History Professor Patti Kameya talks with students during an East Asian Civilizations class in a classroom in the Murray-Herrick Campus Center (MHC) in St. Paul. Undergraduate students are required to take at least one history class before they graduate.

A 'Major' Decision at St. Thomas

Making that special connection in college can be a tricky business.

Some people come in seemingly knowing exactly what they want in finding a match. Other people want to dabble as much as possible until they find one they like most. Others have a much harder time deciding.

Of course, we’re not talking about dating here. We’re talking about choosing majors, which – especially at a liberal arts university, such as St. Thomas, with a wide array of core classes – can feel an awful lot like courtship. For the different departments vying for the interest of students, it can often come down to putting your best foot forward and hoping they like you, they really like you.

“Those introductory sections we offer (that fulfill students’ science requirements) are really key to getting students’ interest up. The faculty take that seriously,” said Geology Department chair Kevin Theissen. “We want to provide an interesting and challenging experience. We sort of set the hook for what ends up being our majors in those introductory sessions.”

Right student, right spot

Many factors go into the health of a department at any given time, and major count is certainly one of them. After all, majors are the students who will go through to populate upper-level courses; without enough majors it can be difficult for departments to offer a full range of classes. As alumni of a program, majors' successes also directly affect the educational emphasis in that particular department.

“The hook” Theissen referenced in wanting to have students major in your field of study, though, comes with a disclaimer for most departments at a place like St. Thomas.

“My job is not to get as many chemistry majors as possible,” department chair Tony Borgerding said. “It’s to make sure every kid finds their way and ends up in the place that’s best for them.”

“Our interest is in the students’ positive outcome, whatever that is. If that’s as a geology major that’s fantastic. If not, OK,” Theissen said. “We certainly like the idea of getting students interested and doing a major or minor. As chair, when I sit down with students and have a conversation about their interests, I try to present them with options. A geology major isn’t for everyone; maybe they would be a good fit with a minor.”

It comes down less to selling a major, Borgerding said, and more to finding out if students have a genuine passion in something and would want to pursue it further.

“I don’t like to tell a student they should be interested in chemistry, necessarily; I think they should come to that conclusion themselves,” he said. “It’s hard to be successful studying something you’re not passionate about. There are examples of people doing that, but it’s harder. It’s easier when you’re passionate about something.”

The Career Development Center can also have a major role for many students in the decision process. All incoming freshmen now have a half hour orientation from CDC staff, which is often the first introduction to the center's services, including counseling on what major options might fit each student.

"We’re totally objective; we want to find something for them that really fits," CDC director Diane Crist said. "Once they’re here and familiar with what we do we can help them all the way through."

Along with hour-long appointments with CDC staff to help students talk through their interests and major options, the center also offers online assessments to help students pinpoint what academic route might be best for them.

"We know not every student should or needs to go through our services; there are many students who figure this out on their own," Crist said. "But we can be really helpful when students are undecided or need more information. We can be helpful in helping them access more information and make that choice."

Even if they're connected more explicitly with information from the CDC or faculty, not all students with a passion immediately connect that to their major of choice. Many require some combination of trying something, finding they have some interest or aptitude in it, and then being approached in some capacity with options.

“We don’t try to get students to be philosophy majors who shouldn’t be. But there are a lot of students out there who could be, who may need a little more information,” said Philosophy Department chair Sandra Menssen.

Academic Counseling and Support also offers resources for students to help them determine what they might major (or minor) in. Students can officially declare their major after they've completed 48 total credits, and – with some majors requiring double-digit courses – it's often easier to declare sooner rather than later. (Some students also need help in assessing their options to change majors after they've declared and decided it isn't for them.)

Many students come to St. Thomas with fully formed ideas of where their passions are and what they want to major in. Sophomore Josiah Bardwell had his interest in biology sparked in high school in Northfield and started taking those classes as a freshman. While Bardwell said it can be frustrating to take core classes that aren’t where his biggest interests lie, there is value for himself – and other students still looking for their majors – in the liberal arts requirements outside his major.

“I'm paying for the broad range of necessary core classes that give me insight into subjects that I otherwise wouldn't have explored, turning me into a more well-rounded student in the process,” Bardwell said.

Letting them know

Departments have many ways to share information about the appeal of their majors in front of students. Some, such as philosophy, have tailor-made options because they already have large swaths of the student body through their courses as part of the core requirement.

“We have students for two courses automatically and seminarians automatically,” philosophy professor Steve Laumakis said. “We have a ready-made group of customers already.”

That is not the case for everyone, though, and all departments make efforts to draw students’ interest. Theissen and Laumakis both said faculty members will approach students in classes who show interest or skill in their field of study about majoring. Philosophy has an entire book put together detailing all the different paths a major could take with his or her career. Every semester, Geology has current majors present their research projects and talk about the major’s dynamic qualities in front of entry-level classes. Departments and their respective clubs host regular events with the goal of increasing their exposure and putting themselves at the front of students’ minds as a potential major.

“It’s something we’re always thinking about,” Menssen said.

While Bardwell said liking the subject of your major should be the most important factor in choosing, outside forces can have an effect on students’ major selection as well, Theissen said. A freshman who grew up during The Great Recession of the 2000s may be more inclined to pursue an area of study with strong job prospects than someone with similar academic interests arriving at St. Thomas 10 years before then. Throughout time, that can create some ebb and flow in the level of initial student interest in different majors.

“There is definitely more direct, clear interest now about what career options are and what the take-home is going to be,” Theissen said. “Students are right to be interested in that. They, and their parents, are plunking down a lot of money to go to school.”

So, life after graduation can be a major factor - among many - in that major decision. Eventually it is up to each and every student in a process that plays out year after year throughout the university.

“At the end of the day we’re most interested in having students have good outcomes,” Theissen said.