By John Dudley, University Communications and Marketing
When Chedeline Dorelus decided to enroll at USF for the fall 2016 semester, she had nearly 30 college credits from high school and a plan to earn an English degree on a pre-law track.
Late that summer, Dorelus experienced doubts. She began feeling uncertain about whether she should attend law school or pursue something in the health field – perhaps a medical degree. She went online, changed her major to undeclared and entered USF’s Exploratory Curriculum (ECM) program. The program offers students the option to complete general education requirements while exploring unfamiliar academic disciplines and career fields.
At the suggestion of an ECM counselor, she took an elective course in public health, sparking an interest that ultimately guided her college and professional path.
“That class really cemented my decision as a major, and from then on I’ve been involved in public health,” said Dorelus, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public health from USF and became a senior human services program specialist for Florida Health.
She is now program director with Champions for Children at Layla’s House, a community-based learning and resource center that supports expectant parents and parents and caregivers of young children.
Exploratory programs, such as ECM, provide students more time and information to make what’s often a crucial decision while staying on track for a timely graduation. Although national data for such programs can be difficult to find due to inconsistencies in the way individual schools report on undeclared majors, USF data show that students who enrolled in ECM have experienced, on average, higher graduation rates than those who previously began their college careers as undeclared majors.
Shane Combs, an ECM advisor and an instructor in the Office of Undergraduate Studies, said the program’s success in improving outcomes for undeclared students helps to combat the myth that they are somehow less academically skilled, less passionate about college or less dedicated to graduating from USF.
For Dorelus, ECM provided the resources and environment to help her find the right fit for a major and a career. Her program counselor worked with her to create a document that helped her identify an academic program “that would be the intersection of my passion and skills,” she said.
Like Dorelus, students who enroll in ECM arrive directly from high school. Many share the same uncertainties about how to make seemingly monumental decisions about their futures amid an evolving employment landscape.
“For me, what’s even more important, is not just teaching them how to choose a major, but how to make a choice,” Combs said. “On the surface level, we know that who we are at 18 years old will not be the person we are at 40 years old. So how do I choose a major now when I can’t predict the future?”
Combs says that’s more true now than ever, with some students likely to land jobs in industries or with companies that don’t exist today, and much more likely than their parents or grandparents to have multiple, distinct careers during their lifetimes.
Students who enroll in ECM are required to select a major after 36 credits, which usually means they are in the program for a full academic year – one fall, spring and summer semester.
They choose from one of five pathways – Art and Humanities; Business; Global and Social Sciences; Health and Natural Sciences; and Math and Technology – but remain free to register for classes outside of their pathway or, ultimately, select an unrelated major.
At any given time, there are usually 250 or more students enrolled, most of whom have met Combs or another ECM advisor before they visited campus for the first time. Early contact is particularly helpful for students interested in STEM fields, helping to ensure they earn the necessary prerequisites while continuing to explore options.
An important part of their ECM experience is connecting with university resources, such as the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, Education Abroad and the Center for Career & Professional Development, along with research opportunities through USF’s Office of High Impact Practices and Undergraduate Research and learning about student clubs and organizations.
“Students now enrolling in college are starting internships much earlier than before,” Combs said. “They’re interested in networking and shadowing, and also in volunteer work. They come to campus ready to get engaged and make a difference immediately. They feel they can’t afford to wait four years to get a piece of paper before they start making a change in the world around them.”
Combs points out that while some students might arrive on campus uncertain about a major, they are already determined to find ways to affect change in their local and global communities.
“They are ready to learn and ready to make a difference, and now we want to teach them research and critical thinking skills,” Combs said. “That’s the secret sauce of college.”
Allison Crume, USF’s dean of Undergraduate Studies and associate vice president of Student Success, said the ECM program is another example of how forward-thinking institutions can meet the needs of students whose lives have been shaped by their experiences during the pandemic and will enter a rapidly evolving workforce upon graduation.
“We are proud to collaborate with academic programs across USF to offer Exploratory Curriculum Major pathways,” Crume said. “Students have the opportunity to engage in focused areas of interest as well as gain interdisciplinary skills. ECM gives students space to explore courses and careers to help them identify a successful academic plan.”