How to choose a major

Thoughts on meaning from Marquette University alumna Daria Kempka

Every year, around spring commencement, the headlines pop up like dandelions in my Twitter feed: “Why college is a waste of money” and “The 13 most useless degrees.”

Journalism, education and fine arts are always in the top five. Google “best college majors,” and you’ll find nearly every article leads with a discussion of salary.

But I’ve never heard a commencement speaker say: “Let us mark this milestone, your graduation, the day you begin your lifelong quest to get, and keep, a nice safe desk job.”

Imagine Marquette’s motto if we championed the notion that your salary is what makes your life count.

“Be self-centered.”

“Men and women for money.”

I once had a student who should have gone to art school. But her parents made her major in journalism believing it would be more practical. (Perhaps they didn’t see those articles.)

She slogged through four years, passed her classes and got her degree, but her heart wasn’t in it.

I don’t criticize her parents. They want the best for their child. But the trouble with their logic is that her lack of interest would inevitably show up in her work, making her an unlikely candidate for a journalism job, even if she were actually to apply for one.

She does love photography and she has a good eye. She may wind up in this career anyway. If this had been her major, she could have started so much sooner.

I, on the other hand, was free to study whatever seemed interesting. Painting and sculpture were my thing, so I earned a bachelor of fine arts. Now I design websites and apps and teach part time. I found my way to my digital career in my last year of college when I took my first Photoshop class and was instantly hooked. Later, I landed a web development internship at one of Milwaukee’s first digital startups because of the connections I made — as a bartender.

My manager Tom has a similar story. He jokes that the Internet was the savior for all Gen X liberal arts majors. But, the truth is, in those pre-web days, he found work in broadcasting, just as I had found work teaching art in an alternative high school, designing ceramic tile and painting portraits. There are many ways to earn a living using creative skills.

The point of these anecdotes is that that the path to vocation can be indirect. And we all know a college degree doesn’t guarantee secure employment.

So what then is the purpose of a university? Many would say it’s to provide graduates with high-salary jobs and employers with skilled labor.

But one might be surprised to learn that 60 percent of millennials give considerable weight to purpose when choosing a job, according to a 2014 Deloitte study on generations in the workplace.

A similar report from the Brookings Institute said they are the least likely cohort, compared with other age groups, to say “money is the best measure of success.” They want meaningful work in line with their values.

Last fall, I travelled to El Salvador with a group of Marquette faculty, staff and students. We went to honor a housekeeper, her daughter and six Jesuit leaders of the University of Central America 25 years after they were murdered by government forces whom the priests had opposed for terrorizing and oppressing citizens.

One of the leaders, Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., proclaimed, years before he was killed, that the true purpose of his university was to “set about solving the unacceptable problem of injustice in countries throughout Central America. And to do this, he said, “we must educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation.”

This is a powerful way to think about why a university should exist and why to study at one.

Imagine if Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service were raided for reporting on the unacceptable problem of poverty and segregation in Milwaukee (which it does).

Or imagine being a target of government violence for teaching your subject — and then doing it anyway because it’s that important.

What if that story on the best college majors was re-framed in this way? Journalism might get top rank. The story might highlight Meg Kissinger’s investigative reporting in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the city’s troubled mental health system. It would show how her work changed policy and led to systemic reforms. It would remind us that a government by the people, for the people and of the people cannot exist without a free press and brave journalists like James Foley who hold governments accountable.

It would point out that the best major is the one that helps us find that “place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” as Frederick Buechner said. It would say the best major best equips you to do your very best work — for others. It would remind us that to have an education is to have an obligation.

It would say the most useless major is the one you only choose for the money.

Sister Peggy O’Neill at her Art Center for Peace in Suchitoto, El Salvador

In El Salvador, we visited Sister Peggy O’Neill, SC, who runs an arts center to help residents heal from the trauma of civil war. She was also Marquette’s spring 2015 commencement speaker.

“Get a life,” she advised graduates. “A real life. Not just the manic pursuit of the next promotion, the larger house, the greener lawn, the bigger paycheck.

“Get a life in which you are generous.

“Give yourself away.

“Bless others, like Jesus did, with the very substance of your life.”

It would be cruel to dismiss the practical concerns of parents and students, especially because their tuition contributes to my security. So I’d like to end with a few last thoughts rephrased from Sister Peggy’s address.

May her words give us strength in uncertain times.

“Oh, those most quoted words of the Declaration of Independence, would that it read: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness. The pursuit of truth. The pursuit of justice. And, oh, yes, happiness will follow.”

Daria Kempka is director of digital strategy at Marquette University, where she also received her M.A. in Mass Communication and teaches design. This essay was originally created for the 2015 issue of Comm, the magazine of Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.