I waited an extra year after high school to start college, hoping the time would help me figure out what I wanted to study. Even with that additional year, though, I still checked the “undeclared” box when I was asked my intended major on college applications. I remained undeclared for my freshman and sophomore years.
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Considering what college costs today and how much work it takes to succeed, it can be really hard to go through the motions when you feel like you don’t have a focus — especially when it seems like everyone else knows exactly what they want to do with their lives.
But although college is supposed to prepare you (in theory) for the professional world, it’s also an important time of exploration. For me, going to a liberal arts school with every possible major available, I spent those first two years taking classes in different subjects across the board, from non-fiction writing to political science to fine art to German.
And things finally seemed to clicked in the second semester of sophomore year when I took a graphic design class. Here was the combination of art and business I’d been looking for but didn’t know existed.
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Finding creative solutions to marketing problems seemed perfect; I could easily picture myself doing this every day. Plus, because I had prior experience with graphic design software from high school, the classes were a breeze, which at the time only further convinced me that I was doing the right thing. I was finally ready to declare a major in graphic design.
In my junior year, I landed a graphic design internship at the major city magazine in my state, which felt nothing short of my big break into the industry. Commuting into the city three days a week, I felt like a real professional-in-the-making, getting a taste of what my fabulous career at a magazine would be like. I was Lauren Conrad at Teen Vogue.
The internship was like many others — no coffee fetching, but a lot of busy work and little creativity. Occasionally, however, the magazine gave me the opportunity to mock up page layouts or handpick photos for them to purchase and use in real articles. It was in those moments, which should’ve been exciting, that I started to realize something was off.
The constant back-and-forth with the senior graphic designers drove me crazy. Having to take the same images and text and try to come up with 10 different arrangements for them bored me to tears. Calling up restaurants and hotels for photo permissions terrified me. And I wasn’t taking criticism well, not because I felt like I knew better, but because I didn’t care enough to grow.
Instead, I kept catching myself reading the articles I was supposed to be laying out, editing the text in my mind rather than designing pages. I spent more time speaking with the editorial team than my fellow designers. Unsurprisingly, a post-internship job offer from the art department never came.
By the end of that semester, it was too late to change my major. I’d never graduate on time if I switched at that point, with all the requirements I’d already completed. I tried to fight the feeling that the magazine had given me, but when my classmates gushed about their favorite designers and typefaces and software, I felt like an outsider. When they became totally engrossed with their senior capstone projects, I just did the bare minimum in order to get the grade. I had no passion for it.
After I graduated, I started applying for graphic designer positions because that’s all I thought I could do. My lack of passion must’ve translated onto my résumé, because I hardly got any responses. Then, my lack of enthusiasm ruined any interview I was lucky enough to get. Instead of looking at what I could do to improve, I blamed my college for its lack of post-grad help and connections.
While on Tumblr one day, I came across a job ad for an unpaid pop culture writer for a startup media site in the U.K. I was fiercely in love with One Direction, one of the site’s most popular topics, and felt like I’d found the perfect outlet for my fandom knowledge. I applied on a whim and got the gig.
I managed to move that position from unpaid to paid, and from freelance writer to section editor, all in the course of a year. The non-fiction writing classes I’d taken for fun as a freshman and a sophomore helped give me a foundation, and my graphic design background even came in handy; I stood out from other writers when I was able to make GIFs and other assets to accompany my pieces.
To say “everything happens for a reason” may be too cliché, but it felt like, in a roundabout way, I’d somehow managed to lay down the stepping stones to get to where I needed to be.
Now, I work as a pop culture writer at multiple publications during the day while I get my Master’s in writing and publishing at night. If I hadn’t taken that time to explore other subjects in college, and if I hadn’t interned at that magazine, I may never have realized that my true passion was writing.
Even though it took some months of working for free (thanks for taking me back in, Mom and Dad!) in order to build a portfolio, now I actually feel like I’m doing what I love.
In the end, your undergrad college major is just that — a college major. It doesn’t define your abilities, and it doesn’t have to limit the directions you can go professionally. There’s always room to grow and change if you’re willing to work for it.