Serving students who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial crisis

I recently presented the workshop “Serving students who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial crisis”  at the California College Personnel Association’s Annual Institute. There were many participants (standing room only), which reflects the increased interest in these topics among student affairs professionals. Many of us are looking for models, methods, and best practices to serve our most vulnerable students.

Background

The research supports that college students face major financial challenges. Food insecurity is common among college students, and food insecure students are often housing insecure. Food and housing insecurity negatively affects students’ education. Students who are struggling to meet basic needs experience more stress, frequently work more which results in greater part-time enrollment, experience lower GPAs, and often extend their expected date of graduation.

According to the UC Global Food Initiative survey, 19 percent of UC students indicated they had “very low” food security, which the USDA defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. An additional 23 percent were characterized as having “low” food security, defined by the USDA as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake.

College and University Food Bank Alliance report states drew on a survey of almost 3,800 students at 34 community and 4-year colleges across 12 states – the broadest sample to date – the authors found that 22 percent of respondents have the very lowest levels of food insecurity, and 13 percent of students at community colleges are homeless.

Models/Ideas

An increasing number of campuses have the following types of services:

  • CalFresh Outreach coordinators who work with local Department Social Services to enroll students by prequalifying students on campus
  • Emergency grants for students with unexpected expenses which could negatively impact their academics, such as medical bills and car repairs
  • Emergency housing, which could include on campus options and/or hotel vouchers
  • Meal vouchers/cards, veggie bucks, or other dollars that can be used to get food on campus
  • Dining app that tells students when leftover food is available at campus events
  • Food pantry, as well as pop-up food pantries and food “shelves,” often includes toilettries
  • EBT card readers on campus to allow students to use CalFresh benefits
  • Food Bank distribution on campus

Best Practices

Every institution has unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses. One of the challenges of implementing these programs is determining which best meet the needs of the students in your institution AND align with the resources available. Here are some best practices that can be applied to any institution:

  • Share resources – A great place to start is by joining the College and University Food Bank Alliance (http://www.cufba.org)
  • Document need – Whether you have existing services or nothing in place, you can being by surveying students, conducing focus groups, and gathering institutional data, to determine what students need and want
  • Partner with local agencies – every campus has different town-gown relationships, but nature partners include faith-based organizations, the Food Bank, local non-profits, and Department of Social Services
  • Identify engaged faculty – faculty are often interested in grants, research, and service-learning. Find ways to incorporate these into your basic needs programs and services. Reach out to various departments which may have overlapping interests, such as nutrition and sociology
  • Create a working group – stakeholders may include student leaders, Financial Aid, Dean of Students, Campus Health and Well-Being, Athletics, Campus Dining, and Housing

Resources

Why Diversity Matters

Diversity is a representation of racial and ethnic identity, age, cultural identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical and mental ability, nationality, social and economic status, and political and ideological perspectives.* Diversity in higher education is important in order for our institutions to reflect our changing demographics, to increase access to higher education for greater numbers of students, and to prepare all students to contribute to a global society. However, the highest purpose of diversity in our institutions is related to our civic mission.

The civic mission of higher education speaks to the content in the curricular and co-curricular experience that challenges students to think about their role and responsibilities in society. Historically, education was seen as the key to creating the informed citizenry required for active democracy. Institutions were founded in part with a civic focus to cultivate future leaders to be civically engaged citizens.  Presently, diversity, namely interactions among different groups, is essential to fostering the academic and social growth necessary to promote civic engagement.

Research supports that diversity creates the best possible learning conditions for all students – majority and minority students. Diversity creates conditions critical to identity construction and cognitive growth  which are essential to achieving educational and civic outcomes. The success of our communities and country depends on citizens who can engage in civic innovation, address issues of public concern, and promote the quality of life in our communities through political and nonpolitical processes.

The link between diversity and learning outcomes is well-established. Research shows that students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills. Research also supports that students educated in diverse classrooms learn to think in deeper and more complex ways, and are better prepared to become active participants in a pluralistic, democratic society (Gurin, Day, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2001).

Diversity improves the learning experience and contributes to the central goals of the university. However, students must have meaningful intergroup interactions. An increase in diversity may improve the probability that these interactions will occur, but this is not enough to create a significant difference in a student’s learning experience. In order to see significant benefits from diversity, there must be an increased quality and quantity of intergroup interactions.

