Taking the next big step

Two years ago, I was asked to talk about discernment and choosing a college major to a group of high school seniors from various schools in our city. I would like to share this talk here, in the hope that it will also provide a glimpse into what young people in the Philippines are expected to do and what they go through in considering higher education.

“Let us leave this mall for a moment, and imagine that we are in Wonderland – with Alice and the Cheshire Cat. Alice says:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Coming back to our own individual realities, we may realize that at some point in our lives, we find ourselves in Alice’s shoes, at the crossroads, wondering where we should go. One such turning point is graduating from high school and deciding what next big step to take. And when we reach that point, an important thing to remember is that unlike Alice, we can’t NOT care where we want to go, because which way we go DOES matter. Which means that the first question that we ought to ask ourselves is: “Where do I want to go?”

For many, the next logical and expected big step after high school is going to college. Unlike the move from primary to secondary school, however, where there is really no other way to go but forward, college presents its future “recruits” with a wide array of majors to choose from. Hence, there is a need to begin with the end in mind; one needs to discern what discipline will bring the most fulfillment and provide ample opportunities for personal, professional, financial, and, to some extent, spiritual growth while keeping one’s values intact and making a positive contribution to society. It is, definitely, a big personal decision to make – something that should not be taken lightly and should be done with a great deal of reflection and maturity.

In trying to answer the question “Where do I want to go?” and choosing which road to take, there is yet another question that needs to be asked: “Where am I now?” To quote Watts Humphrey, the father of Software Engineering, “If you don’t know where you are, a map won’t help.” Once you determine where you want to go, it is therefore equally important to know exactly where you are right now, because it will determine the road that you should take to get to where you want to go – and in the process, become who you want to be.

Fortunately, we live in an era where there are a number of tools and resources available for future college students to use in their process of discernment.

Academic Performance and Aptitude tests. Schools facilitate the administration of aptitude tests, the results of which may serve as a guide as to what one can learn and develop in the future. Aptitude is defined as “a natural ability to do something or learn something,” and this information, along with one’s academic performance, is helpful in determining one’s ability to hurdle the academic demands of a course or major. Academic performance alone may not be enough, because it may be influenced by a host of external factors. I, for one, never really performed as well academically in mathematics as I did in languages and social sciences in grade school and high school, and a lot of people thought I was destined for a career in the humanities or social sciences. Aptitude tests, however, indicated that my aptitude for mathematics is actually higher than my aptitude for languages, and I eventually did pursue a discipline and a career that was more mathematical, technical and analytical in nature.

Technology. This is, undeniably, the digital age, and it will be to your advantage to make practical use of your laptops, tablets and smart phones in preparing for college. Go online and research about what majors may be a good match for you, based on your reflection about your interests and your strengths. The internet has a lot of information about what courses are available, what skillsets are ideal for these courses or majors, and what career prospects are available for courses you are interested in, among others. Higher education institutions also have significant online presence, and you may read about what programs are being offered by the institutions that you are interested in; what their vision, mission and core values are, and how these may align with your personal values; what facilities they have; and what scholarships are available. If the institution is near enough, it is a good idea to actually visit the institution and experience your “future” campus life; you may even come together as a group and request for an orientation and campus tour. Request for a copy of the curriculum for your course preference, to give you an idea of the subjects that you may expect to take and how heavy your study load will be.

Conversations. In the interest of making an informed decision, you may talk to various people about your plans and preferences. You may talk to your high school guidance counselor, a trusted teacher, friends and family members. You may ask them about their perceptions as to your strengths and opportunities for improvement; and how they chose their college major, the College or University that they went to, their career, and why. It should be emphasized, though, that choosing one’s course is a PERSONAL decision; while it is certainly a good idea to seek the opinion of others, especially those who care for one’s well-being, the final choice will have to be made independently.

Reflection. To me, this is the most important part of the decision-making process. Take everything that you learned and realized from your academic performance, tests, research, and conversations with others, and think seriously about what all this information means for your future. What subject or activity is interesting to you? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What kind of effort are you willing to put in to overcome any difficulties that may come your way, because of the choice that you made?

We have, at length, been talking about the process that one will need to go through to make that ultimate choice of what course to take in college. It may be a good time to talk a little bit about the various “items on the College menu,” so to speak – and there are quite a number to choose from. Generally, these choices are classified into four main disciplines: Humanities, which includes History, Linguistics, Literature, Philosophy, Religion and the Arts, among others; Social Sciences, which includes Anthropology, Cultural and Ethnic Studies, Economics, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology, among others; Natural Sciences and Mathematics, which includes Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and, of course, Mathematics; and the Professions and Applied Sciences, which includes Business, Computer Science, Education, Healthcare, Law, Architecture and Engineering. Each of these disciplines will require a specific skill set and passion for the field, and it is your reflection and research that will determine which discipline is best suited for you and your personal aspirations.

The interesting thing about education – specifically, in this case, higher education – is that while it is a journey that one undertakes as an individual, its fruits are enjoyed not just by the person, but by the community and environment in which he or she lives. For us, that community, that environment, is Davao – is Mindanao. It is therefore appropriate to also discuss education in the context of contributing to the development Davao and Mindanao. The Mindanao Development Authority published Mindanao 2020, a Peace and Development Framework Plan that may be seen as a road map to the ultimate goal of peace and socio-economic development for Mindanao, in 2011. In choosing the next big step in your education, you, the youth of Mindanao, may also want to think in terms of being able to contribute to the development of Mindanao through: the promotion and development of sustainable and environmentally responsible practices in agriculture, aquaculture, forestry and mining; promotion and development of technology for the utilization of renewable sources for energy generation; identification and building of needed infrastructure; proper management of the environment and the economy; and promotion of ecotourism.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The future depends on what you do today.” Your tomorrows, therefore, will largely be determined by the planning that you will do today and how you nurture the knowledge that you have gained over the years. To the students here present, I give you a challenge also posed by Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And to answer that call, I quote Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So learn, reflect, discern… and see you in the tomorrow that you will make for yourselves.”

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