(opinions) pathways

Students study in a Pritchard Hall study lounge, April 18, 2018.

Growing up, we are told to eat our vegetables so we can become healthy and strong. We groan and complain, but eventually accept that our parents have our best interests in mind; so, we begrudgingly take a few bites of the green stuff we detest. We may have even secretly liked that green stuff — but this we would never admit because it was incomparable to our one true love: mac n’ cheese, chicken nuggets or whatever it was that had your heart as a kid. 

In the interest of well-roundedness, and for our intellectual health and well-being, many universities have adopted general education programs; Virginia Tech has joined the movement with its Pathways to General Education program, the required curriculum all students must take in order to graduate. To a college student, these are the vegetables we detest but eat for our own good. 

It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of general education requirements. We resent not having the option to focus entirely on what it is that we really want to study. We go to college to get a degree in marketing, for example, and find ourselves spending hours on astronomy. Yes, we value education for the sake of education, but let’s be real: employment is our true aim, and it’s easier to learn for leisure when you’re earning a salary. 

The aim of general education is admirable, even if its execution is imperfect and frustrating. It strives to create a college experience that is about more than just getting the job. Students can become proficient in more than one area. We take writing, data analysis and music appreciation courses; then, we step into the workplace able to write that crucial email and dazzle our boss with our limited knowledge of Mozart. General education promises the creation of colorful, free-thinking and well-rounded people instead of robots dedicated to just one tiny slice of the world.  

An argument could be made that the general education requirements are not an impediment to specialization in one’s intended field of employment. Indeed, particularly at the outset of our college careers, general education requirements can help us identify our career callings: who knew you actually loved earth science? And more than ever before, the field we end up in does not perfectly align with our degree: English majors may end up in public relations, so that marketing requirement came in handy. 

“What we’re seeing now is a lot more jobs are very interdisciplinary,” said Dr. Biscotte. “They’re crossing all sorts of boundaries and you’re engaging in many different fields.” 

The Pathways program only began in 2018, so there’s a lot students don’t know about it, including the Pathways Minors — a component I see as key in taking advantage of the positive aspects of the Pathways program. There are currently 23 minors available for students to pursue and more on the way with titles ranging from “Peace Studies and Social Justice” to the one-worded “Innovation.” As of last year, only about 500 students were enrolled in these minors, but Dr. Biscotte estimates that that number has likely increased by one or two hundred since the fall.

Many students pursue general minors, but it’s clear that few students consider Pathways Minors. This is an oversight. Pathways Minors are thoughtfully curated by passionate professors; they are brand new, unique and relevant; most appealingly, they are structured to allow students to fulfill required Pathways credits along the way. 

“If you want to be strategic and check off general education requirements as you take a minor, then you’ll want to pick (a minor) that maps well with your major — that fulfills the stuff you’re not getting in a major,” Dr. Biscotte said. 

Many students believe general education requirements are more detrimental to their education than they are beneficial, which is a valid perspective. An English literature major may abhor math but have to take nine credits worth of courses in Quantitative and Computational Thinking. GPAs might suffer as a result; if the student manages to maintain their grades in these courses, their grades in their major classes may suffer instead. Pursuing a Pathways Minor can mitigate some of these issues.    

Students must take three foundational courses and three elective courses to complete the Pathways minor “Event and Experience Management,” a sum of 18 credits total as with most minors. One of the foundational courses is titled “Information Technology and Social Media in Hotel Management” and it fulfills the Advanced Quantitative and Computational Thinking Concept. So, a student pursuing this minor can now fulfill a Pathways Concept by taking a course in an area in which they are actually interested while simultaneously working towards completing their minor. 

Rather than taking one three-credit course to fulfill a requirement then never returning to the subject again, students can take one three-credit course, fulfill a requirement and continue to build upon their knowledge in that subject throughout the rest of their minor courses.  

“It gets you outside your major a bit and gets you some gen ed, but it's also meant to do that in a very meaningful way by connecting back to your major repeatedly, as opposed to you taking that course one time and you're done,” Dr. Biscotte said when asked about the benefits of Pathways Minors. 

Notwithstanding these benefits of Pathways Minors, the general education requirements can still cause students problems in navigating course selection, prerequisites and major requirements. Freshman Becca O’Connor explains how she grappled with the Pathways requirements and how they played into her thought process when attempting to decide her major.

“What I started realizing is that it would be pretty doable to double major, though both of them don’t exactly go hand in hand, if Pathways weren’t required,” O’Connor said. “It’s still doable for me, but it would just be a very heavy course load and probably include some summer classes.”

This is not an uncommon experience; it is where Pathways has the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of general education requirements helping students realize an uncharted passion, students can be hindered from pursuing their existing passions. Students may decide that pursuing that second major is not worth the headache when 45 Pathways credits must be taken into account. 

Programs like Virginia Tech’s Pathways to General Education can create more stress and scheduling problems for students while not necessarily achieving the intended goal of forming well-rounded students. That is why universities are constantly striving to make these programs more relevant to students and less of a burden. With enhancements like Pathways Minors and a program director who welcomes criticism and input from anybody who cares to offer it, the program is edging a bit closer to achieving its intended goals.