College is a time and place for students to explore their identities as well as their relationship to the sociopolitical world. When students enter into diverse environments, they can either attempt to retreat to the familiar or seek new information. By seeking new information, they enter a state of disequilibrium – a temporary state where one must either develop a new schema or modify an existing schema. Developmental theorists explain that creating disequilibrium is key to promoting cognitive growth. Situations that create disequilibrium can include encounters with people who are unfamiliar to them or people who challenge them to act or think in new ways. Navigating these situations increases one’s sense of identity and their understanding of the social world.

As an educator, I have witnessed the cognitive changes that occur when students experience interactions with people who have had different life experiences and when students are confronted with the limitation of their point of view. In these interactions, they must do difficult cognitive and emotional work to understand how other people think and feel. These experiences encouraged critical thinking, helped students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds, and prepared students to become good citizens in an increasingly complex, pluralistic society.

In 2006, I founded the Alternative Breaks program at Cal Poly, which has taken students to New Orleans, New York, Jamaica, and United Arab Emirates. I witnessed these students transformed by their experiences doing service in communities different from their own. The differences in culture, language, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more, created opportunities for reflection and cognitive growth that changed these students in short periods.

Now, more than ever, universities must prepare students to contribute to society. Students need an understanding of diversity and social responsibility to be knowledgeable and ethical leaders. For these reasons and more, it is important to cultivate a campus community that represents and celebrates diversity. We need reflective spaces, intentional interactions, and formal and informal opportunities for students to engage in frequent, high-quality intergroup interactions.

* adapted from Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G.  (2002) Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes, Harvard Educational Review, 72 (3), 330-366.

8 Steps for Leading Organizations

Fire

An effective leader needs to have fire – a passion, light, and ability to create change. Fire can transform, comfort, and make way for new life. Yet, too much fire can destroy and decimate our communities, structures, and assets. In order to understand how leaders can manage their own fire, I have applied the fire management practices below to leading organizations.

(Adapted from the Standard Firefighting Orders of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.*)

1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts. Know what is going on around campus – campus climate – and in the larger field of higher education. Read campus and higher education publications, attend campus programs and conferences, and follow social media to understand the current conditions.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times. Success in campus leadership requires an accurate assessment of the current situation. Lack of knowledge and information leaves leaders vulnerable and unprepared to respond. You may create unintended consequences if your fire starts burning out of control.

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. A leader must be able to interpret the existing conditions and predict changes based on reliable indicators.

4. Identify escape routes and safety zones, and make them known. Have a backup plan in the event that your fire takes an unpredicted direction. A contingency plan will be necessary if you are met with resistance or lack of resources.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger. Surround yourself with trusted advisors. Ask others to help you identify red flags, danger zones, and threats.

6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively. Risk-taking, living passionately, and being a change agent can be exhilarating and scary. Stay calm and clear-headed. Your team will feel your confidence and take your lead.

7. Maintain prompt communication with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces. Leadership is not just about providing direction, it requires two-way communication. Communicate and listen to those around you. Be prepared to change directions and use new information to correct your course.

8. Give clear instructions and be sure they are understood. Again, communication is crucial. Once you have assessed the conditions and identified threats, provide a clear direction for your team. Check for understand and answer questions. Create opportunities for your team to ask for clarification and encourage people to summarize what they think you said.

 

* Thanks to my partner Aaron for sharing his firefighting resources!

 

3 Ways to Strengthen Your Relationships and Grow Your Influence

Handshake

Last week, there was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by two seasoned college presidents. In the article, both presidents highlighted the critical role of relationships, which reminded me of this previous post on the importance of relationships. For presidents, relationships are crucial to being an influencer.

The president is often seen as the most influential person on a campus. However, we all have influence. Whether we have positional power or are trying to influence someone in a higher position. All members of the campus community can be influencers.

Some people we can influence through relationship are donors, supervisors, and peers.

How do we improve our ability to influence through relationships?

1. Our presence. Our ability to influence is affected by how others perceive us. How do others see you? What qualities do others admire about you? These qualities may not be the same characteristics that we see as our strengths. For example, you may believe that others most admire you for your expertise and experience, but they may actually love your sense of humor the most!

2. Service. When we think about donors, we may focus on what they can provide us. But when we ask what we can give them, we may be surprised that we have a lot more to offer – opportunities to reconnect with faculty and alumni, recognition at campus events, or networking opportunities. When we serve others, we are proactively building our relationship with them.

