This Christmas I sat in my in-laws living room as some of their friends advised their teenage daughter on what to do when she went to college. Much to my surprise, they offered her genuinely good counsel.
Too often parents urge their children to major in a subject that they, the parents, prefer. Sometimes this entails pursuing the same dream as one of the parents. More often, the student is told to choose a remunerative discipline. Perhaps the young person should study business—or maybe engineering.
In the case I was listening to the father said that he had learned the proper lesson from the television show Glee. He was not going to stop his daughter from being a dancer if that was what she genuinely wanted. Besides, he knew that she would not listen anyway.
As a college professor, I frequently hear this dilemma from the student’s point of view. Sometimes one of these young people will bemoan the fact that they are violating a parent’s wishes. Sometimes they express guilt at not being more practical. Worst of all is the shame they may feel at having changed majors several times. This makes them feel like failures.
But then—if they ask me—I tell them that college is all about exploring. This is a big world with many options. Indeed, so diverse are the potential selections that it is impossible for someone who has not yet entered the adult world to be familiar with all of the available alternatives.
College, while it is not perfect, does make it possible to test a variety of choices. By taking classes in different subjects, each can be tested in action. Instead of merely thinking about what might be nice, a particular prospect can be temporarily inhabited to see what it would feel like.
What I also tell those who ask is that they must never forget that whatever path they select, they will be the ones who will have to live it. Their parent’s preferences may be sensible, but mom and dad will not be there to assuage the pain of an occupation that does not match the student’s personal abilities and desires.
Life is longer than some young people realize. They, therefore, believe that they must make a choice right away. If they do not, they fear that they will soon be too old to change their minds. I then try to explain that taking time now may save a great deal of grief later on. Yes, years may be lost in the process—but what of the greater number of years that might be lost by engaging in a dissatisfying job?
Keeping an open mind and being true to one’s inner core is part of what it takes to lead a successful life. And since young people are only at the beginning of finding out who they are, it makes sense to explore this before committing to a particular career.