What if I don't like what I think I want to study?
The best question I've received all week. All month. When my students ask me this question I know they are really starting to think about themselves. About who they are. About the reality of university and what this process is starting to mean to them and about how they need to start thinking about themselves.
This is a very real question. I always assume that every one of my students--yes, even those of you who we confirmed time and time again that you're going for engineering or applying to a country that requires you apply to a specific course of study--considers this question for herself. Remember, I work with young adults. If you're reading this and are a not-young-adult (that's me, too), we all know we've considered various career paths, new ideas for jobs and probably reconsider or think about "what if" more often than many of us would like. So, to me, it's not just logical but expected that my students--teenagers and early 20's--will not have an idea of what they want to "do" with their lives. They shouldn't. They simply have not experienced enough yet in life to be able to determine this. And, yet, oftentimes this process expects them to have this figured out.
This, of course, is a source of serious stress for both parents and students. Parents, regardless of how open-minded or hands-off you are in this process I've not met one who is not at some point in the process concerned with what your son will "become" and "do" for a living. This makes a lot of sense. You just want him to be happy, to be able to support himself and to be able to have a fulfilling career and life. Yet, your son is quite young. He hasn't had many, if any, bosses. He doesn't really know what it's like to work in an office. To work in a hospital. To defend a client in court. To develop code while his peers fight to get to it before he does. To teach. To open a gallery.
The problem is that in most cases the two really cannot meet.
You know by now if you read my blogs, work with me or have heard me speak that I do not believe in pigeon-holing young adults into a career at this stage in their lives. Yet, some universities and the entire university admissions process by default asks students "What are you going to be?" How in the world can we have them answer when the majority have not had jobs, have not had a variety of bosses and colleagues, have not shadowed professions and do not have mentors helping them to really figure out what their true interests are, passions could be and how to follow their own gut (and no one else's)?
It seems the student and the parent are both getting the short end of the stick in this process.
This is why when I get this question directly from my students--and assume that they want to ask it--we have to start with understanding who the student is. What lights her up? What does she have curiosities about? What type of academic environment will she be most comfortable in, feel most secure and free in? And, what types of institutions of higher education allow for flexibility to explore different subject areas with professors and administrators who actually want to be with young adults, who will mentor them and help guide them to exploring their own deep interests and developing them into future career paths?
What student in high school/secondary school really knows what she truly wants to do when she is 35? Very few.
She has not had enough experiences in life for her to possibly gauge this. And, this is also what higher education is for--free exploration of what *you* want to study, investigate, ask questions about. So, when we guide young adults we have to be flexible and we have to allow for changes of mind; no, actually, we have to encourage them that it's safe to change their minds. And, in turn, universities have to provide flexible programmes and mentorship by faculty at the undergraduate level to help students find their passions and their career paths when they graduate...and with the mindset that once on that career path they can take turns, pauses and detours following their own interests as their lives move forward.
So, in answering this question for my students I reassure them that this is really what they should be prepared for--a change of mind as they are inspired by a professor or a classmate or have an amazing opportunity to do research on a topic they never had considered before. We continue to reflect on that student's interests today. Tomorrow. Next month. How they change, what parallels they have. And, there are always loads of fabulous universities--in many different countries--that will look for, welcome and nurture the student who "isn't quite sure yet" but has interests, passions and is eager to explore. This is when the fit--that match--makes for an exciting, and no doubt successful, future for my student.