3. Shared interests. One of my favorite quotes is “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” When we impose our influence through rules and positional power, we take away other people’s dignity. When people share an interest, the shared solutions can be greater than one person’s alone.

5 Questions to Help Make Tough Decisions

2015-03-08 16.49.02

That’s me standing on the Porch of Indecision

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As Student Affairs professionals, we are often faced with some tough personal and professional decisions. In my career, I have had to decide whether to pick up part-time teaching work, when was the best time to start my family, would I consider relocating for career advancement, was I ready to get my PhD, should I accept a time-consuming volunteer role, and should I take on my family’s business. I firmly believe  we cannot be satisfied with someone else’s answer to these tough questions – we must make these decisions on our own.

Friends and family can offer advice, but the best thing they can do is ask you the right questions. A big decision can feel…well, BIG. But like a big goal, it can be more easily achieved by breaking it down into smaller pieces.

Here are 5 questions that can help to make tough decisions:

1. What would you do if you couldn’t fail?

Fear of failure often keeps us paralyzed. It prevents us from maximizing our full potential and fully exercising our strengths. When I was considering a Ph.D. program, the fear of failure was my biggest limitation. I have come to accept and embrace failure as an essential part of learning. Often our failures are not as irreversible or detrimental as we make them out to be in our minds.

“Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.” – Tony Robbins

2. How does this decision fit into your greater purpose?

Indecisiveness or resistance to making a decision can often be rooted in an underlying value or belief. When a choice seems logical and clear, yet we are still resistant, there may be some deeper inner conflict going on. When my mom approached me about being more involved in our family business, I wanted to honor her and was attracted to the earning potential of a career in real estate; however,  real estate was not my calling. There were aspects that I would have enjoyed, and I could probably have been successful, but my passion is working in education with students.

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

3. Is this the right time?

Some decisions seem crystal clear, except for the timing. One of my toughest decisions was declining the invitation to be the volunteer coordinator for my friend’s mayoral campaign. I wanted to do it, it felt aligned with my greater purpose,  and it was a great match for my skill set, but the timing was terrible. I was a full-time working mom, struggling in my relationship, and had several other commitments. On the other hand, there isn’t always a perfect time. Timing is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor. When an opportunity arises, you may not feel fully prepared but it may be the time to take a risk.

“You can do anything but not everything.” – David Allen

4. How will you feel after you have made this decision?

Visualizing the outcome of the two or more scenarios when trying to make a decision can help us tap into our “gut” reaction. The power of intuition is discussed in a lot of decision-making research, including Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. According to Gladwell, the more expertise you have on a topic, the more likely your gut will predict the most accurate outcome.

“There will be a few times in your life when all your instincts will tell you to do something, something that defies logic, upsets your plans, and may seem crazy to others. When that happens, you do it.” – Judith McNaught

5. What role does your ego play in this decision?

Fear, anxiety, expectation, regret, guilt, and anger are the manifestations of the ego. Ego causes us to compare ourselves to others. Ego takes everything personally. It wants to be right. It needs to feel superior. And, it can lead us to make poor decisions. When we make a decision because we want what someone else has, or we think something will make us happy, the ego is in control.

“You create a good future by creating a good present.” – Eckhart Tolle

 

 

 

 

5 Ways to Treat Students Like Family

Advice_5cents

Giving my daughter cheap advice at the Live Oak Music Festival

When I look into the eyes of my students, I often imagine my six-year-old daughter sitting on the other side of the desk in eleven years. It’s unlikely that she will be sitting  across from me, but she may be sitting in another office somewhere. What will bring her to the dean’s office? What experience do I want her to have? What advice will she get?

My daughter is just entering the public school system. She will be completing first grade in a few months. She loves school and is an avid reader, but last week she received a behavior ticket. I won’t say what it was for, because years from now when she runs for presidency I don’t want her campaign tarnished by her mom’s blog post that disclosed she threw applesauce down the slide and soiled another girl’s clothes (oops! there I said it!), but it has me thinking about behavior and choices.

Personally, I’m hoping my daughter makes all her mistakes in first grade, and it’s smooth sailing from here into adulthood. But since I realize that’s likely not going to be the case, I’m embracing these incidents for what they are…teachable moments. I also realize I will not always be around to clean up the metaphorical applesauce and, as a mom, I hope that there will be caring adults throughout my daughter’s life who will also help her navigate through the messy, sticky situations that come up.

