As a girl, Anna Micevych dreamed that she would one day be a novelist. But her dream had a practical direction: in order to reach her destination, she knew she would have to take deliberate steps along the way. To put herself on the path to becoming a writer, Micevych planned to major in literature in college. At least the first step on her path to the Times Best-seller List has been achieved — though, admittedly, not without a little “waffling.”
Now a junior at the University of California at Santa Cruz, she confessed that she considered majors and minors in history, science, law, and writing during her freshman year. But she returned to her “first love,” literature, with over a year left before she had to declare a major. It was a pragmatic decision — Micevych realized that if she majored in literature, and took care of UCSC’s general education requirements early, she could spend the rest of her time satisfying her varied academic interests and even study abroad in England. Now studying abroad at the University of Essex in England, Micevych is glad she planned her college career so carefully.
“Knowing what I wanted saved me from wandering aimlessly my first year,” Micevych said. “That allowed me to plan way ahead and come abroad, and in the end gave me more options in terms of ‘enjoyment classes’ I took because I was on the ball from the get go.”
Some see college as a time to figure out who they are and where they are going. But to others — be they dreamers, schemers or simply go-getters — it is only one stop on a path they have been mapping out for a long time.
Commitment and Uncertainty
While most four-year-olds can picture their futures, many have left such visions behind by the time they begin the first of their four years in college. Even so, students like Lashkar Kashif ’03 have known where they would head after graduation years before they ever heard the word “matriculate.” Kashif came to Yale knowing he would major in physics, and he decided as a freshman that he would study physics in graduate school as well. Classes that will not prepare him for this future, he says, seem like a “waste of time.”
But Kashif said he feels he is part of a tiny minority — he only knows two or three other Yalies who feel the way he does. Other students who have clear ideas about what they want to do can be more hesitant to commit to their plans. But one wonders how widespread this “commitment-phobia” is, and whether it is strictly a Yale phenomenon.
Lisa Staccone, a junior at Binghamton University, has wanted to be a nurse “since forever.” When looking at colleges, she made sure that every school she applied to had both a well-known nursing program and a good program in business. Tara Jardine, a sophomore at American University, attended a magnet high school for science and medicine that helped prepare her for college, and she focused almost exclusively on science her freshman year at American.
Clayton Critcher ’05 has several theories about why Yale students are afraid to commit. “Once they get [to Yale], I think people are fed up with admissions–they’re relieved to be done with the process. I think most people go through some sort of ‘dormant stage’ where they don’t really think about [the future].” Critcher also cited the varied interests of — and vast opportunities for — Yale graduates as another factor that prompts many Yalies to take their futures one day at a time. But he also believes Yalies do not avoid thinking about the future as much as they seem to.
“I think Yalies are extremely humble people,” Critcher said. “Talking about any sort of clear ambition is sometimes confused for expressing too much ambition, which isn’t seen as tasteful in regular conversation. More people think about it than say so.”
Sharon Koh ’04 readily admits to thinking about her future — she even planned a decade of her life before she ever set foot on Old Campus.
An investment company in Koh’s native Singapore is giving her a full scholarship to Yale, and in return, she has promised to work for them for six years following graduation. Though the company, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, has let her pick the major she wanted to pursue and has given her the freedom that every college student desires, she said she must always be conscious of whether or not a class she takes will help her in the future.
Koh is a candidate for a Bachelor of Arts/Master of Science in Psychology. She will do graduate work — eight courses worth — while still an undergraduate. Because her graduate courses will count towards the 36-course credits required for graduation, Koh said she realizes that she may have to sacrifice classes in unrelated disciplines that students with a more conventional major could take for fun.
“In pure theory I can squeeze it all in, but I’m sure there’s going to be a trade-off,” Koh said.
That trade-off is exactly what worries Jardine.
A pre-med biology major who declared halfway through her freshman year, Jardine came into college with a set plan. While she said she does not feel that American’s pre-med program has limited her, Jardine sometimes wishes she had not focused on biology, chemistry, and calculus to the point that she did not begin fulfilling American’s general education requirements during her freshman year.
Jardine took her first psychology class last semester, and liked it so much that she is considering pursuing psychology or psychiatry while she is in medical school. But she said she regrets that she was not exposed to the field earlier and wonders what else she might have been interested in had she tried.
“Now, I think, ‘Oh, I like this, I like this,'” Jardine said.
But planning ahead affects more than just what books a student buys. Staccone, who continues in Binghamton’s nursing program, says she is beginning to feel its effects now that she is a junior. When she was an underclassman, the program only required her to take lecture courses in subjects such as biology and chemistry. But now that she takes nursing courses requiring her to be at the hospital at 7:00 a.m., her social life has “died down a bit.”
