Undeclared: Reflections of an Alum
By: Sarah Smith '22
This is part of a series on the Undeclared Program at York College of Pennsylvania.
I recently sat down with Jacob Carlson, a fellow Undeclared alum. Jacob graduated in spring 2022 with a B.S. in Recreational Leadership. He was President of the Recreation and Leisure Student Association, a member of Best Buddies, and a Peer Mentor for a student with autism. Jacob was also involved with the Undeclared Program as a Peer Advisor (PA). Here’s what he had to say about his time as an Undeclared student and as a Peer Advisor.
Could you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself?
I'm from Downingtown, Pennsylvania—that's where I'm at right now. I started off Undeclared. Went in thinking maybe Econ., maybe Sport Management. Then I realized the business side of things really isn't for me. And in my exploration I stumbled upon Recreation. My second semester, I declared Recreation Therapy as my major and graduated Class of 2022 in May.
How did you choose York College?
My college exploration process in high school was a little bit all over the place. I was Undeclared, and I didn't know exactly what major or program I was interested in. I know for some students that guides their exploration. That wasn't really the focus of mine. It was more finding a college that suited all the other aspects such as size, location, all that kind of stuff. I was looking at a bunch of schools within a two-hour radius from Downingtown, and my guidance counselor in high school had said that I should visit York College.
After visiting for Accepted Student Days and tours, I realized that once I was on campus, it was really neat and was a campus that I really liked. There were a lot of really cool staff members that I was able to interact with during those Open Houses. I realized that maybe York is the perfect option for me, and it really did work out in the end.
Can you describe a little bit about how you initially felt being Undeclared? I know personally when I was Undeclared, I felt very nervous. Everyone else had their major and they were settling in, and I felt very much like I didn’t fit in because I hadn’t declared a major.
That's a very good point to bring up. I will say that I had those feelings before I even started at York. I know senior year of high school, the biggest conversation is “Where are you going to school?” and “What are you studying?” And there's this huge stigma around being Undeclared. You don't know what you want to do. I’m not sure if shame is the right word, but it's weird and I always felt like I was—I guess like even a failure. That’s not the best way to put it, but it's just this really weird feeling where it seems like everyone has it figured out, but you're kind of lost. Looking back on it, that's not how it should be.
Once starting college, it's still the same thing, because then you're surrounded by so many people who know exactly what their major is. The way to get to know people is to say, “Hi, what's your name? What's your major?” That's just common college etiquette and even then still there's stigma around saying, “Oh, I'm Undecided right now.” I definitely agree with those feelings that you mentioned. It's almost a sense of isolation and you don't have it figured out, but there's no reason for that to be a bad thing.
When did you declare Recreational Therapy as your major? Did you take advantage of any of the resources that the Undeclared Program gave you?
If I remember correctly, it was still in my first year. I absolutely took huge advantage of all the resources that were offered. In my summer orientation when we were picking our classes for our first semester at York, I had chosen a few different general classes, and then I had one other class to take. I decided to take Recreation. If I remember correctly, my cousin was interested in Hospitality Management, and somehow I managed to get Hospitality Management and Recreation confused. Best mistake I ever made!
In that first Intro to Recreation class, I found the field of Recreation Therapy that had been talked about and I thought it was really neat, so I went to my professional advisor, Kia Kuresman. After a meeting or two, I felt like it was the route to go. Kia connected me with Julie Saville, who is the Coordinator of the Recreation and Leisure Administration.
Having a meeting with my professional advisor in the Undeclared program was unique to me, because coming from high school, things like that never happened. And then you're in college and I thought it was really, really neat that the program has all these connections and they know countless staff members and countless faculty that they can get you connected with. That was a really beneficial opportunity for me. I also took advantage of other opportunities, such as the Majors and Minors Fair. I was in contact with my Peer Advisor at the time, so all those aspects helped me feel supported, and they helped me along with the process of finding my major.
Did the Undeclared Program help you choose your major, and if so, how?
It definitely helped. I didn’t know about the field beforehand, so I think the introduction to it came from exploring Intro to Recreational Therapy, which technically was the Undeclared Program itself.
Stephanie Perago, who is the Coordinator of Undeclared Student Advising, helped me make my schedule during summer orientation. Right from the beginning, before I was technically in the Program, she helped me and said that I should explore different programs and different classes. That's a huge thing.
The Undeclared Program is all about exploration, and figuring out what you're interested in, what you're not interested in, and, right from the beginning, exploring that class was part of the program and it did help me find what I wanted. The support is what allowed me to figure out that this was a program that's right for me and ultimately allowed me to declare it as a major.
Could you talk a little bit about what features or aspects of the Program helped you the most?
First things first, the Undeclared Program is awesome! That's what I would say to any incoming student who is going into it.
I think Stephanie Perago says it very well in her go-to quote that “I advise, you decide.” They’re not telling you what to do, but they’re there to help you along the way. Ultimately, they are trying to get you to find the right major for the right reasons, which is also another term Stephanie Perago coined.
I think the most valuable aspect is the personalized nature and having that one-on-one connection with a professional advisor. There are staff members who are there solely to work with Undeclared students, and they know a little bit about every other major, which can help you figure out what exactly you want to do.
You may think “Why am I taking these classes?” But it is intentional. It really does work. It's this neat puzzle that you can put together, and it helps you explore all these different routes without wasting any time.
Can you talk about your experience as a Peer Advisor (PA)? Do you think it brought your experience full-circle, going from Undeclared to a PA?
I remember getting an email from Stephanie in January of my first year, right at the beginning of my second semester. She said come and apply to be a Peer Advisor. I was accepted and started as a PA that summer for Summer Orientation.
When students are crafting their schedules during Orientation, that's when we as PAs really step in and help. We help students figure out what classes to take, what they're interested in, and how they can make their schedule because they've never done this before.
We reach out biweekly with pertinent updates about what's happening on campus, giving some important dates for the Majors and Minors Fair or items such as withdrawal deadline and course registration. We’re also there to answer any questions that they may have.
And we're students, so we know the student side of things. We have our own kind of expertise, but we're also knowledgeable on the Undeclared process and everything that comes along with it. As far as coming around full circle, that was definitely a neat experience for me. In a sense, it almost felt like I was giving back to the College. I've been in the students’ shoes. I know how it feels. I know they might be scared. I know they might be nervous.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I can't stress enough how valuable the Program is. It's one of those things where it doesn't feel like it works. But it does.
For students who are Undeclared, the Program works. Don't let the stigma around being Undeclared scare you. Don't let the stigma sway you into declaring a major because you want to say, “I have a certain major picked out.” There's a ton of support here that's going to help you figure it out.