During freshman orientation for my college, the first years, and there were many of us, were divided up into small groups. Then we were all separated, led by our FASET leaders. FASET is the term for orientation at Georgia Tech, and the FASET leaders were upperclassmen who decided that they wanted to spend their summer helping little freshmen figure out how to college and why scheduling a class in the College of Business right after a class in the Instructional Center is a very bad idea.
In our groups, after a round of introductions and some icebreaker activities (everyone’s favorite), we were asked what our intended majors were. Many people boldly proclaimed their majors with proud faces and confident voices. Computer Science. Mechanical Engineering. Electrical Engineering. Industrial Engineering. Biomedical Engineering.
Then it came time for me to speak. “I’m majoring in Business.”
Right away, a gamut of different reactions. Some, the less sure ones, simply nodded and accepted. The FASET leaders smiled and nodded as they always did. The rest were more homogenous. Some had slightly confused looks, as if they couldn’t comprehend why I would choose my particular major. Some didn’t know how to quite react and resorted to nodding emptily. And then some had silently appraising eyes, looking me over and forming their own mental models of me in their heads, hidden behind friendly smiles.
Then it passed. We continued on to the next person. Computer Science. Chemical Engineering. Industrial Engineering.
I didn’t know it then, but it would be my first encounter with the fixation with majors in college.
It’s been two years now. Here’s what I learned:
Students tend to define themselves based on their majors.
Your first instinct may be to say that it’s not true. People are people, and they’re not defined by their chosen profession or field of study. I completely agree.
Yet, that’s not quite true, is it? There are stereotypes associated with different majors and fields of study, and those stereotypes heavily influence students to the point that they start to think of themselves less as people and more as majors.
Take Industrial Engineering. It’s heavily associated, professionally, with logistics, supply chain, data analytics, and operations. Talking to dozens of Industrial Engineering majors, I’ve discovered that many of them consider themselves “good” at logistics, supply chain, etc. Logically, that makes sense. If you have interests in those particular areas or are good at related skills, then you tend to study what you’re good at. However, that’s not where the problem lies. The problem, which I’ve discovered, is that many students tend to say that they are, by default, “good” at logistics, operations, and the like because they are Industrial Engineering majors. They say that, as a result of their chosen field of study, they automatically think of themselves as a collection of characteristics of their majors.
There are other examples, of course. Computer Science majors are supposed to be rather quiet, reserved, and kind of nerdy. They don’t like talking to people. They’re incredibly smart, but they don’t really have social skills. Business students are outgoing and very people-oriented. They don’t really have technical skills, and may not be as smart as a student that studies Computer Science. Philosophy majors have their heads in the clouds, and they hardly study. They chill, and they don’t really have good job prospects. They’re pretty laid back.
Sound familiar? For many people, it’s a painful day-to-day experience. These stereotypes push us into certain frames of thinking when, combined with group think and conformity, makes us truly believe that we are only as strong as our majors. We begin to follow the stereotypes. We begin to use our fields of study as the primary defining characteristic of a person.
What are the first three things you might ask a person when first meeting them in college?
“What’s your name?”
“What year are you?”
“What’s your major?”
But why do we do this?
There are a couple of reasons.
Career-oriented environment. My university might be an extreme example. However, the fact remains that most colleges tend to be platforms for future jobs and careers. They are fertile hiring grounds for companies ranging from the smallest startup to the largest corporation. These companies want student talent, especially from the top universities. However, they have specific needs, particular positions they want to fill for their agendas. So, they look for students with certain skill sets. For better or for worse, companies categorize based on majors to be more efficient, as students with certain majors like Computer Science tend to have experience in things like software development or data analytics, which are important skill sets for the companies. Students recognize this focus on majors by the companies and accommodate to suit the environment. As a result, there is a very heavy emphasis on majors and how a student defines himself/herself. Classic elevator pitch to a recruiter: “Hi, my name is X, and I am an X-year, X-major.”
