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Economy worries college students choosing a major

Jared Yule started college in Delaware last fall with clear goals: a major in business and a career in finance.

Then the recession turned his plans upside down. Now he's back home, having transferred to Molloy College, an undecided major in an uncertain economy.

"I had been thinking business, but with the recession I don't think that's a good major to pursue right now," said Yule, 18, who lives in Queens. "It's hard going - my sister went to NYU and got a master's in psychology with a 4.0 GPA and she can't find a job. If you choose the wrong thing, it could be a big problem for your future."

As students return to class at many local colleges this week, advisers say mounting job losses and stories of struggling, out-of-work graduates have spiked students' already high anxiety about picking a major.

Yet their counsel, unlike the economy, remains the same: Pursue your passion.

"Although the economy and job market are important, it's changing rapidly and three years from now, things could be totally different," said Suzanne Dagger, director of career services at Hofstra University. "You've got to pick based on what you're interested in."

That's often a tough sell, says Mike Santaniello, a sociology professor at Molloy College who has been advising students with undeclared majors for 14 years.

He says while there are no hard figures, he has seen "a definite uptick" in the number of students at Molloy still undecided about their major. And there are even more, he said, who are psyching themselves out.

"They're coming to me, they're confused, they're distraught; they say, 'I don't know what I want to be,' and I tell them, 'You want to be a college graduate,' " Santaniello said.

Most schools require that students choose a major by the end of their sophomore year, and many advisers counsel undecided students to take a full year before settling on one.

"I use the buffet analogy," Santaniello said. "Try a little bit of everything and see what you like."

For Yule, that means taking some criminal justice classes this fall. "By the end of this semester, I would like to have a major, but I have no idea what it will be. I think maybe criminal justice, but that could change in a heartbeat. My adviser keeps telling me not to worry about it - that everyone finds what they're going to do eventually."

To help undecideds along, Hofstra's career services department is piloting a new program this fall to help them navigate the path toward picking a major. Ten students will meet once a week for two months and participate in a series of exercises designed to reveal their talents, skills and interests. By the end of eight weeks, the goal is for each to choose a major.

"They come in thinking they absolutely have to know what they're doing from the beginning of freshman year," said Jayne Brownell, assistant vice president of student affairs. "But they are putting false pressure on themselves, and placing too much importance on the choice of a major in determining life success."

Brownell ought to know. She majored in women's studies at Rutgers University. "When people asked me my major and what I was going to do when I graduated, I didn't have an answer," she said. She spent five years as a business manager for an advertising company right after graduation.

"You're not going to have one career anymore," she said. "That isn't the way the world works. I think my education served me very well over time."

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