Errrrr…Give me a second please!

“May I take your order?” “Errrrr…Give me a second please!”


(courtesy to NBC TV series Hannibal, season 1 and 2)

Now picture yourself dining in a restaurant that serves unfamiliar cuisine. You can read the menu (with full descriptions). There are also other customers around you, some are frequent visitors. You are also allowed to visit the kitchen to see the masters behind the delicious food. Which dishes would you choose for dinner? You noticed this restaurant has a special feature: you are allowed to sample a great many dishes before the server takes your order. The best way is probably to take a sampler platter, and taste all the interesting things on the menu. Be aware, too much sampling can lead to a full stomach, which leaves no room for the main courses.

Choosing a major is just like taking a savory journey in this lovely restaurant (but with a lot more time to sample the food. In my case, I had a year and a half. First, you can think about the subjects that interest you, and take a look at the course catalog (the menu). If you are not so sure, no worries, freshman year is here to the rescue! There are usually wide ranges of interesting classes to choose from for freshman.

Be brave, and take a few classes that look intriguing or you never heard of (you are usually allowed to drop a class at the beginning of the semester without penalty).



The above figure is a real life “menu” offered by Wesleyan University. It shows all the possible majors you can choose from. There are three major categories, excluding certificates and interdisciplinary programs. Under each category, there are roughly more than ten majors (well, Arts and Humanities alone has more than twenty). Under each major, there are numerous classes, and their numbers are changing constantly from semester to semester.

Excited, but befuddled? Me too.

Therefore, one of my most grateful college experiences was that I didn’t start college with an assigned major. I didn’t know what to major in anyway (look at all the options listed on the menu!). My school (Wesleyan University) gave me a year and half to explore my options, and declare a major (or majors) at the spring semester of my sophomore year. If I was not ready, I could have more time. And of course, dropping a major is allowed. All I am trying to say is, colleges usually have a flexible system, give students enough freedom to explore their interests, and (hopefully) maximize the chance to find the most suitable major(s).

Now here comes the big question: how do you choose a major (or majors) in college? I would like to share some of my experiences and hopefully can make your life a little easier when the time comes.

Upon graduation, I gained a double-major degree in Chemistry, Molecular Biology & Biochemistry (MB&B) with a Biophysics certificate, and a minor in German Studies. During the college years, I thought about declaring majors in Art Studio, History, Film, etc. Trust me; this only looks like a lot, because it only involved a lot of thinking and planning (not too much action). I was allowed and greatly encouraged to take a broad range of classes in my freshman year, and I had an advisor who truly cared about me. My first year schedule was roughly as follow: Personal Identity and Choice (Philosophy), Drawing (Studio Art), Intro to Biology, Intro to Chemistry (Science), Chamber Music (Music), and English Essay (English). I was going to take more classes (I wanted more than 4 classes per semester), but my advisor, Professor Randall, stopped me at all cost. I thank her eternally. Taking 4 full-credit classes each semester is just the right amount of work I can handle properly. There are always more things to learn than just classes, especially as a freshman.

Taking a class or two is just like sampling the major these classes belong to. After my first year, I learned that my interest lies heavily in my science classes and art classes. The problem was that both subjects demanded long hours spent in lab, library or studio. After a semester of trying to take gateway classes for both majors, talking to professors and academic advisors (masters in the kitchen), and upper classmen (frequent customers) who double-majored in both, I figured it was too hard for me to keep up. I went back to my advisor, and she said, “You can always take relevant classes if you are interested.” Giving up on a major doesn’t mean giving up on my interest.

When the time comes, I didn’t declare Art Studio major, but Chemistry and MB&B double-major (these two majors are closely related to each other). I felt like this was a better choice for me, for I could only take the art classes that interested me the most, without the frustration of fulfilling graduation requirements for the major. After the initial struggles, I learned my way around the system, as well as my limits. Throughout the years, I was always able to take classes I love outside my own majors. I let my interest guide me through the course map, and in my senior year, I surprisingly figured out the amount of German Studies classes I took gained me a minor in German Studies. Back in my freshman year, I never even thought about doing anything related to language.

This is how I found my majors. Hope my experience will give you some hints.

Bon Appetit!

