Guest Post: “I Changed My Major Five Times”: Advice from a Harvard College Dean

Emelyn dela Pena, Ed. D. is the Assistant Dean of Harvard College for Student Life, where she is responsible for campus diversity programs, student leadership development and residential life training.  She generously offers the following advice to Creative Marbles:

As eager freshman and nervous parents arrive at college this fall, I’m sure on the minds of many of you will be the choice of college major.  Maybe you’ve already decided.  You’ve dreamed of becoming a doctor or a lawyer all your life, and so you’ve made up your mind that you will be pre-med or pre-law with accompanying majors such as biology or political science.  I remember my family and I decided my major well before my high school graduation–Computer Science.  Before I even had the opportunity to take my first humanities course or explore my general education requirements, my family and I decided that I would have a career in computers.  Today, I am the Assistant Dean of Student Life at Harvard, with a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies, a Master of Arts in Education, and a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership.

Of course, I spent almost two years trying to survive in Computer Science.  I took three quarters of calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations and five quarters of hard sciences.  But because of my general education requirements at Revelle College (at the University of California, San Diego), I also took five quarters of humanities and fine arts, and declared a minor in Black American Music.  And, it was in those classes where I truly found my passions.   I must admit that it was difficult to let go of my first chosen major.  I found myself first choosing another math-based major (Quantitative Economics and Decision Sciences), and then ended up switching to Economics, then Political Science.  I had at this time decided I wanted to go to law school.  But when a dear friend noticed that my first few classes in Poli Sci had a similar theme (race and the law, race and public policy), he suggested I check out a new major at UC San Diego—Ethnic Studies.

I could hear my mother’s voice already as I made the decision to finally choose a major that made sense for me, “What kind of job do you get with that degree?”  And on the day of my graduation (5 years in the making), when she finally saw in the printed program what degree I had finally settled on, that’s exactly what she said!  But by this time, I had already gotten into graduate school and was well on my way to a career in Higher Education.

When I look back on this experience today, I don’t regret the two years I spent in a major that didn’t work out (I have a very well-rounded transcript), but I do wish that I had spent the first year of college exploring and waiting to choose a major until my second year.  After all, how could I have possibly been certain at the age of 18 what I wanted to do for the rest of my life (or even for the first few years out of college)?  Thank goodness for those classes I first thought were non-essential to my Computer Science career!  They helped me find myself in between bouts of loneliness in the computer lab.  And thank goodness for my mom, who didn’t prevent me from exploring, even if she never figured out what exactly Ethnic Studies is.

For those of you entering college with an undeclared major, fear not!  You are right where you need to be.  Take some time to find what interests you through some of your general education courses and maybe even take one class that you never thought you would.  For those of you who are entering college certain of your life path, I congratulate you!  But I also ask that you keep an open mind, explore the things that spark your intellectual curiosity, and talk to a lot of people about how they got to where they are.  You might find that the best path to medical school is through a degree in Music.

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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