Before starting my first semester at Columbia, I enrolled in two electives I thought I would enjoy: Introduction to Psychology and Introduction to Logic. I had no idea how these classes, which happened to be at Barnard, would factor into my core requirements or help me pick a major. But I believed that college—especially the start of it—was about being open to new ideas and experiences. So, I kept the classes.
Three years later, I’m a senior who is taking seven classes this semester to fulfill major, concentration, and Core requirements before graduation this May. As it turns out, those psychology and logic classes I took first semester at Barnard don’t satisfy Columbia’s science requirement. If I had taken the equivalent courses at Columbia instead, I could have completed that requirement my very first semester of college.
If you call me stupid for not realizing this as a freshman, I won’t say you’re wrong. But the root of this problem goes beyond my ignorance in not knowing I could knock out some Core requirements early in the game.
The real issue, I believe, is that I was blindly attached to the idea that college is a free time to explore options rather than make decisions. I thought future-oriented thinking—like having a career-oriented or graduation-oriented mindset—was something I could avoid until my senior year of college, especially as a humanities major. Today, I know that isn’t true. But three years ago, that’s what I truly believed, because that’s what I was hearing from every angle.
“Be open to change. Don’t tie yourself too early on to a major—take advantage of the opportunity to try new classes, activities, and disciplines.”
“With a Columbia degree, you’ll be set, no matter what you decide you want to do.”
“You can change your major after you declare. Don’t feel trapped by it.”
“Your major doesn’t matter.”
“People change their careers all the time. It’s okay to not know what you want to do for a living while you’re an undergraduate.”
These messages, reiterated to me through many conversations and Yahoo Answers, framed my casual attitude about college. They’re what encouraged me to avoid the hard questions, like what I wanted to study or who I wanted to become, early on. And they even contributed to me avoiding the easy questions, like which requirements I could satisfy if I took these Barnard courses at Columbia instead. I didn’t ask myself that question because I didn’t think I had to that early in my college experience.
I liked the freedom to be doe-eyed, and I was enamored with the idea that I could study anything and become anything. Though I felt internal pressure to figure it out—pick a major, pick some career ideas—mostly everyone was saying that it was OK, if not better, to stall those decisions. Only once did someone tell me that a major like economics or computer science would be good if I were concerned about landing a job after graduation—but I felt comfortable ignoring that advice because it contradicted everything else I had been told. Even when I went to a premed advisor my sophomore year to ask whether it was too late for me to start a medicine track, I was told that it was increasingly common to enroll in premed requirements after college, so there shouldn’t be pressure to decide now.
Since high school, I’ve heard that it’s okay to put off the big decisions in college. Unfortunately, I translated the “don’t worry” advice into “don’t think.” This logic is arguably a huge mental error on my part, but it’s also representative of a cultural phenomenon: College students today grow up thinking that they can be anything—but then realize that to be something, they actually have to make decisions to move toward a goal. That realization can be scary and blindsiding—especially for students who, until their junior or senior year of college, didn’t think it was necessary to figure out in college what they’ll do with their lives.
I want to believe that the liberties I’ve taken while figuring out my interests in college weren’t a poor use of my time. But I wish I had fought the “put off decisions” mentality that has guided my undergraduate experience. Because now that I’m coming closer to graduation day, I’m realizing that I would be in a much better place if I knew how to even start addressing the questions that I’m in the habit of putting off.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Keeping Balance with Bhandari runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.