Every major is challenging, no major is superior to another, but being a S.T.E.M. major is really hard. At this point in your college career, you’re most likely considering a major in biology, you’re probably thinking over possible minors, research and maybe even your post-grad plans. While it’s great to think ahead and make your plans far in advance, beware of the tunnel vision you might develop. Unlike a lot of other majors, S.T.E.M. disciplines require immense specificity. Your upper level classes will be hyper-focused on extremely niche topics, which might be exactly what you’re most excited for. But as you narrow your interests, you might be passing up other extremely interesting opportunities that you may never have considered before. Upper class students in humanities and arts classes are more likely to be exposed to a wider range of world issues and topics, simply because that is a necessity for their success in that discipline. That exposure arms students with versatility, they can follow just about any interest in just about any direction. As a S.T.E.M. major, you might feel a little limited. Mentioning that you’re a biology major always leads to the same basic questions: Are you going to be a doctor, a high school teacher or will you get a PhD? Apparently to the general public, these are the roles of the scientist. And maybe that IS you’re dream, those are all commendable professions that many UMW students pursue. But that does not mean those are your only options. This is a liberal arts college, which means you will receive an education in quantitative reasoning, global inquiry, literature, speech, humanities and so much more. Even your freshman seminar course is an opportunity to engage your main interests through interdisciplinary studies. You are not limited here. I'm sure that there are a million thoughts running through your mind as you prepare for your first year, so I've preemptively addressed some of those concerns:
What if I’m not sure that I want to be a STEM major?
That’s okay! Everyone shows up to college with uncertainty, this is a huge change for you in so many ways, let alone academically. Freshman year is about testing the waters, I would encourage you to take the introductory classes for the major you’re interested in, but sign up for some completely foreign general education classes. Take something you’ve never considered before, and then devote the same attention to it that you would if it were your passion. In my freshman year I took Logic, a strange philosophical course that satisfies your quantitative reasoning requirement and teaches you to question what you believed to be reality. In my junior year, I took sociology, and I loved it. Had I taken it earlier in my college career I might have majored in it. Expose yourself to the wealth of knowledge that this university offers and take your gen eds seriously. At the very least, they’ll reassure you that S.T.E.M. is the right direction for you. These interdisciplinary course loads are meant to broaden your outlook, take one business class and maybe you’ll discover that pioneering your own nanotech company has been your dream all along. Take a poetry class and maybe you’ll find yourself a writer. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with changing your path, most students will change their major at least once in their college career. There is a lot of pressure on students to enter the scientific field, many people see a career in science as a symbol of success. But I can tell you now, that if this is not your passion, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. You will not be happy if you force yourself into this, and you will spend far too much time, energy and money in college to pursue something that you are not passionate about. The world needs historians, economists, artists and English teachers just as much as it needs scientists.
I definitely want to be a STEM major, how do I succeed?
If this truly is your passion, you will succeed. With any major, success comes from dedication. Stay interested and you will go far. It can be daunting to enter the scientific field, a discipline which has long been known for the geniuses that compose it. But the world’s leading scientists were once in your seat, they were no different from you. Sure there are some outliers with seemingly unattainable intelligence, but most of them are just like you. When it came to doing well in organic chemistry, they sat down, read the textbook and completed the practice problems, just like you will. Work hard, strike the balance that allows you to enjoy your life and your major. If you find yourself losing interest and drowning in lab reports, take a minute to appreciate what you’re doing. Remind yourself of where this hard work can take you and what you have to offer the world. But most importantly, don’t let it consume you. Take the time to enjoy the things you’ve always loved and explore the things you’ve yet to experience. This is your major, not your life. Your major is just another tool that you’ll acquire as you navigate through the world, use it for what it is but don’t let it use you.
What are some of the resources that might be useful to me as a STEM major?
The best part about coming to a small school like Mary Wash is that your professors will know you by so much more than your name. The classes you’ll take are really small and you’ll have every opportunity to speak up and be heard. The professors here are incredibly intelligent, approachable and dedicated. They want to get to know their students and help them improve, succeed and achieve their dreams. You’ll never have to be afraid to ask questions in class or stop by your professor’s office hours. The teachers you will have over the next four years will be your greatest asset. There are also numerous resources on campus that are available to all students such as the speaking and writing centers which will help you perfect your biggest projects. There are research advisers in the library, IT aids, career planning specialists, course advisers and so much more. You’ll also have the support and advice of your UMW cohorts. This is a small community of students, you’ll spend lots of time with other students in your major who will be there to help you through it all. Upperclassmen are a great resource as well because they’ve already been through what you’re about to experience, I’ll always be willing to help you in the ways that I can!
Gen Chem scares me….
Good. A little bit of fear will keep you on your toes. I was terrified of general chemistry in my freshman year. I took AP chem in high school and averaged around 30% on every test, pulled off a 2 on the AP exam and vowed to never take another chemistry course in my life. But, as is the policy in most S.T.E.M. majors, general chemistry is an incredible important prerequisite for biology so I had to take it. I came to class nervous, but determined to do better than before. I paid attention in lectures and read the textbook, did the practice problems and finally felt like I understood. On the first test I got a C-. I was discouraged. I figured, well, if chemistry is necessary to biology, maybe I’m not meant to be a biology major after all. But I talked to my professor about it, and he encouraged me to keep at it. He gave me tips on how to study more effectively, directed me towards the student-run PASS sessions for chemistry and math tutoring, answered all the questions I had and never failed to remind me that I could absolutely do well in his class. At the end of the semester I finished with an A and a new plan: to minor in chemistry. Ever since then, I have developed a profound love for all things chemistry, my favorite class at Mary Wash so far was definitely organic chemistry. You will encounter classes that seem impossible to do well in, but you have so many people here cheering you on and lifting you up, you can and will succeed.