What I Wish I had Known about Changing Majors


In high school, I felt immensely pressured to choose a major for college. My favorite subject was always English, but I did not know what possible careers could be obtained from majoring in it. During my junior and senior year, I took psychology classes and liked them. I did not really know if I wanted to be a psychologist, but there seemed to be a clear career path between studying the psychology major and working as a psychologist. Moreover, psychology seemed more serious of a field than English, and I was a serious student about to start college.

I had this vague, future image of myself sitting across from a client, listening to their stories, giving advice and helping them. That was an image that I liked. So, I picked psychology.

I remember working on my ASU admissions paperwork and not knowing the difference between a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in psychology and a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in psychology. Did one option only have science, and the other only have art?

Panicked, I called a classmate, whose parents were therapists. My classmate's father patiently explained the differences to me, and I learned that a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology was better suited to what I wanted to do later. The B.S. degree also involved a lot more math and science requirements. I did not enjoy math or science, but I weighed my options and decided the B.S. degree would allow me more viability and flexibility in my future career.

The psychology degree program I selected was housed within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, and CLAS had its own college requirements. One of these requirements was to take two years of a foreign language. Because I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese at home, my father advised that I select another language that would actually be foreign to me. Obsessed with anime and manga at the time, I chose Japanese.

My freshman year went by with A's and B's, and I loved my English composition and Japanese classes. The psychology courses were interesting, and I found the other requirements for the major - such as Intro to Statistics - manageable.

The fall semester of my sophomore year took a sharp turn, however. I was taking JPN 201 Second Year Japanese I, REL 371 New Testament, MAT 270 Calculus with Analytic Geometry, and PSY 325 Physiological Psychology. MAT 270 and PSY 325 were my burdens to bear, and I could not understand the classes or the material.

I spent hours at the tutoring center every week studying calculus. I would do test preparation with my tutor right up until it was time to go into the math testing center. Each time I sat down to take the test, however, all of the formulas I had memorized seemed to fly right out of my head. I would work through the exam with steadily increasing anxiety, a knot of dread twisting in my stomach, and eventually would submit the test without a clue if I had gotten any of the answers right.

Inevitably, the tests would come back with lower and lower grades circled at the top.

Physiological Psychology was just as tough for me. I truly felt like the professor was speaking a secret language during lecture, and everyone in the class seemed to understand the code except me. During class discussions I never knew what to say. I felt stupid and lost, and afraid to say or do anything that would reveal my incompetence. I felt I was a terrible student, and that I did not belong in college. As the weather turned colder, I became more and more depressed and could not imagine myself taking another 2.5 years of psychology courses and requirements. I could not imagine doing this as a career for the rest of my life. But this was the major I had chosen. I had committed to it, and I could not change it. I could not change it.

At the end of that fall semester, I had an A, B, C, and D as my final grades. A D grade! I had never gotten a D grade before, and I was lucky my grades posted during winter break, while I was safely back in China on a trip and far away from my parents and their wrath.

By the time I returned home, my father's anger had cooled somewhat, but now I had to face the consequences. With my grades from that fall semester and the subsequent drop in my GPA, I was in serious danger of losing my scholarship - the scholarship that allowed me to attend school. My father and I frantically did some calculations, and we realized that the only way I would be able to raise my GPA high enough to save my scholarship would be if I got straight A's in the spring. I also knew for a fact that I would not be able to get straight A's if I stayed in the psychology degree program.

Haltingly, I said as much to my father. I told him I was completely miserable in Psychology, and the only highlight that I had had each day in the fall semester was my Japanese class. I wanted to change my major to Japanese language, and I felt I had a better chance at getting A's if I switched.

My father thought for a while, and finally said that he would allow me to change my major if I also added on English literature as a double major. He was concerned that a degree in Japanese language alone would not be viable enough, and felt that the addition of English would give me more options in the future.

I immediately accepted his conditions, so we went to see my CLAS academic advisor, made the major changes and I began the spring semester driven - desperate - to excel in all of my classes.

I was extremely lucky. I did get straight A's that semester, I did raise my GPA sufficiently and I did save my scholarship. More than that, however, I regained my confidence in myself and my academic abilities. I did not struggle in psychology because I was stupid or a bad student. It was simply not the right major for me.

Changing to Japanese language and English literature showed that I was indeed a good student. A student who was excited to go to class, eager to participate in discussions, determined to demonstrate my knowledge on tests and exams. I felt challenged in a good way, and I felt myself learning, growing and moving forward. The rest of my time as an undergraduate student sped by, marked by semesters of hard work and high grades.

Did you know that about 80% of college students in the United States change their major at least once? I wish I knew that when I was in college. I wish I had known that it was okay to change your mind: to choose a major, try it out, realize it may not be for you and to pick a different one; to take various classes and realize that while your major might be interesting, there is another major, another field, that excites your mind more; to realize that struggling in your classes may mean that you are not in a major that plays to your strengths, and that you should find one that does; to know that changing your major does not mean that you are giving up, but rather that you are giving yourself a chance to pursue your passion.

I wish someone had told me all of this - so now I'm telling you.

Since my undergraduate days, I have met many people and have heard many stories about how they came to the job or career they currently have. In fact, many of my ASU TRIO colleagues changed their majors multiple times while they were in school - and we all have had different degrees and we all work in TRIO. Various paths can still lead to the same destination after all.

Some time ago, I was meeting with a TRIO student in my office. She looked at my diplomas on the wall, and asked me about how I came to choose those degrees. I shared my own story with her, including how I had started off as a psychology major because I wanted to listen to people's stories and help them, but then later changed to Japanese language and English literature.

"Yeah, but, isn't that what you're doing now?" she asked. "Listening to people's stories and helping them?"

I blinked, then laughed. She was right.

— By Ding Ding Zheng, Coordinator, TRIO SSS