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Today’s college grads want to make a difference

Isabella Dougherty graduated from Wellesley College with a dual major in economics and Chinese language and culture.
Isabella Dougherty graduated from Wellesley College with a dual major in economics and Chinese language and culture.Wellesley College

If you thought computer science and engineering were tops among college majors, a look at the class of 2015 will surprise you.

Psychology, business administration, and economics were among the most popular majors for students earning a bachelor's degree this spring. Biology, criminology, and communication arts were right behind, while English, nursing, education, and finance rounded out the top 10.

"You can have all the money in the world, but if you're not happy and you don't enjoy your work, it's not worth it," said Levi Flood, 27, who left a lucrative career as a nuclear chemist with the Navy to earn a communications degree at Lasell College in Newton.

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With diploma in hand, the former Milford resident, now living in Arizona, and father of two is planning to go to divinity school and become a pastor while developing a writing career, goals he said his wife, Alicia, supports.

"I'd rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable," Flood said.

While some students considered practical issues — such as job forecasts and hefty paychecks — when deciding on a major, many embraced Flood's philosophy and pursued a passion.

"Students today really want to make change and add something to the world," said Mary Dunn, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions at Salem State University.

That may help to explain why psychology has become the most popular major on local campuses, with 1,430 students in the class of 2015 earning bachelor's degrees in the field.

"They've grown up watching crime shows and the Bruce Jenners of the world, all the crazy reality TV shows, so they're trying to understand how and why people and groups do the things they do. That curiosity about human behavior is really the thing that's driving students toward psychology," said Dunn.

"You can do so much with it, from working with children as a social and behavioral specialist to working with groups and trying to help businesses understand what makes people tick, how to make a company stronger."

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According to college officials, many of this year's graduates may have chosen a major based on their interactions with a particular professor.

"I always encourage students to experiment, to take classes in a couple of different fields and see whether they resonate with the professors in that department," said Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsay.

That worked for Isabella Dougherty, 22, who graduated with a dual major in economics and Chinese language and culture at Wellesley College.

"I came in undeclared," she said. "It wasn't until I took an intro course in economics that I decided it was something that I wanted to take as a major. The professor really hooked me in . . . found applications for every unit, every model that we studied so we could apply what we were learning in class to real-world policy decisions, like the Affordable Care Act."

Austin Drukker, 21, of Bedford, N.H., who graduated last month from Gordon College in Wenham, said he "got lucky" with his double major because he enjoys mathematics and economics, which are fields that happen to pay relatively well for those with new four-year degrees.

Annushree Patel received the President’s Award from Newbury College president Joseph Chillo at graduation.
Annushree Patel received the President’s Award from Newbury College president Joseph Chillo at graduation.Newbury College

In the fall, he’ll move to Washington, D.C., to work as a research assistant for the Brookings Institution, a renowned think tank.

"I didn't have a career in mind when I started college," said Drukker. "I took psychology and computer science classes. The liberal arts atmosphere really gave me the chance to find what I love, what I'm good at."

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According to Kenneth Tsang, a research associate for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a survey of 9,184 students who graduated with bachelor's degrees this year revealed those who majored in finance, insurance, and real estate commanded the highest median salary ($55,938). Those with degrees in education ($33,750) or English ($30,000) earned the least.

"This year, the job-offer rate has increased while the percentage of students who accepted an offer is down," added association spokesman Edwin Koc, noting that the offer rate for those earning a bachelor's degree this year is 51 percent, up from 48 percent for the class of 2014.

Meanwhile, the rate of students accepting job offers has fallen to 59 percent from 63 percent.

"The students are feeling better about the job market, so they're being more selective," Koc said.

Since the recession, engineering, accounting, finance, computer science, and math and business majors have logged the highest job-offer rate (topping 60 percent) while "the struggles have been with education and English majors," who have offer rates that hover just above 30 percent, according to Koc.

"In the last 10 years or so, we have seen a shift in the job sectors here in the US from manufacturing to the services industries, which require a higher skill level," said Fahlino F. Sjuib, chairman of the economics department at Framingham State University and codirector of the MetroWest Economic Research Center, which is based at the school. "The demand for skilled workers is only going to increase, and the one that is really going to gain a lot in the next 10 years will be the health care industry."

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That's great news for Kalliope Fabrikarakis, 22, of Watertown, who graduated last month with a bachelor's degree in nursing from Regis College in Weston. However, her decision to become a nurse was based less on labor forecasts and more on her desire to help others. As a teenager, she saw firsthand the kind of skilled care and comfort that nurses provide.

"My grandfather was very ill," said Fabrikarakis, who works at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, caring for new mothers in the postpartum unit. "Seeing the care he received drew me to this profession. I love caring for people, holding someone's hand through a procedure, or sharing in the joy of a new life."

For those who graduated with a degree in the liberal arts, it may be more difficult to go directly from campus to their first "real" job because their skills are not as specialized.

To get an edge on the competition, Gabriella Diniz, 22, of Taunton, an art major with a concentration in graphic design who received her bachelor’s degree at Bridgewater State University in May, completed an internship in her field last summer. The strategy paid off: Diniz landed a job at Regan Communications in Boston several months before she donned cap and gown.

"I came in as an anthropology major but decided halfway through my freshman year to switch to art, and as soon as I started with course work in the field, I knew it was the right thing for me," she said.

To find the fit that's right for them, students are encouraged to participate in an experiential program, such as an internship, and "get on a path toward exploration," said Greg Denon, assistant dean of student affairs and career development at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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"What we're trying to avoid is the engineering major who becomes a senior and realizes they don't like engineering."

Annushree Patel, 21, of Randolph, had her first hands-on learning experience at 16, when her parents went to India for a month and left her in charge of their convenience store. That inspired Patel to combine accounting with a field she loves — health care management — and pursue a double major at Newbury College in Brookline. She graduated in May with a job offer in hand.

"I am planning to go to graduate school, but first I want to work in health care finance for two or three years," Patel said.

She has accepted a position with the Triage Consulting Group, a San Francisco-based firm that focuses on health care finance, and will move to California this summer.


Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@ gmail.com.