Exploritory Program introduces undeclared students to possibilities

Sent off to college alone and without a concrete idea of what is in store for the next four years of her life is the undecided student. She stands in a boundlessly stretching field, amid tall grass and boulders, with no clear path in sight. She glances over her shoulders, examining the entire 360-degree view of what could be hiding in store for her in this unfamiliar place. She feels alone, believes she is the only one for miles and miles stuck in this territory, not knowing what to do or where to go. Little does she know there are dozens of other students in that same field with her, all feeling similar.

This is where Johnson State College’s Exploratory Program steps in to help.

Created approximately five years ago by the Advising Center, the Exploratory Program consists of extensive advising opportunities and a class called Explore and Connect. Students who enter JSC with undeclared as their major are offered the opportunity to participate in this program, to help them begin to understand in what direction they would like to head during their time at JSC and afterwards.

“[It is] designed to introduce [students] to all of the majors at JSC, and also to get them thinking about who they are, what they’re good at, and what they might want to do when they graduate from Johnson,” said Sara Kinerson, director of advising.

While the Advising Center has always offered assistance for undeclared students exploring their options, Kinerson found that students were not taking advantage of her resources.

“It wasn’t really working, because students weren’t coming to see us, as friendly as we are. It’s kind of a timing thing,” said Kinerson. “You come here, you’re a freshman, you just got out of the house. Most students are here getting to know new people, and getting to know what it’s like to be on your own, how to do laundry and manage your own schedule. There’s so much going on that thinking about what I want to do when I graduate and what do I want to major in doesn’t sit on the front burner at that moment.”

While Kinerson wants to get some ideas flowing in student’s heads, she does not want to have students feel like declaring a major is an urgent matter as soon as they enter college. Instead, she wants to help prevent stress in future semesters. This is where the class Explore and Connect, co-taught by Kinerson and Advising Programs Coordinator Lizi Lyon, can help to start the exploration process.

“It started out as workshops,” Kinerson said, “non-credited, and it’s now a credited course. In that class we have faculty from all the different majors on campus come and present to students. It’s getting better every year. The faculty come and talk about the courses in their major, what types of courses they would take, what kinds of internship and research opportunities are available in the major, what types of careers previous students have landed in, having graduated in their major, and career paths for their major. They also share their personal story, which is some of the best content that they share.”

For Dr. Gina Mireault, professor of behavioral sciences, that personal story includes being open to new research focus ideas. “In my own work, I have changed my research focus three times, and each time has given me a new shot of energy and allowed me to develop a new expertise. That’s incredibly gratifying,” said Mireault. “One’s career can evolve and change with the individual, at least if they are in a line of work or in an organization that allows them to continue to evolve.”

She is one of the many faculty members that continuously dedicate time to presenting to undeclared students, passionately telling them to follow their hearts into a career path.

“I tell students, including my own college-aged children, to be led by their hearts, and to have a little faith in that process,” Mireault said. “As adults, most of us will spend about a third of our day-to-day lives working.  The world needs people in love with, inspired by, and energized from their work. You won’t know what your work will be for a little while yet, but if you choose a major that you love and that loves you, then you will create the opportunities that connect you to meaningful work. “

Mireault’s admonition rings true for many in the program. “I didn’t want to devote myself to a program that I ended up not liking,” said student Brandyn Hults, who participated in the Exploratory Program and found his passion in forensic psychology.

Aside from faculty presentations, Kinerson and Lyon help students to discover different pathways through advising and strength assessments that consider many aspects of a person and their skills.

“We really focus on a variety of things,” said Kinerson. “What do you like? What are your strengths? What are you good at? When you talk to your friends and family, what do they think you’re good at?”

For that undeclared student, who feels somewhat more equipped but needs more assistance to navigate through the field; the program does not just let the students go without the tools that they need to finally make a decision.

“At the end of this class, we provide them with a personalized next-steps manual,” said Kinerson, “We have them rate all of the majors. Throughout each presentation, we have them rate their interest, things they found unique about the major. We show them their top-rated majors to remind them, because it had been a whole semester and by the end you might forget which ones you liked. So we provide them with that feedback and the contact information for the people who presented so they know whom to contact if they want to talk about the major more. We provide them with all of the results of the different assessments they’ve taken, and we provide them with the content for the majors that they had interest in so they can see the course listings and internship opportunities. And then we provide them with next steps, and those vary depending on where they’re at. Quite a few of them are ready to declare after sitting through the whole semester and hearing presentations.”

Hults said, “It helped me push for what I was looking for.”