Major-switcher Memoirs: The Growing Support Systems for Undeclared Students at Drexel
March 06, 2020
This is the second story in a three-part series about undergraduate students at Drexel University who switch their major. A previous story focused on general major-switching at Drexel, and a forthcoming story will center on those who switch their major following a co-op experience.
During Kristen Furlong’s previous academic year at Drexel University, she was never really sure how to answer that typical question of “What year are you?”
While it was her second year at Drexel, she was in the freshman class of the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s Game Design & Production program. That’s because she spent her first year here as an undeclared student through the Goodwin College of Professional Studies’ First-Year Exploratory Studies (FYE) program, which provides undecided students with the opportunity to explore their academic interests and options before selecting a major. And unfortunately, because of the coursework sequence associated with the game design major, Furlong would have to plan to stay about an extra year (for a total of five) at Drexel in order to transfer in.
“It costs more money, so that was a problem at first,” she said of making this switch. “But, essentially, I found out what I wanted to do and I really liked the program and it’s one of the top-rated in the country for game design. So I wanted to stay.”
Furlong’s degree path is certainly shaping up much differently from that of Angie Bastista, now a fourth-year mechanical engineering student. She started at Drexel as undeclared through the FYE program, and is now actually ahead of most of her classmates. Therefore, she’s pursuing a master’s degree on top of her bachelor’s in the same five years.
“It’s not like I was taking these absurd classes that aren’t going to help me in the long run,” Batista said of her time as an undeclared student. “It’ll never be a waste because you get that perspective. If it doesn’t help progress you to get your degree, it’ll still count as an elective.”
Over the last five years, Drexel has had approximately 1,500 students come in without a declared major, and has worked to build a multi-level support system for those entering through the FYE program or the four colleges which offer “undecided” tracks for students before they choose a concentration: Westphal, the College of Engineering, the LeBow College of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences.
In fact, compared to students who entered in fixed majors, Drexel students who entered in these through these “undecided” majors in fall 2011, 2012 or 2013 were more likely to report upon graduation that they would encourage someone like themselves to attend Drexel, were very satisfied with their overall experience at Drexel and were very well prepared for life after Drexel.
Furlong’s experience as an undeclared student at Drexel is very much a cautionary tale outside of the norm, and something that the FYE program has worked to streamline and plan for better specifically when students want to enter certain sequenced Westphal majors.
Drexel students who entered in fall 2011, 2012 or 2013 and changed their major were actually about 9 percent more likely to graduate within six years than students who remained in their entering major. On a national scale, according to a 2016 report published by the Education Advisory Board, students who make a final major decision as late as the fifth term they are enrolled do not see their time to graduation increase, and one-quarter of the students who landed on a final major during senior year still graduated on time from traditional four-year colleges.
Although she will be here an extra year, Furlong said she’s still glad she came into Drexel undecided because, had she not, she probably would have never even considered going into game design.
“I was pretty set on doing something science-based, and was trying to figure out, ‘OK I don’t like biology so I’m going to try chemistry or maybe like premed or something,’” she remembered. “But having the ability to actually be in the design building and try classes that were specific to that design aspect of making things, it just made me really enjoy it and find a passion for it that I don’t think I would have had if I [hadn’t entered Westphal].”
For Batista, even though she was pretty sure early on she wanted to go into engineering, coming in undecided gave her the freedom to explore and find the concentration that was right for her when she was choosing between biomedical and mechanical.
“I couldn’t really see myself doing anything else. However, I’ve learned that I’m bad at commitment,” Batista said with a laugh. “So I didn’t want to commit right off the bat because of those stats, you know, [that] it’s hard for a 17- or 18-year-old to know exactly what they want to do. So I wanted to have those options.
“Once I knew what I wanted to do, [my FYE advisors] were very willing to transfer me into the school that I wanted,” she added. “So, why would I why not? Was pretty much [how I felt about entering undeclared].”
Showing students and parents the benefits of this “why not” is exactly why Marna Mozeff, BS mathematics ‘97, MS applied mathematics and statistics ‘98, managing director and faculty of the Division for Exploring Students in the Goodwin College of Professional Studies, took over the FYE program after 20 years as a math professor and advisor at Drexel.
“I think that I’ve started to believe, after being [in this position] for almost a year, that every student should come in undecided,” she said. “Because who really knows? If I were given the opportunity to explore, as a first-year freshman in college, I may not have been a math major. I don’t have any regrets about it, but if I had explored different avenues, I may have gone in a totally different direction.”
