Crowdsourced answers to two students' questions


Students' Questions (from this story)

Jessie’s question: I have so many interests — almost too many! How do I balance exploration with full-force pursuit of my goals?

Michael’s question: General education requirements are a great way to access music and other humanities areas. But I’m worried I’ll find myself scrambling to meet core requirements if I don’t focus on those first. What’s the best way to map my courses?

Readers' Responses  

Leslie Kohlberg: Jessie.. this is actually a good problem to have. Seek ‘guided reflection’ with trusted friends, mentors, teachers or advisors. This just means talking things over early and often. Pay attention to WHY you are interested in various things, and let that self-knowledge begin to guide you. Trust your instincts!

Nikki Lemmon, Academic Advisor: Michael, your academic advisor can assist you with strategies to be sure you are staying on course with core requirements while also pursuing other areas of interest. A benefit of pursuing an L&S degree is that there is plenty of room to both explore and satisfy degree requirements. In fact, L&S major requirements typically represent about 1/4 of the degree, which leaves space to try out other topics via general education, breadth, and elective courses.

Shawn Peters: Jessie and Michael: Whatever you do, please keep in mind that maintaining a sense of community is paramount for your success on campus and in the world beyond. Forging and sustaining meaningful connections with your peers, faculty and staff, and members of the community will be essential to your success — as students and as people. Remember, too, that “success” can and should be defined broadly. Yes, you want to use your time here to acquire skills and experiences that will help you thrive in professional settings after you graduate, but you also should broaden and enrich your perspectives in ways that, at the moment, don’t necessarily seem directly related to landing a job after graduation. (I know it can be frustrating, but not everything in your career trajectory will be completely linear.)

Lindsay Williamson: Hi Jessie! As a 2nd year student at UW-Madison (a HUGE university with so much to get involved in!) my suggestion is to pick a few things (2 maybe) that sound interesting to you, like: organizations and clubs listed in the UW-Madison WIN Network, that “crazy class” that you don’t think is going to prepare you for the future but you are just really interested in it, or look into some volunteer opportunities via The Morgridge Center for Public Service (located in the Red Gym).

Picking just a few (clubs, classes or volunteer opportunities) will allow you to focus on them. Once you have a chance to give them attention, you’ll decide if you want to continue to be involved in a bigger way, as a leader of that organization (or not); you’ll potentially want to major in a discipline that “crazy class” led you to, or perhaps you will start your own nonprofit someday based on your involvement as a volunteer with a nonprofit organization you get involved with now on campus. You never know!

So, pick a few things, feel it out, dig deeper if you like what you see, and move on if it’s not quite what you are looking for. You’re bound to find “your thing” at some point. That’s the beauty of UW-Madison. There are incredible things to get involved with, you just have to seek it out, be choosey, take it one step at a time, give it time and then see where it goes!

Mike Randall: Jessie and Michael: welcome to the adventure of your lives! I agree with Leslie Kohlberg’s advice to relax and explore your interests.Don’t over-commit in your Freshman year. Take the time to get clear on who you are, what’s important to you, what you like / dislike, etc.

And, do set yourself up to get a degree! My physics degree has opened doors for me in many areas, giving me the freedom to pursue whatever I’m interested in.

Best of luck to both of you. Have fun!

Mark Lilleleht: The campus can be a bewildering array of options, offices, and opportunities but I’d encourage both of you to explore beyond what seems readily at hand. Jesse, you mention an interest in German: in addition to the German Department (and affiliated programs, clubs & student groups) there’s cross-disciplinary Center for German & European Studies that offers a host events & programs throughout the year, the German House (part of the International Learning Community) which could offer you a way of keeping yourself “in” German short of majoring, and… well, lots more.

One of the poorly kept secrets of campus, alluded to by many above: faculty and staff across campus in these offices, big and small, are more often than not thrilled to talk with students exploring an interest in what we do here. Don’t be shy about attending events, taking advantage of open office hours, or setting up appointments and asking to learn more!

It can be overwhelming, no doubt, but the breadth of offerings also offer ways of accommodating many more interests over the course of your career at UW-Madison than you might imagine possible.

