“What’s your major?”
Incoming students, beware. This is one of the most-asked questions of college students, and, for undecided students, the most dread inducing.
Each year, many freshman applicants apply as undeclared students to test the waters before declaring a specific major. Corey Hollis, director of academic advising, estimated in 2016, about 1,000 freshmen entered UCLA’s College of Letters and Science as undeclared students in their choice of the broader categories of the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences or life sciences. A fifth category, just undeclared, garnered about 50 students.
Undeclared students have it rough. Not only do they not have a department of their own like there are for other majors, but they also do not receive the level of specificity needed in their advising from counselors.
Rather, the main resource for these students is general academic advising services provided by the UCLA College Academic Counseling program for things like mapping out future coursework. But undeclared students can’t fully benefit from these services if they do not know what their major is, and thus do not know which courses they should take. Moreover, its unrealistic to expect freshmen who can barely find their classes on campus to seek out counseling in their first quarter, even if that’s when they need it most.
To fix this problem, the College of Letters and Science’s counseling department should institute a peer mentorship program that assigns upperclass peer mentors to all incoming undeclared freshmen. Such a program would not replace general academic counseling, but would be a supplement for undeclared students to help them decide what majors to pursue. It could also address the concerns of students who do not come in as undeclared, but intend to switch majors.
Undeclared students are lone sailors navigating open waters. The counseling department may advise these students to use their first year to explore a variety of subject areas, but the reality is without guidance, this exploratory time can very quickly become aimless wandering. Students might float from class to class without getting a better sense of what subject areas suit them, while requirements for their future majors are not being met.
Many undeclared students are also reluctant to test vastly different courses – and for good reason. The fear of falling behind is very real, and something even undeclared engineering students face.
“Early on, we may advise the student to take a mix of courses, but a lot of times they’re adamant on not doing this because they’re afraid of getting behind,” said Jan LaBuda, director of the Office of Academic and Student Affairs at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
While some prerequisites for undeclared engineering students, such as math and physics classes, are largely the same regardless of major, many undeclared students from both HSSEAS and the College of Letters and Science fear taking courses in a variety of subject areas could result in them not graduating on time.
But, this fear of falling behind can set students back later on by leading them to spend their first years adhering to coursework for majors they may eventually switch out of. With some majors being more impacted than others or entailing more coursework requirements, students who don’t quickly settle on majors run the risk of delaying graduation and draining their pocketbooks.
This is where a counselor-run peer mentorship program can help.
The program could accommodate undeclared students on a more personal level by assigning them a peer mentor upon entry to UCLA and requiring mentors reach out to them to answer class-specific questions, talk about their interests and give advice on courses they have taken. Developing relationships with mentors would help students stay on track with their major search, and this kind of program could reasonably be extended to any College of Letters and Science student thinking of switching majors.
And there is evidence for such a program’s success. HSSEAS implemented a MentorSEAS peer mentorship program in 2011 that has since grown to about 300 mentors assigned to over 980 incoming engineering freshmen and transfer students. Upperclassmen volunteer as mentors and are matched to mentees based on parameters such as major, gender and ethnic background, and are overseen by a board of academic and student advisors, said Dr. Richard Wesel, HSSEAS’ Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, and Nathan Long, third-year mechanical engineering student and president of MentorSEAS. Mentees then decide how often to meet with their mentors, and can ask questions about their major and UCLA engineering in general.
The benefit of such a peer-run program is twofold. Not only is it more economical for a department to tap into students than hire and train a separate staff of counselors to advise undeclared students, but it would also allow students to learn firsthand from the experiences of their upperclassmen.
UCLA can also look to UC Irvine’s Undeclared/Undergraduate Mentorship Program for undeclared students, which is staffed by academic counselors and peer academic advisors and offers workshops aimed to help students make a decision on their majors.
Certainly, UCLA provides guidance to incoming students with the New Students & Transition Program introduced at orientation, but undeclared students need more than just a one-time informational session to identify their areas of interest. The New Students & Transition Program itself recommends careful planning when selecting introductory courses in a variety of disciplines so the courses also fulfill requirements. A specialized, counselor-run peer mentorship program would provide that careful attention.
Choosing a major is, quite literally, a major decision. Students invest money, time and effort into UCLA, so it is important they find something that fits. And a peer mentorship program could be the answer to ensuring the university does not abandon the undecided.