Shu Zhang, Quest Scholar Alum, Wesleyan ’13

I’m Going On An Adventure!

adventureIn a beautiful September of 2009, I stood in front of Clark, my freshman dorm building, for the first time of my life. It was my first time living away from home, and I felt exuberant for my new semester. As I was staring at fellow new students coming in and out of the dorm building, I just couldn’t wait to start living here. This was also the exact moment the first real problem hit me: how to move all my luggage into my room. I had two large suitcases and a huge backpack. Luckily, I was assigned on the first floor, just by the staircases, and a few upper classmen helped me settle in. It was a real pain moving everything in and taken everything out in my room. I was forced, yet gratefully, to learn my first lesson of traveling alone: never pack more than needed. Later, I learned from my upper classmen, that the campus had tag sales every semester. Most of the non-essential or essential items can be found at those. As the freshman class comes in, the senior class graduates, and people love to recycle. I got two lamps (in perfect condition), a mirror, a dozen hangers, and a laundry basket, almost for free. They have served me loyally during my college years, and have been passed down to my lower classmen. In short, just pack the essentials, and the rest can come later.

The other things I realized after moving to Wesleyan were that I was expected to be more independent and take on a lot more responsibilities than I’d ever imagined. Of course, the first thing that jumped into my mind was “Freedom!” The first semester of college was like a door suddenly swung open, and waves of thrilling things kept washing me over. To keep myself standing in the tides, I would need a lot more skills, such as self-control, time management, etc. After many years of learning, I gradually acquired these skills.

There were so many “first-time-experiences” waiting for me in my freshman year. I used a clothes dryer and the campus ID card paying system for the first time. I had to figure it out with a hallmate. I still remember the two of us standing awkwardly in front of the laundry machine, trying to figure out the difference between the bottoms of “regular” and “bright color”. I had a roommate for the first time. The residential life had us sign a roommate agreement. It seemed silly when we sat down to read over the agreement, but it made sense afterwards. We learned from each other, learned to share, and grew together. It was a great time.

Moving away from home for college was a big step outside my comfort zone, but the magic did happen. The new environment tested my limit. This was a great opportunity to discover myself, to build new bonds, to broaden my horizons and to challenge my belief. I learned to use different perspectives to view things and make decisions. “Independence” and “responsibility” were not merely elusive concepts anymore. They gradually grew flesh and bones, became my concrete reality. I may have been far away from home, but I formed new roots, and learned to extend them further. That was a priceless adventure for starters, and I am still traveling.

Shu Zhang, Quest Scholar Alum, Wesleyan ’13

What Do I Want to Do When I Grow Up?

to_doNow you are in college and you, most likely, are (or over) 18 years of age. In many countries, you are already considered an adult and seem entitled to do whatever adults can do. And… here comes the big question: what do you want to do?

This is a good and complicated question, and most likely, you will answer this question yourself in an indefinite amount of time, but it doesn’t mean you can’t start the thinking process. Actually, now is a perfect time to start thinking, and maybe do some initial planning as well.

If you entered college with a clear life-time goal, that’s great. You can probably start to accumulate and use all the means and resources to achieve the goal and have a head start. Of course, you can also start college as a confused young student, which is great as well—you are flexible. Flexibility is an advantage, because it leads to a wide open future. You are open to a large selection of opportunities, and one of them might lead to your dream career. (This can be true for people with clearly defined goals: keep your minds open, and you might discover something fantastic.)

College time is a great chance for this self-discovery process. The hints are everywhere:

  1. The classes (and majors). As you are introduced to a wide range of topics, your critical thinking skills as well as your beliefs are challenged. What classes are you taking? What do you like/hate about them? Is there a part that excites you? What topics do you wish to explore further? Take a minute and ponder through simple questions such as these. You will probably be surprised by how much you have learned about yourself, and the world. (So the other hint is: take a bunch of different classes to broaden your horizon.)
  2. Professors and alumni. Need support? They are there for you. Chances are, they have gone through the same exact dilemmas as you. They can offer you good advice. You can learn a lot by just talking to them. Plus, they can give you insights about certain occupations, fields and even introduce you to their networks, which may be very helpful.
  3. If you are curious about a field, the most straight forward way to explore is to work in the field. Various companies offer different levels of internships for students. Through the internships, you will find out whether you want to go further in this particular field, or perhaps move in a different direction completely. Your co-workers are great resources, too. They might show you far more about this field than you could ever imagine. The experience you gain gain through an internship will provide strong insight into the specifics of a particular profession..

The above points are some suggestions among hundreds of ways to answer the big question. Combine these thoughts with your interests, habits, and dreams, and see if you can form a preliminary impression about what you want to do. Why not prepare now, so when the opportunity arises, you are ready to take advantage.

Lastly, I’d like to quote the great Japanese cartoon artist Hideaki Sorachi:

Dreams are like trees: they are more fun to climb than to just gaze at. There are things that you’ll learn only when you actually climb after them.

Good luck. The future awaits.

Shu Zhang, Quest Scholar Alum, Wesleyan ’13