“What do you have to offer for students who don’t know what they want to do?”
This was one question posed to University President Mary Sue Coleman yesterday at the president’s monthly fireside chat — an invitation event in which students ask Coleman questions about campus issues.
The event was sparsely attended yesterday — only 16 students attended the discussion, compared to the normal crowd of 40 — but the dialogue was serious, with many students voicing concerns about how their University degrees will translate into careers.
Undergraduate and graduate students shared their concerns with Coleman and Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student affairs, at the event. Each provided a slightly different story, but the overall issue was clear — students are unsure about how a University degree translates into a successful career that provides financial independence and personal happiness.
One LSA freshman told Coleman he was worried about how his degree would help him secure a career since he feels pressure to figure out what he wants to do and then get a job in that field.
“It’s not really the reality, but it’s what people think,” the student said.
Coleman and Harper reassured students they don’t think that’s the case. Coleman added that college is a time for exploration.
“My feeling is, if you come to Michigan and you’re really not sure (what you want to do), that being in LS&A is probably a really good idea because there’s such a breadth of possibility there that you can sample almost anything you can think of,” Coleman said. “A lot of students learn through their freshman year of things that they like, as well as things that they don’t like. I’ve had a lot of students tell me that they come thinking they’re going to do one thing, and they actually end up in a very different arena.”
Additionally, Coleman said students should be patient and not worry too much about their future careers.
“It will come to you,” Coleman said. “I think you should feel confident. You all are smart people … You’ll get this, you’ll figure it out. I don’t think you need to worry about it. Just be self-confident; you should be very self-confident because you’ve shown that you can achieve, and plus you’ve shown that you can survive in (the University) environment and this is a hard environment.”
Harper echoed Coleman’s comments, saying each student will eventually figure out what passion they want to pursue in life.
“My own thinking is that at some point you’ll know,” Harper said. “And I know that is a weird answer … but there is a sort of theme and pattern coursing through your life, and I think it’s just sort of hard sometimes to track the theme, what you naturally gravitate to.”
For many students, Harper said their passions will be something they love and can lose track of time doing. But for now, she told students, “I also think you have to sort of let yourself be.”
As several other students in the room shared their concerns about the future — like the amounts of debt they will graduate with — Coleman shared her own story about how her career turned out to be vastly different than what she expected and how happy she is with it today.
“When I was in college, and I was a chemistry major, I knew I didn’t want to practice medicine. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do research, but I didn’t want to do the clinical part,” Coleman said. “I think you find these things about yourself as you’re maturing, and recognizing what you don’t want to do is just as important as sort of figuring out, ‘Oh boy, I love this.’ ”
Some students also expressed concern about whether they’ll even be successful in their time at the University. Coleman and Harper told students these concerns are normal, especially at competitive schools like the University. Coleman added that she had similar fears during her undergraduate years.
“I think sometimes students who even come to us with extremely good academic preparation in high school are surprised at how hard it is when they get here to Michigan because everybody is as smart as you are or smarter,” Coleman said. “And that’s kind of a shock when you’ve been in a place where you’re the smartest people.”
But not everyone at the event doubted their potential careers or academic success at the University.
A graduate student in the Ross School of Business said he was uncertain of his future, but he agreed it wasn’t necessary to choose just one path to pursue. Instead, he said students who narrow their interests to a few areas can help to set their initial career direction, but even that doesn’t need to commit them to a certain job.
Coleman agreed with the student, saying she never imagined she would end up as the president of a major research university. She believed she would only be a scientist.
“I was a scientist, a biochemist and thought I would be in the lab for the rest of my life,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t — things happen.”
Finding a job and paying off loans are common concerns for students and the uncertainty of the future can be daunting — something the students at yesterday’s fireside chat know very well — but with the benefit of hindsight, Harper offered these words to worried students.
“It would be a serious decision to not do what you’re passionate (about) and called to do for sake of paying off a loan … Looking back, I certainly didn’t know this at the time in my life that you are in yours — but it’s a pretty big decision to say I’m going to do something I don’t love.”