Whether it’s a mistake, a personal challenge, an academic setback, or another life event that  brings someone else’s child to my office, I try to treat all students with the respect, compassion, and attention I would provide to my own daughter in these five ways:

1. See their potential. Students who have been admitted to the university have already demonstrated they have great potential. Students also each possess unique strengths they can draw upon during challenging times. Looking for strengths and encouraging students to envision what is possible demonstrates our belief in them.

2. Believe them. It takes courage for students to share their stories. When we listen and validate their feelings, emotions, and concerns, students can ask for what they need and tell us how to best support them.

3. Give accurate information. Myths, out-dated information, and misunderstood policies can create stress and confusion for students. Empowered with information, students can make educated and appropriate decisions.

4. Advocate. Advocacy can take many forms. It can be connecting students to resources, speaking up for underrepresented students, creating a safe environment for students to express themselves, or educating ourselves on critical issues  in order to contribute to positive change.

5. Offer unconditional positive regard. Psychologist Carl Rogers developed the term unconditional positive regard, which means showing complete support and acceptance of a person. By showing students our acceptance and setting aside our judgment, we create a safe space for students to take risks, explore their possibilities, and maximize their full potential.

5 Facts about Student Veterans

2015-04-02 11.13.57

Today Cal Poly will be celebrating the opening of the Veterans Success Center. This solidifies a significant relationship between the university and its student veterans. The relationship between higher education and the military dates back to the enactment of the GI Bill after World War II. Over 2,232,000 World War II veterans used the GI Bill to go to college during the 1940s and 1950s (Livingston, Havice, Cawthon, & Fleming, 2011).

Here are 5 more facts about student veterans and higher education (Vacchi, 2012):

1. More student veterans will be enrolling in institutions of higher education than since WW II.

2. The new GI Bill offers the best educational benefits for veterans in the history of our nation.

3. Student veterans have greater classroom performance, higher retention rates, and more successful transfer rates from community colleges to four-year institutions than their nonveteran peers.

4. There are currently over 800,000 student veterans attending college.

5. Over 90 percent of student veterans are former enlisted members, not officers.

Military culture is much different from the culture of a college campus. When surveyed, student veterans say that military service has matured them, allowed them to see the world in a different light, and exacerbated the age gap they felt with non-military peers. According to research, student veterans are characterized by self-sufficiency, confidence, self-reliance, humility, and pride (Livingston, et al, 2011).

Check out the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website for more information on the History of the GI Bill.

Resources:

Livingston, W. G., Havice, P., Cawthon, T.W., & Fleming, D.S. (2011). Coming home: Student veterans’ articulation of college re-enrollment. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48, 315-331.

Radford, A. (2009). Military service members and veterans in higher education: What the new GI Bill may mean for post-secondary institutions. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Vacchi, D.T. (2012). Considering Student Veterans on the Twenty-First-Century College Campus. About Campus, May-June 2012, 15-21.

10 Habits of Successful College Students

Success

Today was the first day of a new quarter, which means lots of students are setting new academic goals. Based on my interactions with students over the years, here are 10 things successful college students do:

  1. Go to office hours.

keep-calm-and-attend-office-hours-5

Taking advantage of office hours is critical to academic success. Office hours are an opportunity to build a one-on-one connection with the professor. In addition to advice on homework assignments or feedback from the last test, spending time in office hours could lead to a letter of recommendation, an undergraduate research opportunity, or helpful career advice.

  1. Get involved.

helping_hands

Research supports that student involvement increases academic success. Successful students engage in their learning in- and out-side the classroom. They participate in discussion groups, attend educational events, join clubs, and give back to their communities.

  1. Study in groups.

Study groups can reduce procrastination, help students overcome difficulties understanding the material, get new perspectives, and develop interpersonal skills. Studying alone has benefits but can also easily lead to distraction, social isolation, and boredom.

  1. Go to the library.

library

Studying in the library can help many students focus better. The library has fewer distractions than a bedroom or residence hall. The library also has useful resources such as helpful librarians, textbooks on reserve, group study rooms, and assistive technology.

  1. Take responsibility.

Successful students do not blame others or make excuses. They realize that they have control of their choices, actions, and behaviors. They own up to mistakes and look for ways they can improve next time.

