Switching out of science changed my attitude about university

Realizing pursuing my passions is important

Shelby realized that pursuing English was more worthwhile.
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Last year, as I walked home to West Campus in the dark after a three-hour lab, wishing I was doing anything else, it dawned on me that maybe a science degree wasn’t for me.

As a first-year student, it was easy to blame how little I was enjoying my studies on homesickness, early morning lectures, or just ‘needing to adjust’ to the university lifestyle. I made excuse after excuse for why I didn’t have much of an interest in what I was learning because it was easier than admitting I’d made a mistake.

When I finally stopped to think about it, though, it became clear that I was unhappy because I wasn’t passionate about science.

It’s a fairly typical experience, I think, to be funnelled out of high school and into university believing that pursuing a degree in a science-related field is one of the only worthwhile paths. 

Often, it’s viewed as pragmatic to choose to study science or math. Peers and adults toss around phrases like “Arts degrees are a joke,” and “You can’t get a good job with a background in the arts.”

The STEM fields are incredibly valuable, and many students benefit from being encouraged to pursue a degree within them. But for those of us who find documenting chemical reactions and performing titrations an unrewarding chore, being steered in the same direction can be ill-advised.

In high school, having a love for writing and English and a disinterest in chemistry made me the odd one out in my friend group. Surrounded by hopeful doctors and engineers-to-be, it was easy to get wrapped up in the idea of career prestige during university application season. I never stopped to consider if studying science was what I truly enjoyed doing.

When I applied to universities, I only considered one undergraduate path in an arts program: pursuing English at Queen’s. Going into a discipline other than science wasn’t an idea I ever seriously entertained. 

As a science-oriented high school student, I was too worried about upholding people’s expectations to consider taking a leap and studying the arts at university. I took those dismissive sayings about arts degrees to heart, and let my insecurities around what people thought of me dictate what I was going to study. I cared too much about proving that I could hack it in the sciences, and it barred me from pursuing my actual interests.

I took those dismissive sayings about arts degrees to heart, and let my insecurities around what people thought of me dictate what I was going to study.

In my first-year science classes, I felt a bit like an imposter. As much as I feigned it, I couldn’t relate to my friends’ genuine excitement to mix chemicals or learn about DNA replication.

After months of frustration, I was finally ready to accept that I’d been foolish to stick with science just because I was hung up on what people would think of me. There is nothing lesser about studying for an arts degree, and once I got to university, I realized that most of my peers would agree.

A course load of full-year courses meant I was pretty much locked into finishing my first year at Queen’s studying science, but I was determined to change that for my second year.

It’s not fun to realize that you might be in the wrong program or on track for a major you’re not interested in. Looking at the work I would have to do to choose another path was daunting, and it didn’t help that the university’s resources seemed to contradict themselves when I was searching for the steps I would need to take to switch to another program.

It took one six-credit summer course and a lot of patience, but I started school this September as a second-year English major, and I couldn’t be happier about my decision.

University life can be demanding, and no matter what I’m studying, there are always moments when my motivation dips. But you don’t want to wake up for lecture every morning with no interest in hearing about cell biology, or walk to weekly labs with a sense of dread. Being excited, driven, and passionate about what you’re learning is a huge part of academics. For me, it’s what makes all the hours spent in lecture halls and working at the library worthwhile.

Being excited, driven, and passionate about what you’re learning is a huge part of academics.

This year, I’m studying something I really enjoy learning about, and that’s made all the difference. 

It’s frustrating to think that when I applied to Queen’s almost two years ago, I could’ve accepted my offer to pursue an arts degree right off the bat. Instead, I spent a year of my undergrad unhappily using calculus to model the spread of a hypothetical virus in a population of mice. 

Whenever I get too down on myself about my decision, though, I remember that I could’ve accepted my Engineering offer and spent the year studying science and being dyed purple.

Since starting my undergrad, I’ve learned that just because you find success in something doesn’t mean you should pursue it. 

I’ve learned that just because you find success in something doesn’t mean you should pursue it. 

As someone accustomed to the binary of right and wrong answers in math and science, the subjectivity of English has brought many academic challenges. But these are challenges that I’m happy to accept, because I’m driven to improve and build on my learning in a way I never was when I studied science. 

There are plenty of other students out there, like me, who have realized that the decision they made in high school doesn’t reflect their interests today. 

As much as I may wish I had made a better decision when I first accepted my offer to Queen’s, what’s important is that I’m passionate about what I’m learning now.

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