The openness to explore, along with the simple fact that most 18-year-olds don’t truly know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, is why it doesn’t surprise Mozeff that students who come in undecided report that they are more satisfied with their experience at Drexel. And this is in no small part due to the FYE program, which was started in 2015 with a class of 13 students, and that grew to 55 students the second year and to nearly 200 who entered the program this year. This growth falls in line with national growth for programs like FYE, which Mozeff said are springing up more and more across college campuses.
“I think we’re doing it better than other places, because, anecdotally, we have a student who is a student employee right now who went through a program like this at another university and said that, just from being here for a day, she thinks we’re doing a better job because we’re more engaged with the students,” Mozeff said.
The FYE program engages students in special course work during their first year — FYE 102: Academic Exploration and Planning, and FYE 103: Career Exploration and Planning — designed to get undecided students thinking about their career path and interacting with various departments across campus. It’s also designed to help them confront and filter out external influences so students can get to the root of what they really want, Mozeff said.
“Frequently, our undecided students come here thinking they want to study engineering because their family told them so, or they want to be a nurse because their family said that’s a good career choice, or a high school guidance counselor told them that they should study computer science because they like math,” she said. “Trying to get them to move past external influences and actually listen to themselves, their skills, their values, their interests — that’s kind of the fundamental concept of the coursework. So that they can begin to look inside themselves and find out what they truly value and become the author of their own lives rather than following these external formulas.”
In addition, FYE students also receive dedicated developmental advising that helps them articulate and get to the root of their real interests and moving in the right direction to declaring, Mozeff said.
Karen Christie, senior academic advisor for First-Year Exploratory Studies with Goodwin College, said many of the undeclared students she counsels are “the brightest and the best,” but they’re not ready to make that big commitment when they’re a senior in high school.
“This gives them the opportunity, like the world is your oyster type of thing, and they can explore various majors within the Drexel academic world before they actually make that commitment,” she said. “We try to teach our students in their first year to advocate for themselves, advocate and communicate, and we can’t stress enough that Drexel has an immense amount of resources and student support helping those students to step out of their comfort zone.”
“She would sit down, she would write my interests and really listen,” Furlong said of her previous sessions with Christie when she was still undecided. “Then, she really helped me find out what I wanted to take and helped me get the specific classes into my schedule.”
Though all of these sources of support are helpful for students like Furlong and Batista, there’s one that perhaps overshadows all the rest — connecting with other undecided students and feeling like you’re not alone.
“It was a nice, small-knit community,” Batista said of the FYE program. “It’s a very personal program that will help you. … It’s kind of this like well-kept secret that’s becoming slowly bigger and bigger and more people are starting to acknowledge it because it’s not just like any other undeclared program where they’re just like, ‘This is for kids who have no idea what they want to do! Figure it out yourself.’ It’s like, ‘Here’s a specific advisor, a specific team of people who want to help you succeed and will do anything to see you succeed.’”
When asked what her key advice would be for an undecided or major-switching student, Batista said it’s most important to simply just know yourself.
“Everyone’s different. Everyone studies different. Everyone achieves differently. Everyone has different goals,” she said.
Furlong’s key advice was also simple: don’t think negatively about your unknowing.
“If you just keep thinking that you’re never going to find something, you’re just kind of putting yourself in a hole,” she said. “Take personality tests, take different classes, gauge what your skills are or ask other people what they think are your biggest skills, or see what classes you tend to do well in. That kind of helps to narrow it down.”
Mozeff’s advice wasn’t so simple: she cautioned undeclared and major-switching students on everything from remembering that your career after landing your first job isn’t usually directly relate to your major, to imploring academically successful students that realize far into their degree path that they wish they had made another choice that it sometimes is best (financially) to finish that degree when so close to completion. At the same time, students should consider switching — no matter what the cost — if they’re limping along and barely passing classes.
However, most importantly, the one motto Mozeff has developed after working with and studying this specific type of student is that you don’t need to have “passion” in one specific area to follow — and not wait on — your ambitions.
“We don’t discuss following your passion because passions are not some inbred thing that is just lying [around] for you to tap into. Your interests become your passions,” Mozeff said. “If there’s nothing you’re particularly passionate about, and if you believe it’s something inside you just waiting like a dragon to be woken up, that can make you feel bad about yourself because, ‘I don’t know what my passion is.’ That’s because not everyone is born with a passion.
“Instead, we try to preach: follow your interests, develop your skills, and those two things together will leave you to something you’re passionate about.”
Update: Now in her third year at Drexel, Furlong has changed her major into the LeBow School of Business to study supply chain with minors in marketing and digital media. She is still on track to graduate in five years.