Along with interviews with current Uni students, the 7th-period journalism class got to talk with some of the school’s alumni about why they chose their major and what forces outside of Uni led them to choose the path they are on today. According to the SSO, in the past 5 years at Uni, an average of around 65 percent of students have declared their major in a STEM field. Compared to the nationwide average taken from the National Center for Education Statistics, which states that STEM fields are less popular nationwide compared to other majors that are available. Declaring your major in a certain field usually means you are interested in said subject, and Uni does a pretty good job of influencing people to STEM fields due to the school being on a top 10 engineering school in the nation according to U.S. News. One thing that some Uni students don’t think about though, is that when you get to college your choice might not always work out for you, which is okay. We got the chance to interview some Uni alumni about their college major choosing experience, in both STEM fields and non-STEM fields, and what made them choose to continue to do what they do now.
We asked about some influences that outside forces had on their decisions to go into certain fields, and what influences at Uni helped guide them to pursue their passion, and there are countless professions Uni students choose after graduation, whether it be in a STEM field, the arts, or something completely different and unique, but there is always inspiration behind that decision. Elisabeth Pollock, class of 1999, originally majored in Government and History, as a precursor to law school, but the influence that the Habitat for Humanity trip to Mississippi had a massive effect on her choice to pursue being a public defender.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer since I was about 6 years old, but at the time, it was because people in my life told me I was good at arguing. It wasn’t until I went on the Uni Habitat trip as a sophomore that I decided to be a public defender. For the first time, I was exposed to true poverty and learned how unfair our system of justice was in this country. I learned that people with financial resources had unlimited options, whereas poor people were constantly fighting an uphill battle. I wanted to do something about it, and to be able to help people without monetary resources.”
Uni gives many opportunities, such as the Habitat for Humanity trip, for students to experience life outside of the bubble we live in in the Champaign Urbana area which can be an eye-opening experience for some students. In the past, some students who have gone on the trip have realized that they want to help out down in Mississippi more than just the week-long trip and decide to move down there after graduation. The opportunities Uni gives students have not just come from events, but from people as well. Wyatt Bensken, class of 2013, declaring his major in Public Health, and now working on his Ph.D. was inspired by Dave Stone, a former biology teacher at Uni.
“Initially, it was Dave Stone who inspired my interest in health and public health. This led me to explore volunteer opportunities at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. I now see, however, that other faculty such as Bill Sutton (former English teacher) taught me important principles of justice and equity – principles that drive my current work in health disparities.”
Being in a STEM field is on the minds of many Uni students, but why more Uni kids than other schools in the area that are less than five miles away, if not closer? With this in mind, we asked Ellie Tomczyk, class of 2004, who is now a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Mass General Hospital where her focus is on breast cancer reconstruction, believes that “Uni is such a unique school where we are surrounded by the most remarkable, educated peers who come from incredibly educated families. Many parents are professors, engineers, or physicians. I think this bubble creates a drive to pursue academically challenging careers. Even those that do not pursue a specific STEM field, are driven to be successful and make an impact in their professional lives.”
Maher Adoni, class of 2021, who originally majored in biology, has experiences that reflect these views. His mother has a bachelor’s degree in biology from India and a master’s in Micro-Cellular biology from the US. During his time at Uni, he believes that he was well exposed to STEM fields and biology through his parents and different projects and events at Uni. He believes that one particularly memorable project was his Exploravsion project which won regionals. Overall, this exposure and promotion of the stem field provides a pretty solid reason as to why Uni students may be more inclined to go into STEM fields, with their career future in mind, wanting to be as successful as they possibly can be. Understandably, Uni students also want to major in STEM fields, seeing as they have such a high rate of employment at “better paying” jobs, but other non-STEM majors are important as well, such as Fine Arts majors, History majors, and Humanities majors.
Victoria Depew, class of 1999 is an Associate Professor of Costume Design and Technology, Program Director for the BFA in Entertainment Design and Technology at Western Carolina University, and a freelance costume and scenic designer, who originally was planning on majoring in Chemistry with a premed track, in hopes of becoming a doctor. However, the college she attended, Sewanee University, doesn’t require students to choose their major until sophomore year, and by that time Depew had been surrounded by Theatre her whole life, especially at Uni, and with her family. Changing your envisioned career path can be a daunting task for most people, even Uni students who always think they may have everything planned out in their life the second they graduate.
“Legacy actually had a lot to do with it I think. My sister had been at the same college and also a theatre major. My work study job was in the scene shop. It was assumed that I’d be a theatre major. The choice for me wasn’t as easy, but I think the people who knew me best knew it was right. I remember a conversation I had with my own pediatrician where she told me she was glad I went into the arts, and I would have been miserable as a doctor. I considered Math, Chemistry, and Fine Art pretty seriously before declaring. In hindsight it’s pretty clear to me that community has a huge impact on my decision as well. I felt at home with my theatre peers, and I felt they were my people. I also liked getting to be creative AND social. With fine arts I was stuck painting on my own for hours! At the time that was awful. These days I don’t think I’d mind so much. I had also been very involved in Theatre at UNI, serving as our de facto lighting designer among other things. It just seemed obvious.”
Choices in a career are never final, no matter how big. Changing what you want to do is completely okay. You don’t have to have everything figured out as soon as you graduate from this school, take your time, and figure things out with what you want to do. If things interest you, look into them. If they don’t interest you, don’t do them. Unless you absolutely must, of course. Uni is a complete outlier in the world of college major choice, so don’t feel inclined to go into a STEM field because people around you are, or your parents would love that, do what you love and do what interests you.
FULL ACCESS TO ALL INTERVIEWS HERE (includes current Uni student interviews)