not familiar with the coursework of each major, they cannot provide advice about specific career goals and research interests. He finds his specific advising program in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health more helpful. 

“But I really like the academic advising program in my professional school, specifically the biostatistics program under UNC Gillings School of Public Health," Li said. "The advisor Jane Monaco knows the subject matter really well and cares a lot about her students.”

Cox said when he has changed majors, the switch to a new adviser is difficult. 

“And so especially for the first couple years I have probably talked to three or four advisers which is kind of tricky because I try to make relationship with the first but by the time I changed my major, I had to explain everything about myself to the next one,” Cox said.

Despite all the concerns in terms of finding a major, May still encourages students to explore so they can settle down by the second semester of their sophomore year.

“I think exploring majors is good. On the other hand, some students come in and they know what they exactly want to do. That’s fine also. There are many paths for graduation," May said. "That’s the beauty of the liberal arts curriculum. There’s so much for you to explore, understand and choose."

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