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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2004 > College Row
College Row

Student discussion
Sarah Auerbach ’96 (in the pink sweater) and Jonathan Scheff ’75 (center) lead a discussion session with students during the Interterm seminar on choosing a major.

What’s your major?

“When I came to Amherst,” Rebecca Epstein ’99 recently recalled, “I thought I wanted to major in ‘liberal arts.’” That idea seems to be all too common, so this year during Interterm, the college sponsored a two-day seminar designed to help students think about choosing a major. Aimed particularly at first-year students and sophomores, the seminar also included nearly a dozen alumni, who offered their perspectives on major choice. Participants ate, drank and talked—and spent a good part of each day in the Cole Assembly Room discussing the “Versatility of the Liberal Arts Experience,” as the program was called. As one sage graduate said, “Very seldom does it make sense to choose a major with some long-term career goal in mind.”

The Office of Alumni and Parent Programs, the Career Center and the Dean of Students Office, with the financial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, sponsored the program. According to the college’s proposal to the Mellon Foundation, the primary concern was for students in their second year at Amherst, who “often feel like the neglected stepchildren of the undergraduate academic world. The novelty of freshman year has worn off, and they have yet to declare a major and to develop an affiliation with their major departments. Hence the familiar phrase ‘sophomore slump’—not to mention the equally familiar and even more invidious phenomenon of ‘sophomoric behavior.’”

Rather than discussing the nuts and bolts of particular majors—what courses to take when and so on—these sessions had more general import. Alumni of various ages and professions talked about how they chose their own majors and what effects their choices had (or didn’t have) on their eventual choice of graduate study and career.

Lively discussion followed among the panelists and the assembled students. One goal of the program was to introduce Amherst sophomores to the full range of major choices while suggesting that there is no straight and narrow path to any one profession or to a happy and fulfilling career. The students, at this early moment in their academic careers, were able to talk with several generations of alumni with interests like theirs, but with diverse career paths. The discussion raised many questions. How about a double major? Should I study abroad? Can I double major, study abroad and write an honors thesis? The alumni panelists, faculty and staff couldn’t answer every question for every student, but they presented living proof that an Amherst graduate can thrive in the so-called real world, even if she chose a double major years ago to please her parents (“One for me, one for Mom and Dad,” as Sara Wilensky ’93 said); or even if he can’t remember now why a philosophy major seemed like a good idea at the time.

The alumni recalled a remarkable variety of Amherst people who could help a struggling sophomore pick a major: advisers, other professors and older students. “You’re not here to make yourself a psych case,” said Karen Parsons ’85. “There are people here who can help you become the person you really want to be.” At the end of the two-day seminar, the choice of a major seemed to come down to a choice about oneself. “I really didn’t play a lot, academically, at Amherst,” lamented one alumnus, wishing he had. “Do whatever you want to do,” Wilensky finally said. “It really doesn’t matter.”

—Paul Statt ’78

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