Answering the ‘Major’ Question

How did you decide on your major? It’s a question often asked after the standard ‘What’s your major?’, and a far more interesting one. Did a younger version of yourself have your sights set on teaching, or did life’s events sway and shape your interests?

Maybe you chose Hope for their nursing program, or maybe you didn’t know where the years you spent as a student here would take you when you committed, but you wanted to discover that along the way. 

Hope’s status as a liberal arts college gives students the freedom to explore a range of academic areas, rather than committing themselves to one track in their freshman year. The services offered through organizations like the Boerighter Center for Career and Calling, as well as the many extracurricular opportunities help develop a culture where the human is more important than the student, as a multi-faceted person with interests that cannot be attributed to just one area of study.

Even in popular majors, students’ experiences are as unique as they are because of the multitude of ways to be involved on campus. Sophomore Anna Duesenburg considered majors in secondary education and political science, but ultimately settled on a double major in religion and political science, because she fell in love with her religion classes. Even though she took other classes she was not ultimately interested in, Duesenberg reflected, “It’s nice because you have room in your four-year schedule to take classes to actually figure out what you want to do.” Involvement outside of the classroom, such as volunteering at churches, also helped her choose her major. She added, “The faith life at Hope was one of the things that really encouraged me and made me more interested in being a religion major…it’s really cool because as a religion major you get to study your faith from an academic standpoint.” Having a background in political science has helped her to realize how religion and government work together. 

Freshman Annika Sytsma intends to major in biology on the pre-med track. Although she knew she was always interested in medicine, the major itself was unclear at first. Meeting with the Boerighter Center for pre-health advising helped her to focus on a specific major and outline her classes in the coming semesters. Additionally, as a member of the cross-country and track teams, she realized, “Running helped me build a community and from there I can ask upperclassmen teammates for advice.”

Around 20 years ago, these same questions were being answered by Dr. Stephen Maiullo, Dean of the Arts and Humanities. Despite a rocky relationship with academics in high school, he was given a chance at St. Anselm College, a liberal arts New England college that is similar to Hope. Though he began his college experience unsure of what he wanted to study, a tragedy made it clear to him. Maiullo vividly recalled the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001: “I was sitting in the cafeteria eating breakfast before my first class when the planes hit the towers. During the rest of that school year and the following school year, there was a lot of discussion about what we should do. The students were really upset, the faculty were really upset, and we were having conversations in a variety of my classes, moreso in my humanities classes, about what all this meant.”

In particular, a Latin class on Virgil’s Aeneid resonated with the state of the country. The Aeneid, a Latin epic poem, follows the journey of the warrior Aeneas after the fall of Troy in the Trojan War. Maiullo went on: “Troy has been destroyed, and it’s in ruins, and he needs to rebuild or find a new place to live. It’s very much like what we were going through as a nation. I found that the conversations we were having in those classes…were of supreme existential importance. I knew from that moment forward that I wanted to have those same conversations with people who were my age at the time, to help them make sense of their story, their family’s story and their country’s story so that I could put out into the world self-aware and thoughtful citizens who could contribute to the national conversation about which direction we should go in in a way that was richer than what I was seeing on TV and hearing on the news.”

Once he knew that he wanted to be a professor, Maiullo pursued a degree in the classics, and received his Ph.D from Ohio State University. He added, “I was very fortunate in that I was admitted to a graduate school and I was very fortunate to find a job at a school as great as Hope, where I could be in a very similar place to where I went and teach versions of the classes that I had taken.”

When surveying the student population at Hope College today, Maiullo offers self-reflection as a valuable tool for discernment. He stated, “If you find you do not have an aptitude for…what you originally thought you were going to do when you came to Hope College: listen well and be honest with yourself. Sometimes you flunk that class or you didn’t get the grade that you wanted because you are distracted by other things, but you still want to do it. Other times, you’re not completing your work or you’re not getting the grade that you want because you are genuinely not that interested in that subject matter.”

He went on to stress the value of general education here at Hope: “Hope students tend to look at their general education program merely as a bunch of boxes to check. That is not how we have designed the Anchor Plan. We have designed the Anchor Plan to introduce you to as many different avenues for careers, as many different ways of understanding the truth and reality of the world as possible. We want you to be able to study English literature, politics, social work, geology, and mathematics…The way that it works is you begin to explore different ways of understanding the world and helping to develop in you new interests that you did not know that you had when you came here.”

The opportunity to make the most of every class will help Hope students beyond campus and in the workforce. He advises students to look at the skills they have received from their classes, beyond simply the subject matter. “If you’ve written a research paper, you know how to take different aspects of data from a variety of sources and be able to organize them and present them in a coherent way: that’s a skill that employers want, that’s critical thinking…If you’re applying for a job or an internship, you need to sit down with the job description and say ‘What have I done in any of my classes, that is like the things they are describing here?’ Because you have done a lot of it already.”

He concluded that students should “take a risk on a class. Do not go to RateMyProfessor and find out who is the easiest. The easiest professor will not serve you well in the long run…Don’t be afraid to be challenged. Run into the challenge. Do not shy away from it because what you will be proving to yourself and to others is resilience and that you can do hard things. You will have a grade that you earned, and an earned ‘A’ does more towards your self-confidence than a given ‘A’…Do not be afraid of risk. Allow yourself to be stretched and challenged.”

(Featured image source: Nico Kazlauskas)

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