Making a (Major) Switch: Advice from a College Student
I came onto UChicago’s campus in the fall of 2020 as optimistic as someone who was entering college in 2020 could be. I was sure of myself; I knew what I wanted to study. I was going to major in Business Economics (which, as my dad pointed out, the school was known for) and also be on the Pre-Medicine track. It was appealing to me that I could decide to not go to medical school after four years and still have a degree in something “useful.” And I loved knowing exactly what I was going to be studying for the next year.
Until I started taking those classes.
The first week of General Chemistry was a review. The second week was certainly not, at least for me. My friend who took AP Chemistry at her high school pulled out old study guides for me to attempt to learn content I had been expected to know. In the very first lab assignment we had, I made one small citation error and the TA told me that it was fine this time, but that next time he would turn me in for plagiarism. It was Week Two of a nine-week quarter and I already felt in over my head. Further, our classes were all online, and I struggled to pay attention in a Zoom class with one professor and three hundred students.
The second quarter, I had certainly not learned my lesson, and I received the lowest grade I had ever gotten on an assignment – a 6 out of 70. I had always been a straight-A student, and to me this was soul-crushing. I balanced most of my self-worth on my grades, whether it was exams I did well on or an essay I was proud of. Getting into UChicago felt validating. This moment seemed to invalidate everything I felt I had worked for.
I went to the TA to try to get help, and he more or less told me that some of the concepts were easy and understandable. They were the same concepts I had wanted him to explain, and in embarrassment I found myself unable to state that.
After three quarters of this, where I felt like I was holding on to my fragile grades by a string, I realized two things: 1. I was about to get weeded out by a weed-out class and 2. I was completely fine with it.
I had realized over those three quarters of crying over grades and crying on the phone with my dad and working late nights with my friend on problem sets that none of it was something I felt good about. Even when I managed to get a decent grade on something, I had no pride in my work. I no longer had passion for it – I realized that regardless of chemistry class, I did not want to go to medical school. In high school, I had a mental picture of myself in a lab or in a hospital; I could no longer picture future me as a doctor.
When I sat back and understood that I had no passion for it, I knew I needed to change my detailed and thought-out plan of what the next four years would look like. I came to college with an MCAT prep book! I had plans! And they had been derailed.
I had never been this thrown off by anything academic before – in high school, I knew what my four years would look like and I was certainly challenged, but I knew how to get help. I knew at the end of the day I would still be able to be successful in the class and in the long run at school. And in my first year of college, where I had to email a professor to ask if I should drop her class or if I would be able to pass it, I felt humiliated by my inability to succeed.
I went home for the summer uncertain about what next year would look like and having no idea what classes I would be taking. On a whim, I had signed up for a summer class called “Self” to fulfill part of my liberal arts requirement in the Social Sciences. I wanted to get credits out of the way, but in a much more real sense, I did not want to get an internship because I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself.
Self, however, was my saving grace. Over Zoom, a class of around twenty people discussed everything from whether or not Internet access should be considered a basic human right to prison to abolition to religion. When we read excerpts from Émile Durkheim’s works on religion, I was entranced. He discussed religion as a social phenomenon – although I was of course familiar with theology classes, given my eight years of Catholic education, I had never heard the theory of religion discussed in such a way.
I looked up the course catalog and clicked on “Religious Studies.” The minor was only six classes, which seemed like a low commitment if I didn’t love it. I decided I’d minor in that alongside Psychology, a field that I knew little about but which seemed fascinating.
When I went back to Chicago in the fall, I felt a little bit better; I knew that the classes I was taking would not involve tremendous amounts of chemistry and that strange cutthroat pre-med environment. I carried instead a cautious optimism. That first year had been rough and, in many ways, terrible; now, in-person classes brought an opportunity to experience college as we had hoped it to be.
When I went to the Religious Studies major open house, I finally felt that click of belonging I had been searching for since the start of my time at college. The professors were all excited to hear about my personal interests – I was taking a class on American Culture Wars and was thrilled to tell them about my final research project about the culture wars over poverty and welfare programs in the Reagan era. There was free food (of course), and I walked away from that event with a free Religious Studies t-shirt and a coffee mug.
The next day, I decided to pick up the Religious Studies major. I didn’t know it then, in October of that Fall Quarter, but it was the best decision I had made in my time at UChicago so far. The classes I took in Religious Studies this past year, ranging from Villains: Evil in Philosophy, Religion, and Film to God-Given Whites: Christianity and White Supremacy in America from Colonialism to Trumpism, were still challenging, but I felt passionate about the topics. Unlike my experience in General Chemistry, I felt proud of the work I was doing and motivated to succeed. I found the classes new and fascinating, and I would tell anyone who’d listen about the readings I had been doing. Enjoying the topics I was studying made a huge difference in my motivation.
Although it was certainly not my favorite year, I am grateful for that first year, for teaching me how to realize when I was in over my head. I am also grateful for this past year, for demonstrating to me that I could still succeed–once I found something I felt passionate about learning. I think learning how to fail has made my successes far more rewarding than they would have been otherwise, and it is gratifying now to put in hard work and see results that reflect that work.
I think if I could look back and talk to myself as a senior in high school or as a freshman in college, I would want to tell a younger me to give herself grace and kindness. My class’s freshman year looked nothing like we thought it would, and our resilience in attending college while mostly online was remarkable. Further, I would want myself and other students to understand that changing your major or your plans does not make you a weak student. Rather, it demonstrates that you have the ability to follow your strengths and passions instead of being scared to try something new. I’m grateful that I learned to take a risk, and I think other students could benefit from being pushed to try new things in college, whether that’s a new major, a class out of their comfort zone, or a completely new extracurricular.
Claire Weber is majoring in Psychology and Religious Studies at the University of Chicago, and appreciates good bagels, detailed Spotify playlists, and iced coffee.