Truth Be Told: “All Who Wander Are Not Lost” and Entering College ‘Undecided’

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Like most of my fellow Freshmen, I’ve spent the majority of my academic career with an eye towards the future. Whatever I attempted, I pursued with a destination in mind, taking to heart the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” For years, that destination was the ‘promised land’ of college, and I shaped my personal calendar accordingly. Yet for all that advance planning, all those years of carefully selected courses, I enter Swarthmore with perhaps the most daunting major of all: Undecided.

Among the many statistics and tidbits of information Dean of Admissions Jim Bock provided in his opening address to the Class of 2016 was the revelation that for the first time in recent years, biology had overtaken undecided as the most popular choice of major for the freshman class. To Bock, the consequence of this change was obvious: “The class of 2016 therefore has more of a clue about what to do with the rest of their lives than previous generations.” Though the statement was made in jest, it hints at a prevailing societal stigma against “the undecided.”  As part of a broader trend to make education more specialized and vocational, students are pushed towards deciding a defined career path at younger and younger ages. Our answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” becomes the basis on which we shape our lives, no matter how misinformed that answer might be at different points.

Yet for all our efforts to plan our lives out before we even get started, reality oftentimes renders even the best designs futile and ineffective. This is particularly true when it comes to picking a major. According to a recent study published by J. Cuseo “almost 75 percent of students change their major at least once” and “only one senior out of three will major in the same field they preferred as a freshman.” As these statistics reveal, the truth is that it takes time to uncover your interests and desires. And even when you think you’ve found the solution to your troubles, the truth of what you really want often lies hidden.

In the context of the expensive investment of higher education, being undecided can at first glance appear to be financially irresponsible. After all, if I’m going to pay Swarthmore over $50 thousand a year, shouldn’t I know precisely what I’m getting out of it? But in fact, it’s precisely this high cost that should cause us to think twice before committing ourselves to one path or the other. A premature choice, one that fails to fully take into account one’s interests and desires, will ultimately prove much more costly than a year or two of being undecided. With so many potential paths to choose here at Swarthmore, further self-reflection and introspection should be a given. By taking the time to expose yourself to a broad range of subject areas, you’ll become better prepared to find the field that aligns most closely with your interests and desires. As J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Eventually, of course, I know that I’ll be forced to take that daunting step of declaring my major. But for now, let me wander. Let me explore. Let me learn. Let me be undecided. And when all’s said and done, I’ll get back on that road to nowhere, only this time more aware of who I am, where I want to go, and what destination I truly desire.

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