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Changing course by changing majors in college

Robin Chenoweth
January 30, 2020

Sometimes finding the best career means finding a new path

A fair number of college students discover what Mahala Haughn, BS ’19, has: Life is not linear, and the path to a fulfilling career can take you on unexpected detours.

Walking to her job each day in Jinhua, China Haughn passes vendors hawking dragon fruit. The aroma of ginger and garlic waft from the doors of carry-out restaurants. She snakes through a mall abuzz with shoppers.

Ducking into a store-front school, she passes classrooms of Chinese children calling out English phrases. She prepares a lesson before greeting a clutch of five-year-olds, round-cheeked and baby-model adorable.

Little Hana is spot on with her elocution but Jason gets a tad rambunctious when pantomiming verbs. Haughn praises, imparts confidence, redirects. “Do this,” she says, galloping instead of the run-and-slide maneuver Jason just tried.

Before graduating from Ohio State in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in child and youth studies, Haughn didn’t see herself landing more than 7,000 miles from her Ohio home. But then the opportunity arose to teach abroad.

“I thought it would be a really valuable experience,” she said, “seeing how other cultures view education, how they view teachers and what education is like on literally the other side of the world.”

But even before teaching in China, Haughn’s path had veered from her expectations.

“I was accepted as a nursing major. But before I even started my first semester, I called and changed it. I wanted to do pediatric nursing, and then I thought, I don't think I'm that interested in the nursing part. I think I'm more interested in the kids part.”

Her new program allowed her to focus on how kids think, interact and grow. “I'm drawn toward how children develop socially, emotionally, cognitively as well.”

Like Haughn, one third of college students switch majors at least once, according to the U.S. Department of Education. One in 10 changes majors two or more times.

“College is the exact place where that should be happening,” said Matthew Mayhew, the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor in Educational Administration at the College of Education and Human Ecology. “It's easy for students to say, you know, I prefer to go this direction, and they do. They meet with an advisor and their core schedule changes and they do it.”

“That's doesn’t easily happen in society writ large,” he said. “It's not as easy to just flip jobs. So, yes, college is the place for exploration.”

Group of Ohio State women with a black lab puppy
Dani Pack, right, a fourth-year student in human development and family science, will graduate on time this spring after switching majors in her second year at Ohio State.

How students choose what to study

Many students begin college without a firm idea of what they want to do. Fourth-year undergraduate Dani Pack did what most students do — ask those closest to her for advice. According to a 2017 Gallop Survey, more than half of students choose their major based on the recommendations of family or friends. Only 11% consulted a high school counselor; only 28% asked for guidance from a college advisor.

Pack began studying to become a radiologist, like her step-mother. In the middle of her sophomore year, though, she had doubts. “To have to sit through classes that I didn't like, to get to a career that I don't know if I’d be interested in … It was like, yeah, probably not.”

As a freshman, she had researched alternative majors as part of her college survey class. A memory from her childhood stood out: In the hospital, she was aided by a child life specialist — a pediatric health care professional who worked with her family to help her better cope with her hospitalization.

“That actually seemed like a cool career,” Pack said. “I started researching how I could get into that and I found that a lot of people who go into child life started in HDFS,” the Human Development and Family Science program.

An academic advisor told her that most of her class credits counted toward her new degree.

“Once I started taking child and adolescent development, I thought, this is super interesting,” she said. “This is something that I understand and that I'm good at and that I can explain to other people. I feel like I finally found the place where I'm able to thrive.”

Skills gained make students career ready

What if students find themselves ready to graduate and still don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do? Take heart, Mayhew said.

“It's not about the name of the opportunity, or the name of the major. It's about the skills you develop in those majors,” he said. “Can you articulate what you learned as a result the experiences you have? Are you able to effectively manage yourself in a culture that might not be your own? I think that's what employers are looking for.”

Seen through that lens, Haughn’s experiences deciphering bullet train schedules in Mandarin are as valuable as dealing with cultural differences in education.

Her first job out of college has given her an immersive view of another culture and how she can fit in it. It has also confirmed what she suspected even before she graduated: She doesn’t want to teach long term. And that’s valuable information to know.

“I want to work with very young children and I want to do behavioral interventions,” she said.

So when her 15-month contract has expired, she’ll begin the next leg of her career journey: She plans to return to the United States to attend graduate school.

Thinking about changing your major?

Schedule an appointment with an academic advisor today. Professional advice available for both EHE and non-EHE students.


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