Major changes: Bruins with unique academic paths

by Mason Ng

At a university that offers over 125 majors and more than 90 minors, choosing an academic discipline can be an indecisive student’s nightmare. Given the pressure to graduate within four years (or even less for transfer students), committing to the right major is a daunting task for many, even for those who seem sure about their academic path. However, despite the challenges, discovering what’s right for you is never out of reach. But don’t just believe me — take the word of three Bruins who’ve had some “major” success.

From artwork to fieldwork

Today, if you met Ivory Morales, a second-year geology student intent on pursuing paleontology, I would venture to say that you’d be surprised by which department they switched from. Morales was originally accepted to major in studio arts, which requires its own unique application and portfolio submission. However, after spending a year in the major and exploring other disciplines, they realized that it wasn’t meant to be.

Morales’ passion for geology and paleontology was ignited by the year-long freshman course Cluster 70A: Evolution of the Cosmos and Life, where they first met professor Anthony Friscia, one of the professors of the class. After a year of learning about the origins of the universe and life on Earth, Morales was enticed by Friscia’s ecology and evolutionary biology summer class, which involved fieldwork and fossil collection in Utah. When Morales expressed they had complications with their financial aid, which would have prevented them from taking the class, Dr. Friscia offered to hire them to facilitate the fieldwork and student interaction. During the summer, Morales instantly fell in love with geology and paleontology. “I’d never had the availability before to do science that way,” they expressed. “I tasted something that I had never tasted before.”

When debating taking the jump from the humanities to STEM, Morales cited an important realization. “I had this epiphany that I was holding on to humanities almost as a comfort thing. I knew I was good at art and I knew I could excel in art, but when I looked into the future, I never saw myself being happy in art.” Additionally, they discussed the lack of science-related resources available to them earlier in their academic journey, pointing out this ongoing problem for Latine communities in Los Angeles. Earlier exposure to the sciences and STEM fields, they expressed, might have encouraged them to make the switch sooner.

Though Morales recalls their journey to studying geology with fondness, they do not sugarcoat how difficult switching your major can be. They say the first step is “recognizing what a huge and scary jump it is,” encouraging students in similar situations to break the process down into more manageable parts. Doing simple things like contacting your department’s counselor, talking to professors to learn more about the field and making friends in your future major are all ways to ease the transition. They also urge students to take advantage of resources like tutoring, mentorship or applying to scholarships. “There is no shame in seeking help because help will be provided,” they said.

With perseverance, patience and a little bit of help from the universe (and classes about its origins), you’ll find your way. “The only regret I have is not making the switch sooner,” Morales said, smiling. “Months later, looking back, I’ve never regretted it.”

A four-part chemistry experiment

In the case of Ethan Mai, a third-year chemical engineering student, the key to finding the right major, it seems, is experimentation. Mai entered his first year as a biochemistry student intent on pursuing medicine. Since then, he has dabbled in cognitive science, and after realizing the tech industry wasn’t for him, tried psychobiology and revived his pre-med aspirations. After being dissatisfied with that major’s rigor and less-than-welcoming environment, he switched to chemical engineering this fall quarter, following his general interest in chemistry.

Mai attributes his decisions to switch majors to a variety of influences — the least influential surprisingly being the classes themselves. “For me personally, it wasn’t the classes,” he said. “It was more so the extracurriculars and exploring what my potential future might look like because of that major.” While switching to chemical engineering, Mai joined a lab and a carbon capture project, both of which affirmed his interest in engineering rather than medicine. However, he now faces the challenge of navigating new career options and a difficult industry. “The hardest thing about not being pre-med anymore is that my path is not very linear — you never know what’s going to happen,” he expressed. Currently, he is also considering graduate school as an option.

In addition to academic-related extracurriculars, Mai encourages students to involve themselves in non-academic clubs and activities. Surprisingly, what contributed to Mai exploring other fields was hearing the stories of his counselees in his work as a peer counselor for SEA CLEAR, or Southeast Asian Campus Learning Education and Retention, a Southeast Asian student retention project. “What really matters to me is inspiration,” he stated, referencing how the passion of other students gave him the confidence to venture outside his major. He urges students not to underestimate non-academic clubs, like cultural clubs, and the knowledge they have to offer. “Having the opportunity to immerse yourself in a community where people have a variety of experiences not related to one major is really important — it allows you to gain perspective on things outside of what you do.”

Though switching majors can be a daunting, anxiety-inducing process, Mai describes his academic path with an air of tranquility and gratitude. “Part of the reason why I’m so chill about switching is the mindset that my parents instilled in me. They didn’t put any pressure on me throughout the process,” he said. Most of his support in his academic journey has come from family and friends, both of whom encourage him to explore where he’s happiest.

The sociology of lived experience

In the fall of 2020, amid a global pandemic, Sam Mulick, a third-year sociology student, was about to start college at an acting conservatory in North Carolina. Little did he know that in the next three years, he would leave acting, attend two different community colleges, work in restaurants and housing, and move to San Francisco, eventually transferring to UCLA in the fall of 2023. Where you belong is not always where you envision yourself.

In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Mulick filled his day with acting classes, wearing all black and practicing his craft under the scrutiny of the conservatory. However, after two years in the rigorous program, he left to pursue an education outside of acting. For a year, he attended community college, worked as a line cook and became involved with Housing Justice Now, an organization combating the housing crisis in Winston-Salem. “Through working in restaurants and getting involved in housing,” Mulick expressed, “I was able to engage with the community in a really meaningful way.”

In fact, by protesting evictions, providing legal resources for struggling tenants and reading about the starkly racialized housing crisis, Mulick cultivated his budding interest in sociology. He gained not only experience but also a sense of purpose in his personal and educational journey. He explained, “It was really inspiring to be part of that group of people who were so motivated, so organized and so empathetic to the suffering of the city.” Similarly, Mulick broadened his horizons by working in restaurants in Winston-Salem, San Francisco and now here in Los Angeles. Because the line of work is so labor-intensive and challenging, he attributes much of his grit and resilience to the restaurant industry. “From working in restaurants, I’ve learned just as much or a lot more than I ever would have by just sitting in a college class.”

Ultimately, Mulick’s story is a testament to the value of “doing things that terrify you,” as he so aptly puts it. While the journey is ongoing and the satisfaction is hard won, the novelty of these experiences — from moving across the country to leaving the art you’ve pursued your whole life — is worth the struggle. Though the familiar provides safety and comfort, Mulick urges students to push their boundaries, especially considering how sheltering the university environment can be. More often than not, guidance through your academic journey lies off campus: perhaps a walk (or maybe a plane ride) away. “Leave your neighborhood, your hometown or your campus,” Mulick asserted, “and go interact with the larger community.”

Featured Image Photographed by Finn Martin/BruinLife

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