Majors are Secondary: How Do You Want to Change the World?

By Heather Nester

Connecting Students’ Education to the World’s Problems

Students express ongoing concern about their chosen majors and careers. A study of two- and four-year public and private college programs found “51% of students were not confident in their career path when they enrolled in college” and nearly two-thirds of students surveyed expressed feeling overwhelmed when selecting a college major (Ellucian, 2019, p. 5). The “anxiety students often experience around choosing a major is at best challenging, and at worst debilitating” (Nester, 2022, p. 200). Career services professionals continually support students as they make educational or vocational decisions.

Data shows career courses and programs support career decision-making at the college level (Folsom & Reardon, 2003). At the University of Cincinnati, career education student learning outcomes are integrated into every undergraduate program (University of Cincinnati, 2017). One touchpoint, designed for first-year undecided students, is PD1070: Exploring Professional Paths. Students enrolled in the course are either in the Exploratory Program because they are genuinely exploring their options and applied to it directly, or they did not get into their first choice major and are in this program.

During the Fall 2022 semester, the institution integrated a new assignment into PD1070 with 60+ students. To broaden their exploration, majors were not the primary consideration. Instead, students focused on the question “What problems do you want to solve?” in alignment with the Challenge Mindset which shifts the focus “on finding challenges to tackle instead of job titles to fit into” (Michel, 2022). It allows students to

  1. identify challenges they are passionate about solving,
  2. connect how their individual skills can impact the challenge, and
  3. decide which majors/careers allow them to utilize their skills to change the world.

Laying the Foundation: Providing Context  

Early in the course, students reflected on their career values and strengths to have a stronger understanding of themselves as growing professionals. Students were then shown examples of how challenges can connect to multiple majors. The reflection process emphasized large challenges cannot be solved within the silo of a single industry. Lasting change takes collaboration and innovation. Table 1 is an example of the ways one global challenge relates to diverse academic programs.

Table 1

Diverse Academic Programs Related to a Healthy Living Challenge



Middle Childhood Education

Educate children on the basics of being active, eating healthy and practicing self-care

Nutrition & Dietetics

Community education on proper nutrition and meal plan creation


Marketing campaigns for healthcare-focused non-profit organizations


Study the chemical make-up of drugs to create new medicines

Political Science

Propose legislature that impacts the use and spread of healthcare-related knowledge

Biomedical Engineering

Create medical devices that impact people’s lives


Students selected the top they challenges they were interested in from a list of several dozen challenges. The list offered challenges addressing Students were asked to select the top three challenges they were interested in out of 34. The options covered challenges in the future of work in areas such as health, technology, society, environment, and the economy. Throughout the semester their selections influenced their major and career search activities. This approach allowed undecided students to explore and feel “best supported by an approach that honors multiple majors and career possibilities” (Buford & Nester, 2020).

Istock 1329013245 Credit Insta Photos

Final Projects: Career Challenge Presentations

For their final assignment, students formed groups and presented on one of the 34 career challenges. They were charged with

  1. sharing individual career goals,
  2. summarizing the importance of their selected challenge,
  3. selecting an employer relevant to their challenge to pitch to, and
  4. create an innovative idea to impact the career challenge with the support of their selected employer.

Students were required to include their intended majors in the pitch proposal. Table 2 highlights two examples of student-generated approaches.


Table 2

Connecting Career Challenges to Innovative Solutions and Diverse Majors




Challenge: Inspire Through Art with Greater Parks of Hamilton County

· Implement immersive art galleries with sustainable material,

· Create homes for small animals,

· Provide education on wildlife preservation

· Create scavenger hunts with educational rewards.

· Marketing: Inform visitors of the experience and features

· Communication Design: Convey new ideas regarding sustainability and preservation

· Architecture: Sustainable materials and practices used to create pieces

· Classical Civilization: Manage and curate galleries and ensure pieces are up to expectations of donors

· Interior Design: Spaces are immersive and interactive

Challenge: Advancing Virtual Reality with Meta

· Create virtual simulations for Firefighter Training

· Pre-Law: Ensure legality of the process and safety of participants

· Education – Science: Ensure virtual reality does not impact individuals in relation to biology/chemistry.

