Ask young children what they want to be when they grow up and the answer will change three times in one day. Ask them at age 18 and the response may not be anymore decisive.
College students who have yet to choose a major can struggle during their freshman year. Doubts creep in: They fear making a mistake about their career choices as they listen to peers who knew in sixth grade that they wanted to be an artist or a doctor. Or they worry about letting their parents down with the additional costs of tuition to restart course sequences and possibly losing college credits in the process.
They call themselves the “undecided,” and Christopher Tarantino from Enfield, Conn., was one of them. He was a good student in high school, interested in everything, especially science. Entering RIT as a freshman two years ago, he was challenged with all kinds of career possibilities: pre-med, biomedical photographic communications, culinary arts and hospitality, public policy and marketing and finance.
He hit the jackpot with help from an unexpected source, the University Studies Program—a unit within Academic Affairs at RIT that started in 2009—which is dedicated to helping undergraduate students explore and identify alternative majors and programs. RIT Provost Jeremy Haefner initiated USP after discussions about student success and retention with deans across campus.
“We felt very strongly in creating a university-wide program that would allow students to explore a variety of different majors without significant loss to progress of their degree and in a very supportive environment.
“There’s an untapped market of students out there who are a good fit for RIT but uncertain about their major,” says Haefner. “This gives them the opportunity to explore the university’s wide variety of programs, from glass blowing in the School for American Crafts to game design in the Golisano College. Our goal is to have a student say, ‘Wow, what great choices, and with a little work on my part, I can get all the help I need to understand what careers are available.’ ”
Marty Burris, director of the program, says the personalized, one-on-one advising and the opportunity to expose students to courses in their majors of interest has kept many students in school.
“These are very bright kids, interested in everything and often good at everything as well,” says Burris. “At a cost of over $40,000 a year, it is critical to get students on the right path as soon as possible. We help them find themselves, their interests and their career path. The program markets to freshman and we also work with internal and external transfers who want to explore other career options.”
Now a marketing major, Tarantino “graduated” from the program and is one of many ambassadors for the program—including Dan English, a major in advertising and public relations; David Beyerlein, imaging and photographic technology; and Andrea Catelyn Warren, visual media. Together the foursome redesigned the program’s promotional brochure for campus distribution to use as a marketing tool for current and future undecideds.
“My mother wasn’t fully aware that I was photographing for the brochure so it was a happy surprise for her,” says Greece native Beyerlein about his mom, Melinda, who works in the communication department at RIT’s College of Liberal Arts.
“I was undecided when I came to RIT and used University Studies because my mom had heard about the program,” recalls Beyerlein, now a third-year student. “It was kind of discouraging walking in freshman year and hearing there were thousands of incoming freshman students and only 48 were undeclared. I’ve always done well in science, physics, chemistry, mathematics and calculus, but I also have an artistic path and enjoy photography. The University Studies Program managed to help bring all my interests together in RIT’s imaging and photographic technology program.”
University Studies Program is also like a family, says Tarantino, who is highly involved with campus activities and is also an emergency medical technician, CPR instructor and professional rescuer. “It’s a life saver for students who don’t feel established or comfortable with just one choice when they have multiple interests. University Studies broadened our learning experiences while making us realize that being undecided is nothing to be ashamed of.”
According to Angelo Fuino, assistant director for the program, current enrollment in the program at RIT is approximately 80-100 students per year and growing.
“We are recruiting to parents and prospective students because we want them to know we are here to help,” Fuino says. “It’s exciting to watch a student’s transformation as they discover their passion; starting out with interests in engineering, math, art and design, then deciding to major in imaging science, a blend of all three.”