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Major mistakes


I decided my major in literally a split second. I was sitting in a room in 1879 Hall waiting for precept to begin, when I realized—suddenly — I was content. I felt happy to be in this world, in this school, in this room, in this body, and in that moment, I decided I would study religion. It was a pretty big decision to let my gut make for me, but it wasn’t totally random: I had always been concerned with spirituality and morality and meaning, I just hadn’t yet articulated to myself that religion might be the best way for me to pursue those interests.

If you had told me when I graduated high school that I would be a religion major, I would have laughed in your face. I took my first religion course because it was about film, and though religion sounded boring, film sounded cool. Plus, I needed an Ethical Thought and Moral Values class. My falling in love with the discipline came as a total surprise, and it always makes me smile to think that had I not been searching for a good EM, I never would have ended up in the religion department. This is partly why Princeton has these requirements —to encourage students to take things that seem boring or terrifying or alien to us. College, after all, is supposed to be the place where you find what you love and what you want to do. Your education is a journey, everyone says, neglecting to mention that the road becomes increasingly narrow as you get older. For A.B. students, it’s pretty much set in stone by junior fall. Engineers have it even harder: They choose a major freshman spring, and for both schools, it’s pretty hard to switch once you’re in a department. The Princeton website’s “Major Choices” page explains that such changes are rare, but “You may be comforted to know there are sometimes opportunities to change your mind.”


Never has anything been less comforting. Because, guys, seriously, what if we screw up? What if you think you love art, but you really love math? What if you stumble into an anthropology class after declaring another major and realize you love anthro more than English? I recently stared at the classes offered by the Center for Human Values with a sour feeling in my stomach, wondering whether — instead of dismissing them because they sounded pretentious — I should have actually looked into taking one. The thing is, though, that during my freshman and even in the beginning of my sophomore year, I would have rolled my eyes at the idea of studying ethics. It is only because of the work I’ve done this far in religion that I’ve realized I care — a lot — about morality. Maybe I should have thought harder about all my opportunities and not dismissed a whole school of intellectual thought so easily. But, honestly, how could I have known where my education would lead or that the decisions I was making would take me somewhere I didn’t expect? How could anybody?

College was once a place where I could do anything and be anyone, full of possibilities and promise, but the problem is that — if you’re doing college right — the whole spectrum of selves available to you necessarily has to get smaller as you go through it. You start out overwhelmed by your options, and everyone tells you to open every door you find, but come sophomore spring you walk through a door and find you can’t walk back through too easily. The volume of our independent work makes this choice especially heavy: Two years of immersing yourself in a subject can be awful if you’re not sufficiently fond of what you’re studying. Choosing what that will be feels huge, definite, absolute.

But my suspicion is that this choice is actually liberating, not restricting. I’m inclined to believe that the name “Princeton” on a diploma overshadows everything else. The exact discipline we major in means less, I think, than what we’ve learned, and our independent work actually offers us an opportunity to get interdisciplinary, to bend the rules. Even if I never do anything with religion for as long as I live, at least I’ve learned that I care a lot about a just society and ethical systems, and because of this, I have a better idea about the kind of life I’d like to live. Although sometimes when I think about all the things I could have done and could still be doing, I start to freak out a little, college doesn’t mean the end of our educations. It just means the end of college.

Susannah Sharpless is a religion major from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at