Jeff Britton: Jessie & Michael: College is the best place to explore your career aspirations and also the rest of what’s out there. You want to develop not only your career future but also your recreational future.For Jessie, wherever you live you will have the opportunity to participate in community theatre. For Michael, wherever you live there will be opportunity to participate in music. You don’t have to make the arts a career in order to be involved in them.

For me, I was a molecular biology major, but took advantage of the music department, participating in symphonic band, marching band, and tuba ensemble. I went on to medical school and a career in pediatrics – but I still sing in the Sheboygan Symphony, have acted in a couple musicals, and play my euphonium at church. I would be very unhappy without my musical outlet – and my UW experiences definitely allowed me to develop that side of me!

Best of luck to both of you (and On, Wisconsin!)

Dan: I’ll cut to the chase and say: major in a job, not a hobby.

I’m a former high school band member who also did part time acting. For both of you, I’d suggest rather than making the your life (which is very very very uncertain and at times financially stressful), making them a hobby or extra-curricular. I for one was a part of a jazz band and even took a German theater class as a part of my major (German and Math) in which I got to perform.

This school offers incredible resources, but it takes a certain level of skill and dedication to make meaningful (and financially rational) strides in the arts, some that I feel most undergraduates often underestimate.

Good luck!

Emma Leuman: Michael: It may seem like you should get all of your general requirements out of the way before you start getting into the classes that relate directly to your degree. Through experience, however, I’ve realized that that approach leaves you with classes that overlap a TON during your junior and senior year. If you take a couple classes that further your degree and at least one class that just seems interesting to you per semester, the semester won’t feel as boring or monotonous. Variety is the best way to go!

Jessie: I struggled with finding a major my freshman year as well. I came from a town where engineering or medical school seemed like the only options for people who wanted to succeed. However, being at UW-Madison where people are celebrated no matter the major has made me much more open to other possibilites. I would say the best way to make a decision would be to take classes in each of the areas you’re interested in. You can get a feel for each department and how they will impact your college experience and you future. Also, keep in mind that your major does not necessarily determine your career path. There is always room to change your mind!

Michael Kruse: Jessie, I’d like to go back to the first paragraph, where you mentioned your head telling you “chemistry, with a double major in German, would take her farther.” If we were meeting in person I might ask, “Farther where? What does farther mean?” I will second the advice others have shared about reflecting on your interests and skills and passions, and urge you to get help here on campus – there are plenty of great faculty and staff who can help you learn more about yourself and develop strategies for strategic exploration that will push your boundaries and build new skills.

You shouldn’t try to map out your entire life – nor could you. But if you have ideas about careers, no matter how random or silly they might seem, you can start to learn more about them, network with alumni in those fields, and so on. You’ve probably heard that you can do anything with a liberal arts degree, and that’s true. But it’s pretty hard to find a job in “anything.” Along with the great ideas other suggested for getting involved on campus, it’s never too early to start learning from alumni and others about their career paths. Ask family and friends how they got started in their careers, and connect with a career advisor (like me!) to learn more about career fields of interest.

Lindsey: Jessie- Internships and jobs can be in a variety of fields that will allow you to pursue your interests while working with your career! For example, interning as an accountant for a Fashion Magazine could combine a passion for style with a major in business!

Michael- Take one or two of your gen eds each semester! That way you can balance intermediate and advanced classes related to your major with elementary level courses or courses with completely different focuses, giving you a break from your normal subjects.

Libby Dowdall: Jessie: Maybe you’d be interested in investigating the many science outreach opportunities on campus. For example, you could use your theatrical talents to help engage kids in science by getting involved with SPICE ( or a similar program.

Ryan Holtz: Michael, don't stress over the importance of general education. After all, at the end of the day you can just go to Steenbock and figure it all out. 

