Your General Education classes are more important than you think.
By Kara Mercer, Northern Illinois University
Choosing a major I didn’t enjoy was a mistake, but taking the general-education courses I didn’t enjoy was even worse.
College offers students a chance to break away from the mundane routine of high school and make active decisions about their education. I’m not talking about core-competency classes, like the required math, English and foreboding COMS 101 course. I’m referring to classes in different categories.
When I first applied to Northern Illinois University, I did so as a Photography major. I’d been fascinated with learning how to develop film and capture beautiful moments. I thought I’d like to own a photography business, but, upon further consideration, I realized I wanted to do something where I could make money in a field that I felt was disappearing.
So, before orientation, due to a half-hearted desire to learn sign language and the possibility of becoming a speech therapist, I changed my major to Speech and Language Pathology. Too focused on the major’s four-year degree path, I was the last one in my orientation group to finish signing up for classes, and, when I left, I still wasn’t finished. I thought I needed to follow the degree path to a T.
On the degree path, there were suggestions for what Gen-Ed courses should be taken from each category. The problem with orientation is that everyone is trying to sign up for the same classes. Students with earlier orientations had already signed up for their classes, so the process became a fight for what classes were most convenient. By choosing classes based on availability and convenience instead of subject interest, orientation is where I made my first mistake.
I didn’t take an introductory biology class to learn that carrots are in the carrot family. Science was and is not only my most hated subject, but it’s also my worst. There were twenty-eight courses listed in the interdisciplinary-studies category, and I needed one or two of them, so I picked biology. I could have taken “Language, Mind and Thought,” which probably would have led me to my English major sooner, or “Introduction to Medieval Society and Culture.”
Biology fit right into my schedule, but it turned out to be a waste of credit hours. I could have filled my schedule with something more enjoyable from a different category, or waited to take something I really wanted to. If a class you want to take is closed, wait to enroll in it. There is always time, and in recent years, more students are taking one or two extra years to finish college.
Find another Gen-Ed course you’d like or a class relevant to your major and worth your time. Of course, college is about convenience and choosing what fits your schedule, but getting up to attend an 8 a.m. class or walking to the other side of campus isn’t so awful if you enjoy what’s being taught.
There’s always going to be classes that students don’t like, but there’s a difference between tolerating classes for a major and disliking Gen-Ed classes, where students get a choice. Undergraduates can use Gen Eds to figure out if their major is the right fit.
I should have learned from my biology course that a science-related field wasn’t right for me, but instead I applied to be an Environmental Studies major after sitting through a communicative-disorder class and realizing speech pathology was not in my future. I liked hiking, so I thought Environmental Studies was a prospective field, so I changed my major a second time.
Mistake number two: Taking stereotypical Gen-Ed courses.
When I review the Gen-Ed courses I took, I think of all the wasted potential. I could have taken an introductory sociology class or “Logic and Critical Reasoning,” but I took Philosophy 101 because I thought it was something students should take in college. I had preconceived notions of what should be learned in higher education, and I thought the class would open my eyes to different philosophies and ways of thinking. The reality is, I don’t remember what I learned from the course, other than that I had wasted my time.
I could have learned about classical mythology in FLCL 271 or literary classics in ENGL 310 (another course that could have lead me to my current major). Instead, I spent three semesters in courses I didn’t like, when I could have been using my Gen Eds to figure out the area of study I liked most. I even had the option of being “Undecided” for a major, instead of jumping from major to major and taking on unnecessary stress.
After taking another English course, I changed my major one last time (third times a charm, right?). After two semesters of only liking my English classes, something clicked, and I realized what I wanted to study. School becomes so much easier when you find what you’re passionate about.
The process for undergraduates who are unsure of what they’d like to pursue begins with the optional Gen Eds, where you have more of a choice in your education. If I could go back, I’d choose more of the classes I was interested in, instead of the ones I took because they fit my schedule or because I thought I should take them.
Some students know exactly what they want to do when they enter college. For others, it’s more of a struggle to find the right fit. General-education courses can be the key to finding out what you want to do with your life or if what you’re studying in college is right for you. So, use them wisely and pick a class that won’t be a waste of time.
If the course is unavailable when you first look, keep checking for availability or take it in the fall if it’s not being offered in the spring. If there are courses you know you’ll hate, but they fit into your schedule, don’t take them.
In college, you’re in charge of your education, so make the most out of it and start with your Gen Eds.