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Stanford undergrads take varied paths toward major declaration

Four Stanford students share the diverse journeys that ultimately led them to their choice of majors.

Some undergrads arrive on campus already knowing what they want to major in and map out their paths accordingly. Others enter Stanford with an idea in mind and change course later. Still others struggle to narrow down their choices. Fortunately, academic advisors at Stanford are prepared to help students no matter where they are in the decision-making process.

Sophomore Sawyer Niehaus is a classics major currently considering the option of adding a second major in mathematics, though she’s weighing the impact of adding a greater course load and more stress to her Stanford experience.

Cari Costanzo, undergraduate advising director in the Office of Academic Advising, is one of 25 academic advisors who help students navigate major declaration, course selection, and an array of other academic considerations. Costanzo said it is important for students to reflect on the purpose of their major declaration journey.

“You’re not coming to college just to decide what you want to do after Stanford,” said Costanzo, also a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. “You’re also coming to college to think about who you want to be in the world. What kind of human being do you want to be? What sort of civic responsibility, community responsibility, and community engagement do you believe in?”

Undergraduates can declare anytime during their first or second year. Stanford requires students to decide no later than the end of major declaration season, which is spring quarter of sophomore year. According to data provided by Stanford’s Office of Institutional Research & Decision Support, on average, between 20 to 35 percent of undergraduate students declare during their sophomore spring quarter, while the majority of the remainder declare at various points across all quarters of the first and second year at Stanford. Transfer students who arrive at Stanford as juniors (carrying around 90 units) have until the end of their junior year to declare a major.

Costanzo said that no matter when students decide to declare a major leading up to the final quarter of their sophomore year, allowing sufficient time to discover curricular areas that most interest them is enormously helpful.

Changing course along the major declaration journey

Sophomore Mathieu Johnson came to Stanford thinking he would declare engineering physics as his major, an area of interest since high school. By the end of his first year, he had doubts. He asked himself, “Is this right for me? It’s a big question. I had learned many things, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing that.”

While he thought he was the only one going through this, his academic advisor helped him understand that he was not alone.

“I wondered, is anyone else doing this?” he said. “Because during my first year, mostly everybody knew what their major was immediately.”

With the support of his advisor, he decided to start exploring other majors using the Academic Advising website, which allowed him to view majors by department and find information on the major-specific processes.

Throughout his journey, he realized it was vital for him to select a major where he could prioritize his mental health and balance his course load and his day-to-day life.

After taking a mechanical engineering introduction course, he found himself interested in the design process and its real-world applications. Johnson recently declared design as his major this spring quarter.

“Having the ability to open myself up to other options along the way was helpful because I didn’t feel like I was tied to one thing,” he said.

To double major or not to double major – that is the question

Sawyer Niehaus, also a sophomore, has always been intrigued by the humanities, particularly in classics.

“I’m a big language and puzzle person,” Niehaus said. “And to me, classics in the Latin track is poetry and a puzzle, and a language all built into one that has a built-in history as well. You can’t translate anything without thinking about the historical context. It’s an English major, almost a theater major, a history major, and a language major rolled into one.”

Sawyer’s interest in classics pairs nicely with her love for theater. At Stanford, she has found her community as a member of the Stanford Shakespeare Company, Stanford Harmonics, and the Stanford Light Opera Company.

While Niehaus declared classics with a Latin track as her major in her first year, she plans to either double major or minor in mathematics. As she deliberates this decision, she’s considering the workload of the courses, the stress of additional classes, and its potential to help her in her future career path.

“Declaring math as my second major is a big commitment. I’m trying to get as far down the math major road as I can before actually committing,” Niehaus said.

Don’t be scared of change

Jane Sanchez Hernandez didn’t start her college journey at Stanford. She enrolled at Hartnell College, a public community college in Salinas, California, with plans to enter its nursing program. During her two years there, however, she discovered her passion for education and met incredible mentors who convinced her to apply as a transfer student to Stanford. For Hernandez, the accomplishment of being admitted into Stanford felt bigger than just her.

“I call my presence at Stanford a love letter to my community,” she said. “Younger students from diverse backgrounds are actually seeing themselves in places like Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. It’s empowering my community to reach and break that glass ceiling.”

Hernandez, a first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) student, is interested in working in the community college space helping FLI students access all that higher education has to offer. When she arrived at Stanford, she first explored majoring in psychology, and briefly considered human biology so she could study the developmental psychology of young adults.

“I had to do some soul searching and ask my academic advisor for help again since hum bio didn’t work out.”

She then discovered Stanford’s major option in comparative studies in race and ethnicity (CSRE), which has an education and inequality track. She plans on declaring CSRE as her major, with future sights on a PhD. As Hernandez has coursed through her Stanford journey, she tells other students: “Don’t be scared of change.”

Make time for exploration

Mihir Anand has long been fascinated with technology. “I grew up kind of obsessing over Apple and those big companies,” he said. “ I was also always interested in the power that technology gives the everyday person.”

When he envisioned his college years, Anand had his mind set on studying computer science. In high school, he founded Fruitfully Yours, a community organization that fights food insecurity by harvesting unwanted fruit from fruit trees in people’s backyards that would otherwise go to waste and donating it to local food banks and pantries that in turn, distribute it to those facing food insecurity. During the organization’s first year, Anand saw how leveraging social media and a variety of technologies can be used for good and attract volunteers for causes like Fruitfully Yours.

Now a sophomore at Stanford, in addition to his core CS classes, Anand has pursued economics courses to deepen his understanding of how technology and business intersect. He is in the process of declaring CS as his major which involves identifying a major advisor who is a faculty member from the CS department. Typically, major advisors help students navigate major requirements as well as dive more deeply into their chosen field. Some departments assign major advisors, while other departments afford students the opportunity to find their own.

Throughout the declaration process, Anand said his academic advisor has been instrumental. “My advisor explained the process in depth, which I would not have had access to without reaching out to her. I definitely say reach out to your academic advisor. Not everyone does.”

Undergraduate Advising Director Alice Petty stresses to first-year and transfer students that it’s critical for them to make time for exploration so they can figure out where they want to go before they begin heading there.

“There are things that you can do at Stanford that you really can’t do just anywhere else,” she said. “There is always the possibility of discovering something surprising.”