Ashley Zhang: Tossing out the map

Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 5:31pm

Recently, I had a rather polarizing incident at the U.S.-Canada border. During a visit to Detroit, my friend and I spotted the sign pointing out the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and spontaneously decided to go to Canada, because why not? As we drove under the Detroit River, adrenaline from the prospect of our adventure rushed through our veins, but our excitement came to a quick halt when a Canadian border services agent asked us the purpose of our spontaneous trip. 

Lost for words and without a plan, we replied, “Just because,” and the greatest look of incredulity, distrust and judgment crossed her face. Now, I realize that it is a border control officer’s job to treat two teenagers in a rental car and no plans with suspicion. But, the scorn with which she repeated, “You’re going to Canada just because?” felt uncomfortably reminiscent of the countless times I’ve been asked about my future career plans by adults, only to be met with disappointment when I cannot provide a concrete answer. The disbelief in her voice made me feel small.

I came to college with romantic notions of it being a place to “find myself,” but it didn’t take long to realize there wasn’t as much freedom to explore my interests as I initially thought. Almost from the moment I first stepped on campus, I was asked left and right about what my major was. It seemed to be the second most important piece of information about me behind my name. Though most students do not declare their majors until the end of their sophomore year, there is an unbelievable pressure on freshmen to have their next four years planned out much, much earlier.

While at the beginning of the year it was still relatively common to hear people were undecided about the future, now the undeclared are rare enigmas. Just last week, I attended an orientation for my summer study abroad trip through the College of Engineering, and of the 30-odd freshmen who were in attendance, it seemed as though all of them, save one, knew what their majors were.

As an engineer, I feel that there is a necessity to decide early on. The large number of credits required does not provide a lot of wiggle room to explore other interests while graduating on time. Even coming in with a decent number of AP credits, I was dismayed to learn from my adviser that I may need to take an extra semester to complete both my major in biomedical engineering and my minor in creative writing. This was a major point of contention for my parents, who immediately urged I drop the minor. “What are you going to do with a creative writing minor anyway?”

Truth be told, probably nothing. But my minor is the most “exploration” of a subject matter near and dear to my heart that I can muster. Isn’t that the point of college — to learn and take classes that interest and challenge you? Unfortunately, these days, college seems more like a stepping stone to greater things, an obstacle that must be crossed in order to secure a well-paying job.

I’ve been cautioned against majoring in biomedical engineering more times than I can count. Apparently, the job prospects with just an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering are poor in comparison to job prospects with an undergraduate degree in other engineering majors, such as mechanical engineering or electrical engineering. While it’s important to look out for your future, it doesn’t seem right to major in something you’re not completely devoted to and take classes that you’re not really interested in for four years with the hopes that you’ll be “employable” at the end of it.

“Undecided” shouldn’t equate to “indecisive,” and it surely is no label to shame. Freshmen should be encouraged to take classes that sound interesting to them and be able to explore their options instead of being pressured to decide on the rest of their life at the age of 18.

There are several schools around the country, including Harvard and Yale, that have “shopping periods” at the beginning of the semester, so students can “shop” different classes to see if they are interested. The University of Michigan could really benefit from something similar, so the focus is on the course content and the learning instead of simply fulfilling a requirement for future endeavors.

There is merit to concrete plans, but college seems like a wasted opportunity if all four years are spent fulfilling some “formula” for future employment. We are so fortunate to attend such a prestigious, well-endowed university, and the only way to fully utilize all it has to offer is to occasionally toss the map into the backseat and take a spontaneous trip off the beaten path.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at ashleyzh@umich.edu