Published By Chicago Tribune Educaiton Today at:
During periods of economic hardship, worries about post-graduation jobs can lead students to play it safe, choosing the most marketable major they can find. So it's no coincidence that practical fields of study like engineering and business are booming. But what if mundane courses like finance and accounting don't make your heart beat faster with excitement?
Some students are bucking the practicality trend and deciding to study what they love. To Constantin Rosinariu, chair of the department of science and math at Columbia College Chicago, this is a wise strategy, economic conditions to the contrary. "When you do something you love, you unleash a lot of creative energy you would not have otherwise," he says. "You maximize your outcome and success by doing what you love."
Here's a look at three students who are following their academic dreams.
Student: Mark Sabbe Program: Kendall College, Culinary Arts
At 47, Mark Sabbe is the classic career-changer. After 20+ years in the advertising industry doing work he came to dislike, Sabbe was willing to walk away from a pre-recession six-figure income to find something that fed his soul. "I took one of those 'Are you doing what you should be doing with your life?' quizzes and realized it all came back to cooking for me," he says. "The thing that makes me happiest is making Thanksgiving dinner for my family. I realized I didn't care about eating it myself — I wanted to see what everyone else thought about it."
Sabbe started researching culinary classes, which led him to Kendall College. He planned to do a certificate program, but soon realized that just improving his knife skills or learning a few sauces wasn't enough. Instead, he quit his job and enrolled full-time in Kendall's associate degree program in culinary arts (he already has a bachelor's degree from Purdue University). "Making this change has been the best decision I've ever made in my entire life — I love being in the kitchen all day," he says.
Still, Sabbe found telling his parents a little challenging: "There was a brief silence, then cautious support—they were happy for me, but concerned about me financially." He knows that the food service industry tends to pay poorly, at least initially, but is optimistic about the opportunities that await him when he graduates in December. "People are always going to eat and there are always opportunities in food service. I've come to believe the old adage: Do what you love and the money will follow."
Student: Heather Diedrich Program: Roosevelt University, Sustainability Studies
Heather Diedrich didn't know what she wanted to do after high school, so she entered the workforce instead of going to college. "I didn't want to waste time or money until I knew what I wanted to do," she says.
But after several years of working as a server and in retail, Diedrich was ready to get serious about her education. She stumbled upon an announcement for Roosevelt University's brand-new undergraduate sustainability studies program and was intrigued. "It was just perfect for me. The topics to be studied — food, water, social responsibility — are what I like to read about and what I care about in life."
Launched in fall 2010, Roosevelt's sustainability studies major is the region's first interdisciplinary environmental studies program. "The program aims to integrate the sciences, social sciences and even the arts and humanities," says Mike Bryson, associate professor of humanities and sustainability studies. "We designed the major to complement studies in other fields like business, environmental science, political science and history. That way, our students can end up with a powerful program unique to their interests."
Bryson stresses that the Roosevelt program is not technical in nature. "If you want to learn how to install solar panels or design LEED buildings, this is not the program for you," he says.
That suits Diedrich, now 26, just fine. Her passion is food in Chicago: urban agriculture, vertical gardens, community gardens and equitable food distribution.
To her, studying a subject she loves was worth the wait: "I've known people who study subjects where they can make a lot of money but don't like the field and they never end up happy."
Diedrich sees a huge need for trained people to work on local food issues but is understandably cautious about the job market. "After graduation, I can get some volunteer experience if I can't find paid employment but I do believe that sustainability is a growing field," she says. "I will ultimately be able to find a good job in it as the economy improves. It's a risk I'm willing to take in order to do work I'm passionate about."
Student: Allison Cassidy Program: Columbia College Chicago, Art and Materials Conservation
Diedrich chose the program first, then the school, but 20-year-old Allison Cassidy was already enrolled at her dream school, Columbia College Chicago, when she found her ideal major: art and materials conservation.
This new program will prepare students to pursue graduate education in how to repair, protect and restore artworks of all kinds. Formerly, conservators were trained via the apprentice method, but the scientific and ethical demands in the field have increased to the point that formal education is needed. According to Rosinariu, who directs Columbia's program, the only two other U.S. undergraduate art conservation programs.
"Conservators are primarily scientists and detectives for whom an extensive knowledge of chemistry is vital," he says. "They must also understand materials science thoroughly to know how wood, canvas and paper will interact with other substances," Rosinariu says.
Rosinariu believes that Columbia's student culture makes the school a perfect fit for a conservation program. "There are students here who are art lovers at the core, but know they won't be professional artists. They have an appreciation of art and some of them have an equal appreciation of science. Now there is a program that fits them perfectly."
This assessment sums up Cassidy well. The sophomore had started as a theater major but quickly realized she did not have what it takes, though she didn't want to leave Columbia. "I didn't even know this job or type of program existed but the combination of art, chemistry and history connects many interests of mine," she says. "It feels like a well-rounded path where I won't be pigeonholed."
After completing the Columbia program, which includes a required year in Italy, students know they will need to attend graduate school if they wish to work as conservators. And the program will remain small, taking no more than 10 students per year, a policy Rosinariu says reflects the "selective" nature of the conservation job market.
Still, Cassidy is not unduly worried. "When you find what you love, you will work twice as hard at it as at something you don't love," she says. "And that means you'll be more likely to achieve success in your chosen field. I think it's worth throwing caution to the winds to make that happen."
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