Greg: Honestly guys – work hard and have some fun. It’s college and no matter what anyone tells you, life is about relationship building and not about your diploma. Just by graduating from UW, you’ll have more opportunities than most people. You do not want to look back at these year with any regret so don’t overthink a major, or career path. You’re 20 years old – I’d be more concerned if you actually knew what you wanted to do at this point. Take your time and enjoy college. Focus on networking , reaching out to other alumni and making friends.

But I do have some decent advice. Try and take your toughest courses as soon as possible. This may free up your ladder years at school so you can focus on enjoying yourself and preparing for the next step ( real world which is brutal). Maybe you can study abroad too. Taking harder courses now may allow you to be more flexible in a Cous of years

The career stuff will fall into place. Do not hyper focus on that stuff now. Trust me.

Linda Miller: Follow your heart and your soul.

Maureen Muldoon: Jessie and Michael,

As expressed in many different ways by others here, take time for intentional reflection with assistance from the various resources on campus, like career services! Attend alumni career panels to connect with professionals who want to share their knowledge and expertise with students. Let each new piece of information you gather help inform your next steps, and remember to have fun along the way!

Jeff Schmalz: Look at the electives you might want to take and grab those hard to get into ones as soon as you can (for me it was African Storyteller), otherwise focus on the required courses. Doing that, I managed to have  my final semester nothing but electives and it made for a relatively stress-free finish.

Carrie: You can’t do it all, but you can do as much as possible. You know what you really want to do, do it. You will never have these opportunities again, be sure to take advantage of as many of them as you can. Learn, live, love, on Wisconsin!

Laura Welch: jessie-I was leaning towards a degree in music, but realized that was impractical. I transferred to Madison to pursue a degree in Arts Administration-one of the few schools offering the degree in the ’80’s. I was able to get this Masters level degree to an extent by pursuing an Individual Major through L & S. This is a degree where you create your own path. You pick the classes, advisors, etc. way to follow your bliss! Just a thought to help you think outside the box as UW teaches you to do!!!

Lauren Mark: Hey Michael,

A great way to meet general education requirements is through the UW-Extension. You can take classes that move at your own pace, and you can even start one semester and carry the class over to the next. As long as your under the 18 credit limit per semester you shouldn’t have to pay any extra tuition. I wish I knew about this in undergrad, I would have saved a lot of time and money!

Roger: Michael: Join the marching band and get after your Physics major! That’s what I did. It’s easiest to get the baseline requirements for your major done right away so you can take what you need to later. Most of the gen eds won’t have pre-reqs, so they’re more flexible in your schedule as an upperclassman.

Jessie: I knew people who did chemistry + the German certificate. Being a theater major at UW isn’t likely to get you very far in life. You can still act and read plays and stuff while you learn some useful skills as a STEM major. I took a class about Science in Theater, which was almost interesting.

Alice Fulop: Michael, you are my very special Kindergarten student! Looking forward to greatness in your future. Your creativity is your Strength. Balance it with your tremendous academic prowess.

Elaine Klein (Director of Gen Ed): Michael, one of the really cool things about the way our faculty designed GER is that you *don’t* have to pack them into the first few years. Sure, some should be completed early (QR, Comm, ESR) because they set the stage for better performance in other contexts…but you can spread “breadth” out a bit. So if you’re studying Political Science, you can enhance that by learning more about the literature and culture of the region that interests you. If you’re designing assistive devices, maybe you want to poke around in visual cultures (humanities) or psychology (social sciences) to help you think about how human beings react to beauty and use things. The journey through the requirements is not about checking credits off the list, but challenging yourself to make those credits mean something in the larger context YOU get to create. Enjoy!

Jordan: Hello you two crazy, young Badgers,

The biggest lesson I learned in college at Wisconsin was that your interests and passion can be a hobby, but it rarely pays the bills. Use your head. If you can handle the rigors of chemistry, physics, engineering, or mathematics, do yourself a favor and earn that degree. You’ll have companies fighting for your brain and rightfully so.

My advisor always encouraged me to follow my heart. That decision costed me a year, pushing me to a five year plan. I started as an English major, and quite frankly, there’s no company out there grappling for the next Edgar Allen Poe. However, a brain that can process numbers and angles is highly coveted. Bottom line is ask yourself: Do I want to have to beg for a job or do I want to be able to start a bidding war for my talents?

