While walking my dog back home in North Carolina over break, I bumped into a neighbor. We made small talk as the fall breeze blew by, my dog tugging on his leash. When I told her I was studying at Yale, her eyes lit up. “What are you majoring in?” she asked. I admitted that I was undeclared. She replied reassuringly, “Pre-med or engineering. Maybe computer science! Anything else, and your talent would be wasted.”
She patted me on the shoulder and walked away, leaving me with her words. The implication had been clear — to choose “incorrectly” was to surrender the privilege of higher education — of Yale. The decision of my major carries the weight of both my past efforts and future pursuits. To pursue the wrong passion would be a shame, a topic of neighborhood gossip: the neighborhood girl who threw away her education for something “unemployable.”
Of course, we know this isn’t true. One of the beauties of a Yale education is that our undergraduate major has little to do with future opportunity. Relative to other universities, no major is truly “superior” to the other. Computer science and philosophy majors alike end up in the same post-graduate jobs. But on campus, declaring your major is considered just that: major. As I finish the first semester of my sophomore year, the impending decision seems as ominous as ever.
To be undeclared is to be in a state of discomfort. But to be undeclared in a sea of passionate, driven, decided people — is painful. As a first year, I was struck by a virulent bout of imposter syndrome: I no longer had my high school extracurriculars to label myself with. Surrounded by peers who were world-class musicians, biochemists and authors, who was I? My friends had their declarations ready — a passion, a major, a future, a summer internship. Without my own declaration, I felt inadequate.
One of our greatest privileges on campus is that connections are practically thrown at us: an illustrious guest speaker, a talented peer, a wise professor. As students, the unspoken culture is to condense our identity into our academic interests. When was the last time you met someone new who didn’t ask you to summarize your passions into a neat, two-sentence tagline? When was the last time a first impression was more than your name, year, residential college and major?
When asked, my response is always as follows: “My name is Grace, I’m a sophomore in Pierson. I’m studying.” It always receives a chuckle or two, but it’s awkward: Without a declaration, I’m storyless, uninteresting. Labeled as undeclared, I’ve placed myself in an incomplete, nebulous cloud of confused learners. Being undeclared is to lack purpose, to lack drive, to lack motivation.
This summer, a friend asked me about “my story.” When I asked her to elaborate, she pressed on: “Every Yalie has a story. A reason they’re here, a reason they keep at it.” The advice I’ve received about approaching employers is similar: Express your passions with specificity, and state why you’re qualified and interested. In our world of accreditation and goal-orientation, it’s easy to equate being undeclared with falling behind.
But my friend was right. After all, Yale does seek students with a “zest to stretch the limits of their talents,” as the University states proudly on its website. Sure, we don’t know why any of us are here, but we’re unified by the proof that we belong.
We all have a purpose — to maintain the persistent agendas we shoulder, explanations as to why we must schedule both meals and sleep into our GCals. For those of us who are undeclared, we just need to discover how to articulate that purpose.
Being undeclared is the opposite of being passionless. Rather, those of us in the “undeclared major” are fiercely diverse, intensely interdisciplinary and devoted to a liberal arts education. Instead of dedicating ourselves to a field, we dedicate ourselves to the adrenaline of a satisfying class; the thrill of joining a new club sport; or the joy of writing for a new publication. We may not fit neatly into pre-drawn boxes, but I’m positive that we are just as qualified as our peers.
I’ll forever be envious of my friends who have discovered their path, their calling. But to those who are feeling the imprecise uncertainty that is being undeclared, you’re not alone. Embrace the discomfort — we’ll find our way.
Grace Jin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .