November 26, 2013

Se Habla Parents?!

In addition to being the first (and only) real break in the fall semester and the best opportunity to overeat and watch football, Thanksgiving Break is an opportunity to reconnect with close and extended family. If history serves, these family members will take every opportunity to ask some variation on the following questions as often as possible, as quickly as possible, often talking over one another:
So, how’s Rutgers? What is your major? How are your grades? Did you hear about #randomkid who has a full ride to Harvard and med school and has a 4.0 already and doesn’t even have to take his exams to get A's? You’re doing that well, too, right?
So, even though you’re taking a break from classes, you will likely find yourself talking about your first semester more than you expect (or want to). Here Dean Frosh examines the two most common questions and general advice in mustering a response: 

“What’s your major?”

There are three common situations that make this question a proverbial minefield – 1. You’re undecided, 2. You’re studying something everyone understands and has an opinion on (premed, business, law) but struggling in classes, or 3. You’re contemplating a major that no one understands but still has an opinion on (anthropology, human ecology, art history). 

First, know that you’re not alone. You have a few options in how to respond, and may choose to use different ones depending on the person asking. Ideally, you want to land somewhere between this: 
And listing your grade in every course, plus outlining your spring registration plans.

Dean Frosh, of course, does not endorse lying…but she is fine on not necessarily sharing all the details with people who aren’t your parents. After enough family events where she encountered the response, “An English major? WHAT are you going to do with that?! Teach?!” Dean Frosh began occasionally replying, “I’m thinking about law.” Mind you, she was never thinking about GOING to law school, but it seemed like a tiny white lie that made everyone’s day just a bit easier. 

If you’re undecided, first, know that it’s normal. You’ve only been in college for two months, and while you should be thinking about your options, you should not yet have made any major life decisions. Second, you’re likely not as clueless as you think. You could probably make a long list of majors that you are NOT going to study, so that leaves a smaller list of possible majors. The best ways to respond to your undecidedness are to choose a few classes in your spring schedule to try out some of your interests and to start investigating your options. Believe it or not, conversations with family may even be helpful. Take the time to ask what other people studied, what their majors were, how they chose them, and what jobs they have now. You may be surprised at what you discover – and the resources that you find. If your cousin majored in Public Health, ask him/her about that field. Play investigative journalist. At the very least if you’re asking all the questions, it takes you off the spot!
If your Plan A isn’t really working out, the above advice still applies. Feel free to mention that yes, you’re still premed, but you may also admit that the transition to college sciences has been harder than you expected. Responses may give you more ideas for resources to help you improve your performance, provide support, or even give you ideas for other options (“Cousin X was premed but now is pursuing Public Health; maybe you should look into that?”). Take some time to figure out what other people on the planet do for a living and how they got to that place. Realistically, you likely haven’t been exposed to enough options, and contrary to popular belief, many of us who are not engineers or doctors do get paid every week to do jobs that we really love. Even if you’re still devoted to your original plan, doing some investigating may help you see other options and even refocus on your original goals in a way that helps give you some energy to get through finals.

If you find your plans leading toward a less-understood major, consider how conversations over turkey might help you demonstrate that it is a valid and well-crafted decision. If others in your family or community have majored in something less common, they may present a way for family to understand what you’re doing. Consider visual aids and other information to help family understand and respect the field. Show them the Rutgers Career Services "What Can I Do with this Major?" website, share your experiences with a faculty member who may have had an impact on you. Over the years, Dean Frosh has found that parents/family really just want to be reassured that you’re going to do okay. For a major or career interest that they’ve never heard of, that means helping them understand that you can get a good, respectable job and won’t be living in their basement forever. They may not immediately embrace your Sociology major, but by sharing good information about your future and showing them that you’re actively thinking about it, you can help them get to a “wait and see” point of view.

“How are your grades?”

Great so far, they aren’t reported yet!

In all seriousness, though, there are some conversations you NEED to have, particularly with parents and particularly if you are doing badly this semester. Remember that “badly” is a relative term; for some it means failing classes, for others it means earning Cs and C+s when the expectation is higher. Dean Frosh knows that you do NOT want to have this conversation, but she also knows that these topics just get harder and harder the longer they are delayed (In fact, Dean Frosh knows this all too well – see "A Cautionary Tale"). 

By all means, wait until Thanksgiving dinner is over, but do find some time to sit down with parents or others who will be holding you accountable for your education (and in some cases their money) and rip off the proverbial band aid. Start wherever you can: “I’m not doing very well this semester.” “I’m struggling in my classes.” “Wow, Rutgers has been harder than I thought.” Be prepared to show them that you’re making a plan – but make sure it’s realistic (not reliant upon you acing the final). Discuss going to tutoring, going to office hours, getting involved with study groups – and then do it!  Define what  doing “fine” in a class means: a B, C or D? As much as it hurts, give them details. They won’t be pleased with you, but they will be proud of you, at some point if not immediately. Within a few short days, you’ll be back on campus and fully aware of their expectations. 

You are not the first (or the last or the only) student to struggle in college. Trust us on this: bad news about your academics does not make for a warm and fuzzy holiday conversation, but the stress and anxiety from hiding the truth is only going to make it harder to manage the sprint to the finish of the semester. And if you don’t tell them the truth now, it’s going to be harder during Winter Break to explain how you were doing well at Thanksgiving but your final grades are poor. Be candid, speak with them like the adult you’re becoming, and know that there are better days ahead.