Steph: I knew what I wanted to study going in but what allowed me to explore was taking some core classes during the summer. This meant less competition for seats in early core classes and more free time during the regular school year to try out classes in other areas that I was curious about. I ended up changing one of my majors because of it.

Margaret: As someone who graduated in the job awful year of 2012 and marrying an engineer from UW I can say is make sure whatever you decide to do it can get you a job and that job can pay your student loans! My fiance had a hard time finding a job as an engineer which is typically pretty employable. His 70K in tuition debt is overwhelming. The UW is an amazing place however like I said think about the debt and balance that with something that makes you happy. Its all about that balance. ON WISCONSIN

Cheri Barta: Jessie and Michael: Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions while you are here and to talk to advisors in all the departments you are interested in—the advisors will have some great perspectives on how to best map out your courses so you can graduate in a timely manner while also pursuing your other interests. They may also have suggestions on how you can meld all your interests into a very exciting career. Many of our chemistry majors have pursued multiple interests while taking the required chemistry courses and are now doing phenomenal things after graduation. In fact, these multiple interests also serve to strengthen our program due to the unique perspectives and experiences these students bring. I’m sure this is true of all majors on campus–so don’t be afraid to explore all that is out there and of interest to you…you never know where it might lead!

L&S News Team: Jordan- Thanks for your comment. We respect your opinion, but we also wanted to note that several recent surveys have shown that employers are, in fact, interested in hiring liberal arts majors (like English majors!). Check out:

Thanks, -L&S News Team

Jayne Jones: Hello from a recent Wisconsin alumna! I found myself in a similar struggle during my entire time at this great university. I came in as a freshman thinking I wanted to study actuarial science (eventually leading to the goal of being an actuary- $$$, right?). Despite having incredible professors in all of my act sci classes, the subject just wasn’t for me. So I began taking classes in a field that has always interested me: psychology. I took several psych and sociology courses but also sprinkled in fun classes that met basic degree requirements: Weather & Climate, Opera, and even a comic book literature class! It wasn’t long before I realized that I didn’t want to totally ditch business, so I then found myself taking on an unexpected certificate: entrepreneurship. That way, I could take classes I really enjoyed without having to commit to an entire major, and I would still have the business background that I thought employers would find valuable. I ended up declaring my major in psychology, then completing my degree in sociology and also earning the entrepreneurship certificate. Mind you, I had the luxury of coming in with a year of AP credits and I also took classes during two summers. If you can spare the extra tuition and you aren’t too busy with an internship or whatever, I highly encourage you to explore summer classes! I always performed my best in those classes as the quick pace better suit my learning style. Plus – Madison is beautiful in the summer!

My point: take as much time as you need within your means. I found myself declaring my soc major and entrepreneurship certificate halfway through junior year – and I survived! If you’re smart (which you both are, duh) employers will find value in whatever field of study you choose especially if you can convey passion. I landed a great job right out of school that combined both my social and business interests. Maybe choose one major and one certificate if you’re afraid of over-extending yourself (my certificate only required 15 credits – one semester of time!). And, of course, always seek out student organizations and clubs to join. They are run by other students who understand the importance of school/work/life balance. I see two bright students ready to make an impact on campus – go get ’em and have fun!

Sari Judge: Jessie–It’s fabulous to have a lot of interests. But there is great beauty in going deep, as well. It might make sense, not this week, but in your first year, to see which of your interest areas really speak to you–then plunge in. No one can know everything. No one can do everything. But this is a huge campus with many resources at all levels. Spend the time to REALLY explore one (ok, maybe two :)) of your passions.

Michael, while I agree with many posters that you can spread your GER out, it may make sense to tackle some of the requirements that “don’t” interest you (at least right now) sooner rather than later. You could find a love you never thought you would. And if turns out that “match” wasn’t meant to be, at least the course will be behind you.

Whatever happened to Jessie and Michael?

Did they listen to readers' advice? Did they follow their heads or their hearts? Find out here.