The perils of being an undeclared student

Sasha Ashall/Staff

It’s about to get serious up in here.

Picking a major is really hard. A lot of people come to UC Berkeley knowing exactly what they want to do, pursue that happily and thrive. With carefree pre-med, pre-law and pre-Haas people flouncing around you, flaunting their certainty and confidence, it can feel disconcerting and really scary to not know what your major is going to be.

When you go through CalSO, they advise you to engage in “directed exploration.” What they really mean is, “You have to know what your major is going to be otherwise you won’t get into any classes you need, but you also have to take breadths, so I guess that counts as exploration.” How are you supposed to know what you want to do with your life at 18? This is an oft-repeated question and sounds cliched, but there’s a reason for that: It’s a completely valid question and no one has ever come up with an adequate answer.

College is a strange place because if you don’t know what you want to major in, you can spend two years taking a completely erratic course load with no cohesive elements. Fall semester can look like calculus, economics, peace and conflict studies and French, while spring semester looks like astronomy, journalism, English and environmental science. Then people ask you what you’re studying and you’re supposed to have an answer for them. And if you don’t have one, they tilt their head and say, “Oh, that’s OK though. You’re still young,” in a tone that would suggest you just told them you’re going to jail for not paying a parking ticket.

As students, our lives are complicated and filled with uncertainty about where we’re going to live next year. Will we be able to afford enough food this month? Is the midterm tomorrow going to destroy your confidence? Can you write a 10-page paper in six hours? And there are, of course, other equally pressing concerns.

Undeclared students live with an axe hanging over their head every single minute they spend in the classroom. You wonder whether this class you’re taking will even matter for your future, yet-to-be-determined major. You wonder whether you’re wasting your time being miserable in calculus so you can be an economics major because someone convinced you that econ would be a really great idea.

There’s no answer, either. It’s just really hard and it sucks not to know. You get to the end of sophomore year and realize that you have two years left to start and finish a major. You have to nix any plans of going abroad because you’d have to stay in college for an extra semester. You have no flexibility in your class schedule.

Eventually, you’ll find a major that you like. And the truth is that, to a certain extent, it doesn’t really matter what your major is as long as you’re not a history major trying to be a software engineer at Google. Even outside of the classroom, UC Berkeley will set you up with a great skill set that you’ll be able to put to use almost anywhere. You’ll learn how to gain personal agency and take your future into your own hands. You’ll have to learn how to advocate for yourself and develop the communication skills necessary to create opportunities for success.

So the next time your adviser comments on how you’ve changed your major five times in two years, you should give them a death stare and explain how damn difficult and dumb it is to choose your life’s path at 20.

Contact Sasha Ashall at [email protected].