Crowdsourced advice for L&S students

Readers help guide two freshmen through the classic liberal arts dilemma: too many exciting choices.

November 18th 2014 | Mary Ellen Gabriel
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In 2014, we ran a story about about Jessie and Michael, two L&S students faced with the classic dilemma: how to decide what courses and major(s) to choose. Readers had the chance to weigh in with advice for these two freshmen. Read the first story below — then see where they are now, as juniors. Did the advice help?


Jessie Howard, a native of Franklin, Wis. is pondering whether to follow her heart — which is whispering “theatre and drama major” — or her head, which tells her (in the voice of her dad) that chemistry, with a double major in German, would take her farther.

Michael Scott, from Sussex, Wis., finds himself drawn to physics and computers, but he also plays trombone, baritone, and piano and thinks music embodies the “soul” of mathematics.

Heading toward the finish line of their first semester at UW-Madison, these two first-year students say they have learned a bit more about what it means to be part of the largest academic unit on campus: The College of Letters & Science.

The upshot: the options are many, and the time feels short.

“I cannot believe how fast the weeks are going,” says Howard. “I want to explore so many things. That’s kind of my philosophy in life: try new things. But I know I have to narrow it down, and that’s super hard.”

More than 55 percent of UW-Madison students major in the liberal arts (the rest find a home in one of the other schools or colleges such as Education, Agricultural & Life Sciences, Engineering, or Business). And most L&S students experience the classic liberal arts dilemma: how to forge a unique path through a dizzying array of options, from African Languages & Literature to Zoology, and 63 possible majors in between.

Should they focus on what they love, or what will land them a job? Do they double-major, or double-down in one area? How will they get the most out of this incredible liberal arts experience — and feel no regrets about the path(s) not taken?

These concerns, once more common among juniors and seniors, are increasingly felt by first-year students, says Leslie Kohlberg, a 20-year veteran of L&S advising who now works to implement the new L&S Career Initiative. Kohlberg has some advice: Relax. Explore your interests. The more you try, the clearer things will become.

“First-year students are feeling a lot of pressure,” she says. “They’re coming in on the heels of a major economic downturn, so every minute that they don’t know seems like a minute wasted. But your first year is not the time to be figuring out your entire life. You’re simply expected to figure out your next best step. And insights will follow.”

It’s not just about classes. Howard discovered an unexpected talent for rowing this semester.

“I was a walk-on — I thought, ‘I’ll just see what happens,'” she says. “And I love it. It’s a really tough sport, they push you hard but I love that. It really makes you disciplined.”

Kohlberg calls that valuable feedback.

“That’s the Wisconsin Experience we’re always talking about — those extra-curricular opportunities that show you something important about yourself,” she says.

Scott would love to keep music in his life and he’s fallen hard for quantum theory. Though he knows he’s a computer whiz — “I’ve been writing code since sophomore year in high school” — there are some days he can really see himself as a physics professor.

“I’m taking modern physics right now, and it’s unbelievably cool to study how the universe behaves at the quantum level,” he says. “It’s all about probability. We’re not used to that in our macroscopic world — uncertainty vanishes with everyday objects like, say, a baseball — but when you get down to the quantum level, uncertainty has enormous impact.”

Living with a bit of uncertainty, says Kohlberg, is the key to navigating the liberal arts experience.

“Be introspective, notice things and how they capture your attention,” says Kohlberg. “Then talk about why that’s so, with people who will support you. That is the most mature, and responsible thing you can do this year.”

Students asked, the community answered

Read on for Jessie and Michael's primary questions, plus 30 thoughtful responses of advice and encouragement from members of the L&S community.

Whatever happened to Jessie and Michael?

When we first checked in with Jessie Howard and Michael Scott, they were close to finishing their first semester at UW-Madison and on the brink of making decisions about majors and careers. Wondering what paths they decided to follow? We recently caught up with both students; read their updates here.