Students and the quest for self-discovery in the classroom

Cody Wiesner, Fox Journal editor-in-chief. · The Fox Journal file photo

On May 23, 185 students will walk across the Commencement podium and leave UW-Fox Valley with their associate degree in view of their dream job, the next step of their baccalaureate education at another university, or whatever takes them to a fulfilling future. Wherever they might end up, these new graduates should be proud of their academic achievement—that associate degree represents a level of scholarly rigor not attained by most Americans. This seems like a given, but concerns about the college system like mass student debt, the value of a degree, and job prospects obscure the inherent value of academia for personal enrichment and intellectual growth. This, in turn, leads to a lot of misguided attitudes of how people “should” and “should not” approach education, particularly in regards to the idea that college’s primary purpose is to get a job. To that I say, “Hold your horses, buddy”—you’ll find that job, but first, you need to find “you.” In other words, the primary purpose of college is (or at least should be) self-discovery. Have that, and things have a way of falling into place.

So, you’re a new student, and you’re thinking, “How can I embark on my holistic journey of self-discovery?”

Being comfortable with your major of choice is half the battle. Really. Don’t let the detractors deter you from a discipline you’re interested in. You know the type—the type that goes on and on about how your women’s studies degree is a waste of time and how you should go into STEM like he did. Don’t let Bob the engineer tell you your degree is pointless, because it’s not.

Still, Engineer Bob has some great points that cannot be overlooked—no one’s arguing the extraordinary demand for STEM in the U.S. or that its job outlook exceeds the type of work one would find with a women’s studies degree. However, Bob might not realize that your degree doesn’t necessarily have to match the field you want to go into. While degrees like electrical engineering can be much more specialized, liberal arts degrees are more open-ended in career outlooks and offer a greater range of specializations.

Case in point, when I tell people I’m an English major, I typically hear something along the lines of, “So are you planning to move out of Wisconsin to teach?” Then, when I tell them I’m not going to teach, but instead draw squiggly red marks over grammatical errors on news articles for a living, I have to explain why I’m actually going to use my pen to copy edit and not write names on paper coffee cups eight hours a day. But this just proves my choice of discipline isn’t as direct or specialized as “English major goes into education.” Two important skills I need as an editor are attention to style choices on published works and reading comprehension. I could gain these skills as a major in English, journalism, communications, linguistics, politics, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, biology, physics or any discipline that studies published material. So long as I follow through on getting internships or other work experience directly in my field and pick up grammar and journalism classes on the side, I have a lot of flexibility in my degree options. And it’s not just me, either, for a 2010 study indicated that only 27 percent of college graduates had a career that matched their major. Another study showed that employers more often value work experience over education.

No matter where you go, work experience matters; that degree just demonstrates academic skills. Therefore, a so-called “useless” women’s studies major with an iron-clad resume full of work experience (in or out of that major’s field) would outweigh an engineering major with no work experience. So if you hear someone call your area of study pointless, don’t listen to them. If a field you’re interested in doesn’t have a direct or specialized pathway, worry not, for it by no means hurts your job outlook if you have the right experience.

That’s not to say a college education isn’t important, though. Many careers have minimum education standards, and those standards are becoming more and more rigorous, according to Business News Daily’s reporting on a CareerBuilder study. College is here to stay, and like it or not, that means often taking 60 credits or more worth of general education requirements outside of the major to graduate. But that’s okay. In fact, gen. eds., and even the courses students don’t like, can be important steps in that goal of self-discovery.

College gen. ed. programs have the goal of providing a varied, well-rounded education, and they require courses from a number of disciplines: humanities, fine arts, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics. Without the opportunity to take this variety of coursework, many seldom stray from their field of study—liberal arts students would avoid taking math and science, and science and math majors would avoid taking liberal arts courses. If my article on how to take as many liberal arts-centric science courses and as few hard sciences as possible at UW-Fox to make getting the degree easier is any example, we as students have a tendency to shy away from disciplines we think are difficult. Comfortable decisions, yes, but they could be shortsighted—an English major like me, for example, needs science because the technical comprehension of scientific journals provides a distinct and often greater reading challenge than my typical English coursework; a biology major, for example, needs liberal arts courses because in rigorous lab courses, there’s often not enough time to go over issues in science and practice discourse in their typical biology coursework. Put differently, there are valuable skills certain disciplines offer more than others, and those required gen. ed. courses allow students to develop skills that they might not be able to in their major.

Not only this, but there’s no better time than college for personal development in courses, too, and college is one of the best opportunities to do that. Inevitably, students will like some courses in their gen. ed. courseload and abhor others, but they’ll leave being exposed to more disciplines beyond academics, and they’ll have the chance to determine what they enjoyed or not, which both help build a more well-rounded academic identity. A sociology student may end up finding a love of stargazing from their astronomy class, may become more motivated to vote after taking an intro politics course and he or she may feel compelled to partake in community service after enrolling in an urban planning and development course. None of these are in the student’s major (although the experience may lead to switching majors), but there’s no doubt gen. ed. and elective courses play a profound role on academic interests.

Through work experience, an individualized major, and a wide variety of courses, you have ways to learn a lot about yourself, your education, and your career goals. With hope, the experiences will lead you to move forward in a way that corresponds to what you learned.

So go for a career you enjoy, even if it doesn’t pay well. Of course, you could be like Engineer Bob, who gets paid very well for a job he very much enjoys, but if you take a practical look at the job market and choose engineering, playing the numbers game instead of the job satisfaction game, you’re likely going to end up less productive than Bob due to lack of interest. This can be a challenging prospect since it directly challenges the societal definition of success, which is often tied to money, but the results are higher levels of workplace satisfaction and productivity. You may also have a better chance of keeping your job long-term or, depending on the type of work, even improve your chances of advancing compared to if you took that job you hate.

Computer science had always been the plan when I was growing up—the demand was high, I thought I was good with computers, the money was spectacular, and I could use what I learned to write video games. I started running into problems in high school, though. See, what I didn’t realize is what a laborious and boring process coding actually is. See, my underlying goal was to use the knowledge to write; however, for me coding wasn’t writing, but a barrier thereof composed of entering what felt to me like gibberish into a script editor to get intelligible results. I failed two programming courses I took in high school, yet I still couldn’t accept that computer science wasn’t for me because, of course, that was the plan. It wasn’t until I started my application to UW-Fox that I finally reconsidered. When faced with an option to choose my major, that’s when I immediately realized that the job openings and the money didn’t matter—I liked words, and I liked writing, so I declared an English major and never looked back (aside from switching back and forth between English and journalism five times in four semesters).

In your education, you’ll be faced with experiences that will help shape who you are and what you want to do with your life. Some of these things are good and will introduce you to topics you never imagined before, and others are bad, like that awful gen. ed. class you can’t stand, or realizing that you actually hate the thing you always wanted to do with your life and have to start over, but all of these experiences are important in determining just whom you end up becoming. Ultimately, the only factors that should go into that decisions are you and those experiences—not the ones who say your major is pointless, not career outlooks and not money. As colleges find themselves in a state of transition, more and more people say that the point of education is to find work. That’s definitely important, but learning more about oneself is an important step in the career-finding process. And, to that end, colleges are there to provide you with the experiences and opportunities to expand your knowledge and to find what works and what doesn’t. With education’s helping hand, you can be “you.”