May 4, 2021

YAO | A Dilemma of Major Proportions

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Not to flex on any ILR and AEM majors out there in the wild, but I have cycled through pretty much all forty majors offered in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences. Just recently, I started fantasizing about pre-med despite my poor biology lab partner having to carry the both of us through the dissection unit (look, I’m squeamish, okay?). If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the words, “Wait…I’m looking at your schedule…but I can’t tell what your major is” I wouldn’t be running out of BRBs the way I am now. 

The College of Arts and Sciences is unique among Cornell’s schools in that all students come in as undecided, for better and for worse. Experimentation is not only possible but encouraged through distribution requirements and major prerequisites. I have cycled through classes ranging from law to visual studies to economics to computer science. The College of Arts and Sciences touts this flexibility as its greatest strength but for me, it’s also the college’s greatest curse. 

Choosing your major is an important college milestone. For pretty much the first time ever we, students, have the opportunity to focus our education in the direction that we want. As naive as it may sound to those who have already been in “the real world” for a while, it feels as if this one decision has the potential to shape the first part of our post-grad lives. Especially now, with the COVID-induced recession, insurmountable student debt and ongoing uncertainty, choosing a major is a more daunting task than ever. 

The battle between doing what I want, doing what my classmates are doing, doing what society considers “prestigious” and doing what my parents expect of me plays out at the forefront of my mind every single day. And this constant dilemma only raises new questions. Do I only like the major I’m currently thinking about because the concepts come naturally to me right now? Will I start to hate it when the course difficulty ramps up later on? Which major will grant me the most financial security? What does passion even mean anymore? 

Zoom learning has proved to be another great barrier. Even courses in data science and ethics –– subjects I’m interested in –– have transformed into laborious tasks that I muddle through each day before exiting Zoom with relief. Choosing a course of study based on “what I enjoy” feels like an impossible order when some days I barely have the energy to log onto Zoom. Choosing a course of study based on “what will bring the most stability” is no less formidable a task when people of all professions have lost jobs during the pandemic. Who knows what jobs will exist two, five, ten years down the road?

Second semester sophomore year is when CAS students should be locking in their majors. This year, I have watched friend after friend gain approval into their majors and transcend into a new class of ultimate envy: the assembly of decided students. Last week, craving entry into this group, I caved and submitted the major affiliation form. At least I could stop feeling like a liar when introducing myself to strangers. 

I couldn’t completely tell you my thought process for why or how I chose my major because, truth be told, I’m still as uncertain as ever. Yeah, that pre-med crisis I detailed earlier? That came after I submitted the application form for a completely different field. Far from making me feel better, solidifying a major has made me wonder whether I’ve shut doors to other opportunities in the future. Yet at the same time, I already feel like I’m playing catch up to those students in my future major who have known what they wanted from day one. 

Furthermore, although I know people who love their majors, I also know people who wish, late into their senior years, that they had chosen something different. In certain cases, that means something more “practical.” In other cases, something more “risky.” All I can do is constantly tell myself that there are no right answers. Even though the “what if” questions will likely always linger, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means that my experiences will continue to shape me. That I’m an evolving human being. That the topic I’m interested in right now may not be what I’m interested in three years from now. And I’m working on being okay with that. 

Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kyao@cornellsun.com. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.