  1. Aren’t afraid to fail.

2015-03-30 10.15.27

Failure is an important part of the learning process. Successful students do not let the fear of failure prevent them from taking risks, being creative, trying new activities, and stepping outside their comfort zone.

  1. Utilize resources.

Successful students do not try to do everything on their own. There are extensive resources on campus for students. These resources include, but are not limited to, advising centers, careers services, study skills workshops, writing center, and counseling services.

  1. Hang out with healthy people.

2015-03-30 08.21.38

Behaviors and attitudes are contagious. Success has a lot to do with who students choose to surround themselves with.

  1. Have a mentor.

A close mentoring relationship with a faculty member, advisor, resident hall director, or another staff member is an important part of college success. Mentors can provide career connections, encouragement, support, and advocacy – all things that college students need.

10. Use their voice.

Self-advocacy, self-expression, and self-actualization are different forms of using voice. The ability of students to realize their full potential is linked to their ability to communicate, be their authentic selves, pursue their passions, and express their feelings. Successful students  know themselves, know what they need, and can express their needs.

 

Bridging the Gap between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs

HoldingHands

Last week I led a workshop for our Student Affairs Winter Recharge on the topic of “Bridging the Gap between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs.” My experiences as an instructor, as well as my personal experiences in education, have given me an appreciation for the transformative effect of a rigorous academic curriculum. And my interactions with students outside the classroom have confirmed the importance of reinforcing the academic components through additional opportunities for student development. As a result, I often feel like I have my foot in both camps.

In my role as a service-learning coordinator, I served as a liaison between academic affairs and student affairs. Many faculty have limited interactions with student affairs and are unfamiliar with the variety of services and programs offered; not surprisingly, student affairs professionals often feel misunderstood and unappreciated by faculty. The relationship between academic affairs and student affairs may not receive as much attention as retention or graduation rates, but its impact can be just as great for students. Ever since I stepped foot on campus as a student affairs professional I have seen and felt the real “division” between the Division of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs.

Historical Background

Prior to the 1960’s, faculty was responsible for intellectual and social development of students. Around the 1970’s, enrollment increases created a higher demand for student affairs professionals to address needs for co-curricular programs and services. In the 1980’s higher education researchers began focusing on the need for collaboration between the growing student affairs divisions and academic affairs. By the 1990’s, national student affairs organizations like ACPA and NASPA released Best Practices (which are still pertinent). In the past ten years, High Impact Practices have gained the spotlight highlighting many of the practices that fall within student affairs as being critical to academic success.

Benefits of bridging the gap between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs:

  1. Seamless connection between in- and out-side of classroom experiences. When a student is trying to navigate a process that involves multiple departments (like coordinating disability services), lack of communication between departments can lead to frustration. If the student is already distressed, these disconnected experiences can exacerbate the student’s situation.
  2. Co-curricular experiences that enhance and compliment the curriculum. There are many opportunities, including Service Learning, for students to apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world environments. When student affairs and academic affairs work together, students benefit from a richer learning experience.
  3. Holistic support and development of the whole student. Both faculty and student affairs staff are critical to student development. Both play a major role in orienting students to campus, helping students transition into college, and advising students in various aspects of personal and professional growth.
  4. Increased resources and support for students resulting in academic and personal success. Students need many types of role models, mentors, and advisors, and student success is greatly improved when the faculty and student affairs staff who are supporting a student are working collaboratively.
  5. Increased satisfaction with the overall university experience. The success of an institution is dependent on the quality of education and service provided to students. Taking care of our students improves the relationship between the student and the university.

Barriers

Barriers exist on both sides of the university. Barriers specific to faculty include lack of recognition and rewards for participation, significant turnover in student affairs, and lack of orientation and training on student affairs. Barriers specific to student affairs staff include, restricted freedom within the university due to classification (lack of tenure status), lack of understanding of tenure process that drives academic affairs, and perceptions that student affairs play a subordinate role in the university.

Barriers to both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs:

  1. Lack of knowledge or understanding of roles
  2. Assumptions and incorrect perceptions
  3. Competition for resources
  4. Lack of trust
  5. Organizational culture and language
  6. Values and priorities
  7. Organizational structures

Opportunities

The opportunities for collaboration are endless. Partnerships can range from formal strategic decisions to informal alliances. Some of these ideas can be implemented overnight, and others will require long-term planning.