· Aerospace Engineering: Test and analyze virtual reality simulations


Based on presentations and student feedback, students were able to connect real-world applications of the Challenge Mindset. One student shared, “I enjoyed this assignment. I felt it tied in values to a real-life company and things you think about when you apply for jobs.” By taking away the stress of focusing only on the major they selected, students were able to reflect on their interests and how they want to change the world. Once they were able to set a goal, it became easier to see their major as a tool to help them achieve their desire to make a difference.

Practitioner Suggestions

Whether career services professionals are in the classroom, leading a workshop, or coaching in a one-on-one session the following are good reminders:

  • Change Your Language: Take away some of the pressure. Reiterate selecting a major is not the only way to move forward. Remind them, ruling out one career is just as important as selecting one.
  •  Encourage Innovation: Allow students to creatively suggest how they want to impact the world. Sometimes over-prescription leads to stifled ideas and students feeling stuck with limited options.
  • Expand Their Circle of Influence: We can only research the careers we are aware exist. Encourage students to research additional majors and make connections with students/professionals in diverse fields.
  • Acknowledge the Changing World of Work with the Challenge Mindset: “Helping students explore real challenges instead of job titles, flipping the model, and advocating for reinvention are all approaches that help students integrate modern career exploration methodologies tailored to an ever-changing world of work” (Michel, 2022, p. 173).

The future of work continues to change, and we must change with it. As shared by filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, “The skills needed to succeed in today’s world and the future are curiosity, taking initiative, multi-disciplinary thinking and empathy” (Rainie & Anderson, 2017, Theme 2, para. 7). Through the Challenge Mindset, students can embrace their curiosity, take initiative in their career goals, and understand the importance of multidisciplinary work.



Buford, M., & Nester, H. (2020). A problem-solving approach to career exploration: Using the lens of challenge. National Association of Colleges and Employers. https://www.naceweb.org/career-development/organizational-structure/a-problem-solving-approach-to-career-exploration-using-the-lens-of-challenge/

Folsom, B., & Reardon, R. (2003). College career courses: Design and accountability. Journal of Career Assessment, 11, 421450. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1069072703255875

Ellucian. (2019). Course correction: Helping students find and follow a path. Ellucian. https://www.ellucian.com/assets/en/2019-student-success-survey-results.pdf

Michel, J. P. (2022). The challenge mindset: Empowering students to find meaning and purpose. In M. V. Buford, M. J. Sharp, & M. J. Stebleton (Eds)., Mapping the future of undergraduate career education (pp. 167-182). Routledge.

Nester, H. (2022). Infusing career into the curriculum and the problem of indecision. In M. V. Buford, M. J. Sharp, & M. J. Stebleton (Eds)., Mapping the future of undergraduate career education (pp. 200-216). Routledge.

Rainie, L., & Anderson, J. (2017, May 3). The future of jobs and jobs training. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/05/03/the-future-of-jobs-and-jobs-training/#:~:text=Tiffany%20Shlain%2C%20filmmaker%20and%20founder,multi%2Ddisciplinary%20thinking%20and%20empathy

University of Cincinnati. (2017). Career education student learning outcomes. https://www.uc.edu/about/provost/colleges-and-offices/offices/undergraduate-affairs/gen-ed-core-rd/career-ed-learning-outcomes.html


Heather NesterHeather Nester is an Assistant Professor of Career Education with a focus on multidisciplinary initiatives at the University of Cincinnati. She teaches and coaches students across industries and disciplines to pursue a job worth having as they individually define it. Her research focuses on career exploration and the development of professional identity and has presented at the local, regional, and international level. She holds an M.A. in Human Resources from the University of Cincinnati where she also earned a BA in Psychology and Communication. She can be reached at nesterhm@ucmail.uc.edu

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Dave McCall   on Monday 04/03/2023 at 02:39 PM

Heather, this is a fantastic lesson for career exploration. I do something similar that I call "Critical Issues/Critical Careers", but I like the expansion that this provides. I will be reaching out soon to hopefully learn more.

Betsy Jewell   on Monday 04/10/2023 at 02:56 PM

This is fantastic! I wish every college and university had a Heather Nester!

Joshua Byrd   on Thursday 04/20/2023 at 01:30 PM

This is excellent! Keep up the amazing work!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.