As the second week of classes end, the introductory meetings of each course have felt extra challenging. Without fail, my well-intentioned professors ask their students to introduce themselves. More often than not, they ask for the “Big 3”: name, pronouns and major. I’m happy to answer the first two, but the latter makes me squirm. 

When a professor calls my name, I unmute myself on Zoom: “Um, hi! My name is Meera, I use she/her pronouns … and my major is undeclared.” Alternatively, sometimes I’ll blurt out a random major, like Civil Engineering or Film, Television & Media, feeling like a fraud. After I let out what’s meant to be a carefree laugh, my smile looking more like a grimace, I mute myself, thinking about how I have no clue what I’m going to major in.

The purpose of a major is somewhat different in everyone’s eyes. Still, more or less, it demonstrates scholarship in a specific topic, allegedly preparing one for life after graduation, whether that means working, grad school, internships or something else. Full of uncertainty about the future, I feel overwhelmed every time someone asks about my plans for or after college. With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the current educational landscape, choosing a major feels more challenging than ever. 

It’s crucial to acknowledge my privilege in this situation: I’m grateful that one of my biggest worries is my confusion over my major instead of finding my next meal or next job. Still, it’s a valid concern. Many (including myself) have borrowed student loans, hoping that once we graduate college and begin working, we’ll be able to pay the money back. 

With the ongoing recession, unemployment crisis and student debt averaging more than $30,000 per college graduate, choosing an employable major feels incredibly necessary. 

This dilemma has been at the forefront of my mind for the last semester. Notably, the most apparent factor in my major-related confusion is the online learning experience. Many large introductory online classes at the University of Michigan (often taken by freshmen) are asynchronous and impersonal, with little to no interaction between the instructor and students. It’s not easy to get the same level of engagement with lectures as was typical in previous years. 

With virtual learning simplified to a series of tedious tasks, I’ve started feeling deep ambivalence toward every class. When well-meaning adults tell me that I should pick my major based on what class I enjoy, I falter. With the perceived indifference towards every subject of online courses, it feels impossible to pick.

Next, it’s important to remember that not all majors are treated equally. It’s no secret that different majors have different earnings straight out of college. But with the recent pandemic and unemployment hitting an all-time high in June, college graduates of all kinds have been struggling to get jobs

In response, websites have begun cranking out lists of “COVID-related” majors. But what will the world look like in four years? After the events of the last year, it feels impossible to predict. If one hopes to major in a subject where a job is guaranteed after graduation, where would they even begin?

Additionally, different subject areas have unique challenges in an online learning environment. Many lectures remain essentially unchanged, except now the professor speaks to a camera instead of a live audience, which can be challenging in itself. A majority of STEM labs, which are designed to give students hands-on experience, have been moved to online simulations and videos. With students unable to engage in experiential learning, it can be difficult to know the true nature of a subject, as this form of instruction can be challenging to translate into Zoom classes, especially in a collaborative sense. 

Arts classes, both visual and performing, in particular, struggle in online mediums as many lessons involve physical movement and collaboration. Personally, in my art classes, it doesn’t feel easy to maintain the same level of self-expression and rigor as in a studio, despite the best efforts of many professors. 

Certain subjects are more easily translated into online learning than others. Even if students like a specific subject, they could find online learning does not accurately represent the subject, contributing to further confusion about picking a major or career path.

Most importantly, one doesn’t often decide their major based on classes, but on human interactions: internships, jobs, research, interactions with professors, one’s social circles, etc. However, many of these opportunities have been altered, put on hold or completely erased by the pandemic. Human connection, which can be critical to our choices, has been difficult to come by.

A Gallup report shows that when choosing a major, the majority of adults in the United States name their social network as their largest source of advice. Typically, freshman year is a time of discovering your social network, but for those of us doing online asynchronous classes from home, it’s not that easy. Without a community to discuss, network and learn from, it can be challenging to put choices into perspective.   

My parents, who were educated in India and picked their concentrations at age 16, are extremely confused with my dilemma; why can’t I select a field and stick with it? (Good question.) 

However, it’s not uncommon for people to enter college with an undeclared major. Around 20% to 50% of college students enter college as “undecided.” While graduating high school, unworriedly, I told myself that after taking a few college classes, I would decide my major. However, in the current virtual learning environment, I’m struggling quite a bit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted the freshman, college and life experience of the class of 2024 in more ways than we can measure. As we decide the rest of our lives, the best we can do is blindly try new things and keep open minds.

Meera Kumar can be reached at kmeera@umich.edu

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