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Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D Headshot

The 'Wow,' 'Cool,' 'Really interesting' Factor in College Majors

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Recently I had a chance to look over the plans for my upcoming college reunion and saw time allotted to spend time with faculty. Now my faculty are pretty much all gone (as in passed away) given my own age. But I can still name the ones where I had the "wow," "cool," "really interesting" factor. They were Peter Bachrach, Alice Emerson and Gertrude Leighton at Bryn Mawr's Political Science department. In each of their classes I had many moments of saying to myself "wow," "cool," "really interesting." But what also struck me was a memory of hanging out with dorm mates of varied majors, often of no remote interest to me in fields like Chemistry or Archeology, who were having exactly the same reactions to their subjects and their faculty.

Skip forward many years and I had asked students at NYU from different majors to explain their majors to freshmen. What was amazing was that each of them had the same passion about their chosen subject and its wow factor for them. Leaping forward a few more years, I recently watched a group of young men at Hunter engaging in conversation. One senior math major, with great enthusiasm discussed his work in math and international economics with a sophomore; an Anthropology major was sharing paper topics he was considering and how it was hard to decide because each was so interesting; and a computer/geology major shared his project mapping parts of Harlem. There was this intellectual energy that cut across the disciplines.

When I was a dean grooming students for the Rhodes, Marshall and other high profile fellowships, the ones I knew had a shot were the ones who could get rhapsodic about their areas of interest. When they glowed talking about it I knew.

Each of us comes to the academic enterprise with different skills, interests, aptitudes and strengths. When we try to direct students to fields that we think today will be lucrative or practical we may be doing them a disservice. They will not show their true stuff unless they find what their "wow" factor is. They have to find the arena -- the discipline that engages them so that they do their best work -- because it interests them. Round pegs don't go in square holes.

When we make the enterprise of learning strictly utilitarian we take away the potential for a student to have that moment of realizing there is something they are good at and like. That is huge. There is self-confidence in that moment. There is self-empowerment in being able to own mastery of a field that engages you. There is also the power of being part of a community of scholars who share the same passion.

Back to my reunion. My classmates from my community of political science majors have all had very varied careers ranging from the more predicable law, actual politics and teaching to writing plays and nursing. But that is like most of us. Whatever the passion that we embrace in finding the major that fits, we will all learn -- if we apply ourselves -- to write, to do research, to develop ideas, to ask critical questions, to develop evidence for our points of view and to put forth new ideas for consideration. Those skills cut across the disciplines. They also are essential to workplace success. The classmates from different majors that I have spoken to have all said they really valued most learning how to write well. That has been the primary professional skill that has moved them ahead.

I am having trouble as I look at the list of majors offered by some for-profit institutions in particular, understanding where the "wow" factor comes into a major in medical coding. Therefore, I am also having trouble understanding the movement to reduce the number of disciplines available for human exploration and sharing. This feels very oppositional to innovative thinking, passion at work, embracing excellence, and finding where one can fit in the world. And the reality is that for every Google programmer there are also the legions of supportive staff who take care of marketing, or human resources, or the cafeteria or paying the bills, or buying the supplies or managing the teams. We need it all but we need to have workers who can feel some energy and pride that they bring. That feeling can come from the first "wow," "cool," "really interesting" moment that comes unexpected in a class and a subject you may never have known even existed. And it can carry you very far indeed. I have seen it happen over and over again.

Visit www.collegecountdown.com to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.