“As opposed to other classes, I can’t go out the night before and kind of wing it the next day,” Staccone said. “I have to be there. People depend on me.”
But Staccone said she is glad to make the trade-off. She gets hands-on experience unlike anything she could learn in a classroom. She volunteers at a hospital near her home in Port Washington, N.Y.
“I think the reason why I don’t have regrets is that at home, you get to see the benefits to the patients. You know you’re doing something better for them,” Staccone said.
Preparing for the future does not always have such a profound effect on a student’s life. And some think that refusing to plan ahead is the best preparation for the future.
Critcher sees himself going to graduate school for psychology, perhaps with the intent of pursuing a Ph.D. and joining the ranks of academia — but he said his plans have had little effect on his college experience. He consciously tries not to let his visions of the future rule his life in the present.
“I’m trying not to be too obsessed, to the point that I don’t enjoy my time here,” Critcher said.
Brad Spiegel, a senior at the University of Michigan, warns against focusing too much on the future. As an undergraduate, he considered applying to U-M’s business school, to which students apply after their sophomore year. He took classes required by the business school, but not exclusively. Having some idea of what one wants to do, Brad emphasized, does not equal certainty. And some of his most valuable experiences in college — “fun classes,” a semester abroad, and talking with students from diverse backgrounds — were not done with a prospective career in mind.
“If you’re so focused on getting into, say, business school, where you need a bunch of different [prerequisite classes], you might not have the opportunity to do things that make your university education worthwhile,” Spiegel said.
Playing the Field
Another reason to keep a broad focus is that one’s pursuits in college sometimes have little to do with life in the real world. Taking chances rather than sticking with sure things, some say, could be the best career move one ever makes.
Dick Livingston ’69 now works in venture capital, but he started off as a New York City cab driver after he graduated from Yale. After a heart condition prevented him from entering the military — something he had always told himself he would do if the U.S. was still fighting in Vietnam when he graduated — he began interviewing at banks. But one bank officer who interviewed him, Livingston said, told him banking was “not for you.” He decided to try a variety of jobs, so he drove a cab in New York City and then worked loading trailers. But after a year of physically-taxing labor, he decided he wanted to use his mind. The story of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis inspired him, and one night, after “one too many bourbons,” Livingston said he literally saw his future while Beethoven played softly in the background.
“I was looking at a painting of a ship and it suddenly dawned on me that that was what I wanted to do,” Livingston said.
His work in shipping eventually “evolved into” venture capital. He now works for the small company Leasing Technologies, and said he found a job he loves by trying different lines of work for short periods of time.
He said when he was in college, he “didn’t give [the future] a thought.” And his advice to this generation of Yalies is to take time to “get perspective.”
“Just try something you want to do,” Livingston said. “You can always support yourself as a waitress.”
But, Livingston noted, he is from another generation. Now, the college application process is much more competitive; students are overworked just to get to Yale.
Livingston’s observations are in concert with Critcher’s theory that the competition involved in even being admitted to Yale could make Yalies sick of thinking about the future before they arrive on campus. For a student who has been under pressure since pre-school, the task of trying to choose a career he might have for the rest of his life may seem overwhelming. Spiegel said he saw no reason students should have to do so this early in their lives.
“I think that it takes most people several years to decide what they want to do with their lives,” Spiegel said. “Asking a 20-year-old student to decide what they want to do with the rest of their life is asking a lot. It limits them at the peak of their education.”
For others, having some idea of where they will be 10 years from now actually may be reassuring. Even though Critcher said he reconsidered his initial thoughts of law school and decided in favor of psychology, he said having an idea of where he was going actually relieved some of his stress.
“It gave me some sort of peace of mind to know I was going somewhere,” Critcher said.
But Spiegel said he thought some of his fellow students’ eagerness to commit to certain futures could have a negative impact in the end.
“I think that it’s easier for people to say something that sounds professional — I think that people are more scared to go into a career that they might actually love,” Spiegel said. “It’s scary to major in something there might not be a job in.”
Vicki Lew ’04, a history major, knows that some of the other students in her department feel just that fear. So Lew, the president of history honor society Phi Alpha Theta, wants to organize a series of speakers to discuss the variety of fields one can go into with a history major.
“I feel like I’m being channeled into law school,” said Lew.
Lew, who said she has thought about her future to a limited extent, said she sees no specific advantage or disadvantage to choosing either route.
“I think it’s great to have the drive and to know so early what you want,” said Lew. “But there’s nothing wrong with deciding late because you can learn to prepare later on.” n