By Emily Talley (SED’17)
Today, I’m going to give a shout out to one of academia’s underdogs: the five year undergraduate degree program. There’s a lot of much-needed anecdotal advice for the typical college freshman, but this is advice that could apply to anyone at any stage in their undergraduate career, including you. Allow me to make a case for that misunderstood fifth year.
Let’s start with the obvious question, “why would anyone take five years to complete something that could be done in four?” Students do an extra year so that they can change majors, double major, add a minor, add several minors, take a semester off, take a year off, transfer universities, go part time, maintain a more sustainable credit load, find Waldo, find themselves, or anything else you can think of. The idea is that you would not be alone in your extended undergraduate career, and you would definitely not be disadvantaged. Repeat after me: There is no wrong way to get a degree. Say it out loud. Say it again! Are you feeling good yet? Your degree will be the same size and shape no matter how you go about constructing it, so choose to build it around your personal wants and needs.
Let me tell you about my own experience. I’m a fourth year dual degree student studying Modern Foreign Language Education (French) and English. There are a lot of advantages to pursuing both degrees. Most importantly, I am shamelessly devoted to both languages. French is poetic. English is poignant. Furthermore, I discovered twice as many new favorite authors in the past four years. My job opportunities are doubled. I could move to any French or English speaking country in the world and teach in either or both languages. I have twice the academic networks. The post-grad possibilities have more than just doubled! I’m spending five years getting degrees that, done separately, would take eight years.
I also chose to take a semester off to focus on my health, but I was originally mortified. I’m the kind of person that needs to be busy, accepts as many opportunities as I can juggle, and has a difficult time distinguishing between “over-achieving” and “standard expectations of myself.” I thought, “How does one fill four months of an empty calendar?” Well, I chose to fill it with wellness and adventure. I became a dramaturg for a production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds; from there I assisted the director, designed the lobby display, learned how to change a marquee, worked on the set build, contributed a note to the program, hosted a nightly discussion with the audience, and decided that I want to pursue dramaturgy as a career. I also had ample time to investigate grad schools, set up an application timeline for the next year, fit GRE prep comfortably into my schedule, and develop a thorough post-grad plan that I otherwise wouldn’t have had time for. I volunteered editing college applications and essays, taught international poetry to my seventeen year old brother, and began a new etymology research project. I also learned three new oil pastel techniques, visited four states, three museums, and six beaches, hiked countless miles, and filled two journals. Now, I am back at school with re-focused goals, an improved work ethic, a strong plan for the future, and better health.
As my peers share their senior portraits, beg me to edit their grad school applications, bite their nails about The Real World, and look forward to doing something new, I’m having a regular spring semester, enjoying the opportunity to have a bit more time. I have a bit more time to work on my cover letter skills, a bit more time to attend Third Thursdays at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a bit more time to research internships and grad schools, a bit more time to volunteer with the Dean’s Hosts, and a bit more time to appreciate the reasons I’m on this adventure.
So here’s to the fifth year of undergrad. Here’s to the bonus package and the extra benefits. Here’s to the in-between adventures. Here’s to the extended opportunities. Here’s to the victory lap.