“Student” isn’t even included in the sentence anymore. Students are reduced to a collection of labels that determine a large part of their professional career and, ultimately, their identity.
College student identity crisis. At the ripe age range of 18–24, college students are at a point in their lives where they are no longer tethered to their parents and where they have to make very important decisions on their own. Friends, career, relationships, student organizations, fields of study, and so much, much more. It can be a lot to take in. At this age, students are trying to find themselves, find their passions, find out what they live for. Majors, for lack of better phrasing, help determine much of that. They provide a comfortable path to follow, particularly for fields that have a lot of fellow followers, like business. Young people are incredibly malleable and uncertain at this stage in their lives, and something like a major can provide a guiding light for the unsure and the unconfident.
Stereotyping and conformity. How many people do you know that tend to only hang out with students with the same major? Same classes, similar schedules, and shared struggles contribute to this. But, beyond that, many students, particularly unsure, malleable young people, want to feel a part of a group, something that allows them to feel as though they have support and a place to share experiences. So, just like we hang out with friends who have similar interests and hobbies, we group up with people of the same majors.
Then the stereotypes set in. Maybe you’re a business student who comes into college set on keeping both your technical and non-technical talents. You were captain of your school’s varsity math team, and you used to hack together iOS apps back in the day. Then you start talking to people, who, when learning about your interests, seemed to treat you with confusion. They may say things like, “You’re good at math? That’s weird for a business major”, or “You know how to make an app? That’s cool! I thought you had to be a Computer Science major”, or even “You shouldn’t be a business major if you’re good at those things, don’t waste your time here”. Suddenly, you feel as if something is wrong with you. You start to focus less on those fun interests of yours and you try to involve yourself with more “business-y” things. If this is what everyone else is like, then they must be doing something right.
And then you slowly start to forget who you used to be.
Let’s just say you assume that a good chunk of the points that I’ve made so far are correct. But then you might ask, “What’s wrong with all of this? Doesn’t knowing what you want and knowing what you’re good at help you? Why are you making such a big fuss about majors?”
Here’s my response to that.
I hate it when people disqualify themselves because of their majors. They assume that, because they’re a Computer Science major, they must be good at making apps and not good at talking to people, or because they’re a business student, they don’t know how to do anything “technical”. Just because you’re a certain major, it doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to do anything else besides it. Before you came to college, you were probably a lot of things. A ballet dancer. A captain of a debate team. A football player. An artist. A web developer. A photographer. Yet, when you come to college, some of those amazing qualities that used to define you suddenly undergo a general atmosphere of discouragement, as if what you choose to study in class from 10AM-2PM stops you from doing something outside of class.
Then people start to assume things about others, purely based on their majors. They may say things like, “He’s not really good at talking to recruiters. CS majors, right?” and “Business majors don’t really do anything. Their classes aren’t hard; you don’t have to really know anything.” These stereotypes encourage close-minded thinking and stifles creativity. They snuff out the unique qualities of what makes a person a person, and replace them with what’s expected of them as a major.
We aren’t just a collection of college courses and declared professions. Every one of us is unique and different, and we each have something different to offer, even if we’re the same major. We do things outside of class that we love to do.
So, whether you’re a freshman coming into college right now or a senior ready to get out of college, I encourage you to reassess yourself.
To the freshman: you may have already started to experience this culture of major. Ignore it, to the best of your ability. Define yourself not by your classes, but by your passions and skills. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t be something just because you don’t study a certain subject. Companies that do that don’t deserve your attention.
To the seniors: you probably have been living within this atmosphere for a long time. Maybe you’ve already accepted it as fact. This is an opportunity for you to take a step back and reconsider. Take the leap and try something completely outside your field of study. It can be as simple as joining a club you know nothing about, reading about subjects you’ve never even touched, or just talking to people of different majors. It’s never too late.
To everyone: don’t judge yourself based on your field of study. Your major is just another interest that you have, same as everything else.
It’s a part of you, not all of you.