The Value of Exploration

These days of August contain various reminders of the rhythms of the University. One such reminder is the group of incoming students, and their FYE leader with a bullhorn, on the steps of University Hall, and other groups scattered around the oval involved in all different kinds of team building activities. Other reminders include the small groups of student(s) and parent(s) walking the sidewalks with name tags, maps, and red resource binders, as the exceptional OSU incoming student orientation process progresses.

I have the fantastic opportunity of interacting with these parents of our new students in FYE’s “Family Matters” orientation session (I just finished the last one for the year yesterday… I’ll miss this interaction.) Very often, in private conversations with parents before and after the sessions, I have heard concerns such as “My daughter is coming to Ohio State, but she has no idea what she is going to major in. She needs to decide right away.” My response always centers around the reality that, in many cases, the fact that the student is undecided is not a bad thing, but really might be the best of situations. Many times students, having interacted with a less than knowledgable high school counselor, or having taken a personal interest traits survey, have chosen a major and embarked on a career path that is not at all right for them. Once they’ve started on this path toward their degree, it becomes increasingly difficult to move to what might be a more appropriate path.

MSNBC recently reported that 80% of all college students either haven’t yet chosen a major, or will have changed their major at least once before they graduate. At a university like Ohio State, the wide range of options, and the existence of a broad general education component of all students’ majors, allows and encourages students to “explore” the different directions that will ultimately result in a good choice. In fact, we have a group of advisors with a wide range of knowledge about all of the options that make this process easier for students. They are in a unit that is appropriately called University Exploration. Undecided students, who number approximately 20% of each incoming class at OSU, enroll in University Exploration in which they select a track that corresponds with their general interests and that leads them through the process of selecting a major. University Exploration also provides special career guidance that is linked to the selection of a major, and they also work with transfer and re-deciding students.  (

I can’t help but reflect on my own path through college, as I try to allay some of the concerns that these parents are expressing. When I was in high school I worked summers as a surveyor on a highway department road crew. I naturally developed an interest in this activity, and when it  came time to decide on a college direction, I enrolled in a junior college in California to study in a technical major called “Land Surveying”. One of my first semester classes in this major was an advanced applied math class, and I fell in love with the kinds of approaches to solving and the theories associated with significant problems in mathematics. So I spoke with my counselor, and I changed from the technical surveying major to a major in math studies. I transferred to a 4-year institution so that I could continue studying toward a baccalaureate degree in mathematics, and also added chemistry as a minor, until I was faced with the complexities of organic chemistry. I dropped the minor, and in fact again changed my major to math education, given the exposure I had to the wonderful professors that I came into contact with.

The education part of the major, while it was something that I loved, required an investment in courses like education psychology and pedagogy, which took away from the time I could spend with the math, so I changed again, and after graduation I enrolled in the graduate math program. During that course of study, I began experimenting with computers, and after graduating with a Masters degree in math, I changed  majors again and went on to study computer science, got another masters and started teaching both math and computer science. I became intrigued with an area of computing related to graphics, and went back to school in yet another entirely different major area, computer animation.

I took advantage of the exposure that a comprehensive university allowed, and was able to “explore” my options and head in directions that I never even considered or knew were possible. I’m sure that I would have had a rewarding life as a land surveyor, but because I didn’t lock myself into a major, I have been presented with all kinds of employment opportunities that I wouldn’t trade for anything.