Opportunities for collaboration:

  1. Classroom announcements and in-class trainings provided by student affairs
  2. Faculty office hours in Living Learning Communities/Housing
  3. Service learning courses
  4. Campuswide Task Forces
  5. First-year experience courses
  6. Academic-Student Affairs Partnership Meetings
  7. Campus-based Leadership Institute
  8. Conferences and Presentations
  9. Collaborative Grants and Research
  10. Institutes and Centers
  11. Advisory Boards
  12. Internships in Student Affairs
  13. Recruitment & Outreach
  14. Search Committees

I chose to pursue my Ph.D. because I wanted to leave the door open to academic affairs. I see the changes taking place in education and realize that in the academic world understanding student development theory, the learning process, and factors for success are critical supplements to a strong knowledge base in the academic field.

The gap between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs will not be bridged overnight. We will need both formal and informal processes to build collaborative partnerships. At the center of these collaborations will be professionals who understand the value of both academic affairs and student affairs.

Resources:

American Association for Higher Education, American College Personnel Association, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (1998). Powerful partnerships: A shared responsibility for learning. Washington, DC: Author.

Kellogg, K. (1999). Collaboration: Student affairs and academic affairs working together to promote student learning. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education.

Kuh, G.D. (1996). Guiding principles for creating seamless learning environments for undergraduates. Journal of College Student Development (37)2, 135-148.

Martin, J. & Murphy, S. (2000). Building a better bridge: Creating effective partnerships between academic affairs and student affairs. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Inc.

7 Tips for Picking Your Major in College

question_graphic_answer_101_xlarge

Do you ever have those moments when you’re speaking but you hear someone else’s words coming out of your mouth? It might be your mom or an old teacher. It’s a rare feeling for me, but it happened today.

I was meeting with a student who wanted to change his major. He had narrowed down his focus but was still debating between a few options in STEM. I heard myself say, “There are many paths to success. There is no wrong answer.” Huh? He looked at me with the same look I gave my undergraduate faculty advisor when he told me it didn’t matter what I majored in.

I entered college with a double major in Psychology and International Relations. My first week on campus I met with my faculty advisor and he said, “Why do you want to double major? Just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one.” How could it not matter? This was my future! A wrong choice could put me on a miserable path for my entire career! I could make a huge mistake!

I was passionate about helping people and wanted to be a psychologist, but I thought a career in International Relations would give me an exciting lifestyle traveling around the world. I continued taking classes in both majors but his words stuck with me. In the end I chose Psychology and dropped International Relations, and I never looked back.

I watched my peers of all majors follow all different career paths. For some their career paths were directed by family obligations, financial factors, or relationships. In any case, each internship, job, and experience gives us important skills, knowledge, and abilities and helps us define where we want to take the next step.

While I did say that there may be no right or wrong choice, there is definitely an informed choice so here are 7 tips for picking your major:

1. Follow your passion. Prestige and earning potential are important factors, but your passion for a subject is going to keep you going during the grueling study sessions and all-nighters.  If you have a lot of interests, spend some time reflecting on your long-term goals and what activities inspire you.

2. Talk to faculty. Each department has a unique culture and faculty. You will be spending a lot of time with your faculty so explore whether the department’s culture is a good fit for you. Are they laid back? Hands on? Approachable? Helpful? Interested in knowing you?

3. Utilize Career Services. Career Services has several helpful resources, such as personality and strengths assessments that can help you identify which subjects you might enjoy and/or areas where you might be more successful. Career Services also has industry contacts and can guide you on possible internship and career options in various majors.

4. Keep your options open. If you want to apply for graduate or medical school be sure to take the necessary prerequisites. Some majors may align more closely to these requirements so it may save you some time; however, don’t let that be the only deciding factor. Ultimately, many graduate schools are looking to see that you have taken the necessary classes regardless of your major.

5. Do your research on undergraduate research. Undergraduate research looks great on a resume and gives you applicable experiences. Look into the various undergraduate research areas on your campus to see if any spark your interest.

6. Ask other students. Peers are a great resource. Seek out students in the major that you are considering and ask them questions. What do they enjoy about the major? What is the biggest challenge? Do they recommend it? Why or why not?

7. Visit the Advising Center. Academic advisors have a wealth of knowledge and can help you identify the major that may be a great fit for you. They have a deep understanding of the curriculum, and they can tell you if you have already taken classes that might meet the requirements of a certain major.