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Student Series: The Winding Road To Choosing A Major    

Student Series: The Winding Road To Choosing A Major

Art by FISK

By Grace Mautz

I want to preface this story by sharing that I still have no idea what I truly want to do with my life. In my opinion, no amount of focus or self-reflection is enough for a twenty-two-year-old to know how they want to exist in a world full of countless opportunities. My experiences up to this date have led me to many fields and conversations that I find engaging and motivating, but how can I be expected to know exactly what I want to do based on 38 classes and four years of college? The simple answer is: I can’t.  

My undergraduate experience has been different than most. I initially went to a small liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere Maine. I was not the type of person with a 10-year plan before entering college. I had a general sense of what did and did not interest me, but my first year at college was the opposite of clarifying. 

Despite the “liberal arts” label, there was an immediate sense of urgency to focus on one area of study. Our capitalist-driven society had conditioned me to believe that certain decorations--an accredited four-year college, an employable major, a fancy internship--would promise me success and happiness after my undergraduate career. 

However, I found myself not wanting to commit to one field if I wasn’t completely confident that it was what I wanted to pursue after walking across the stage and receiving my diploma. By sophomore year, I convinced myself that the best way to get around this problem was to declare as many concentrations as possible: I landed on two majors in Economics and Environmental Science and a minor in Studio Art. I hoped that by studying three concentrations, a career path would fall into my lap. I took five classes rather than the typical four and spent hours sitting in the reading room of the library trying to convince myself that I was happy with my current academic trajectory. In reality, I was not. 

In October of 2019, as I was driving back to see my younger sister's soccer game in New Hampshire, my playlist shuffle landed on “To Build A Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra. With a symphony of strings and cascading piano surrounding me in the small space of my car, my world simultaneously zoomed past me and screeched to a halt. I could no longer focus on the highway ahead and swerved towards the nearest exit. I parked under the famous golden arches of a McDonald’s for the next three hours, sitting alone, trying to calm myself down on the side of I-295 South. A sudden flood of unexpected emotions was accompanied by hundreds of scattered thoughts that all streamed into two questions: What am I doing with my life? What do I want to do with my life? 

That car ride home single-handedly pushed me to realize that I could not continue on as is. Although some people crave structure and consistency, I could not spend the next three years waking up every day and knowing exactly what the next 12-18 hours had in store for me. Over that weekend, I scoured hundreds of college programs across the US that accepted spring semester sophomore transfers. By Sunday, I had only found one school that seemed to fit what I was looking for: The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. 

On its website, this is how the school is described: “The cornerstone of the Gallatin School is its individualized approach to education. Gallatin puts the individual student first. With the support and guidance of faculty advisers, students design unique courses of study, exploring multiple disciplines or various perspectives on specific areas of study not available in traditional departments.”

As a student who had two majors and one minor that did not mix AT ALL, this style of education allowed me to take control and create a meaningful and blended interdisciplinary undergraduate experience. When I opened up my email in December 2019 to a message email from NYU stating, “We are pleased to offer you admission…,” my entire life flipped in a span of 30 days. I uprooted from that rural Maine town and moved to one of the biggest cities in the world. Just like that, I was thrown into a dorm on Union Square and became the source of another light streaming through a window at 2:00 am in the city that never sleeps. 

With no true guidance, I was unsure how to go about creating my own area of concentration at Gallatin. Perhaps out of habit, I initially tried to define my major neatly; I thought I wanted to study the business of fashion or sustainability in the fashion world. Yet, the beauty of Gallatin was that I was able to take any course in school at NYU that I could justify being relevant to my potential area of concentration. So, instead of filling my schedule with prerequisites, I started taking courses that kept me engaged, focused, and gave me tools to add to my educational and career-focused toolbox. 

Now, after being at Gallatin for two years, I get asked what my major is all of the time. Even my mom still asks and I am three months away from graduating college. To be honest, I do not completely comprehend what my major is. I have named it “Sustainable Business and Design,” but it is so much more than that. I have taken countless classes exploring consumerism, psychology, feminism, the history of the pharmaceutical industry, printmaking, and marketing. Gallatin has shown me that I do not need to know exactly what I want to do once I receive my diploma and has opened the door for me to explore areas of study that I never would have at my previous school in Maine. 

I understand that this form of undergraduate education is not for everyone, or even most. Many people like the structure of knowing what courses they need to take to graduate with a specific Bachelor of Arts or Science degree. But as I mentioned at the beginning of my story, I am not one of those people who have it all figured out. 

If you are in a similar position, I say this: Sail off without a map. See where you end up. As I wrap up my undergraduate career, I can confidently look back and say I made the right decision to move outside of my initial comfort zone. It allowed me to have a college experience where I can feel comfortable knowing that I am too young to have it all figured out. For that, I can thank The Cinematic Orchestra who, in six minutes and ten seconds, changed the entire trajectory of my life. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.