When I was 18, I had everything figured out. This was back when high school mattered (hilarious, I know) and studying more than an hour for a test was a rare occurrence. It was also around this age that I decided to study aerospace engineering at UT.
In high school, the only class I looked forward to was AP physics. Mr. Misage, the teacher, provided daily excitement. We rolled cans down an incline to demonstrate moments of inertia and constructed a magnetic accelerator cannon to analyze magnetic fields. These things seemed cool to us. I decided to study aerospace engineering because not going to college was not an option and because I didn’t really want to study anything else — I spent my childhood reading science fiction books. With UT’s prestigious engineering school in my hometown, it was an easy choice.
Aerospace engineering, it turns out, is not like AP physics with Mr. Misage. Instead, it’s sitting at a computer and writing code until the wee hours of the morning and debugging it for even longer, or watching mechanical grips attempt to bring different materials to their breaking point, over and over.
What I have discovered is not that Mr. Misage misled me or even that I dislike my coursework as an aerospace engineering student. Rather, remembering now what I was like when I was 18, I can’t believe that I was allowed to make any decisions at all.
At 18 years old, I was still a child, just like most people are at that age. Yes, an 18-year-old is legally an adult, and the military will give him lethal weapons if he signs on the dotted line — but that doesn’t change the fact that he is (as I was) still quite clueless about the world.
So, as a child, I sat down and checked the box that said “aerospace engineering.” I mean, why not? Engineering sounded cool, and I liked math and science. Plus, UT’s engineering program is one of the best in the country.
Then my thoughts turned to money. What 18-year-old doesn’t want to be rich? Engineers are among the highest-paid graduates directly out of college. And let me tell you, at 18, money seemed like a perfectly good reason to spend four years of my life in a classroom.
It’s unfortunate, but for all intents and purposes, my thoughts really stopped there. The seeming simplicity of it all was satisfying, and with my college decisions over, I could get back to my video games.
Now, three years later, I only vaguely remember my application and that little box with the life-altering decision hidden behind it. I’ve grown up a bit. Not because anyone taught me how, but because I’ve gained experience in the real world.
With my newfound maturity, I’ve realized a few things. I got lucky in that I actually enjoy what I do. Given the opportunity to pick my major again today, I would still choose aerospace engineering, but for different reasons than the ones I had in high school. My major is fulfilling, but not in the way I thought it was going to be. I don’t get to roll cans down an incline. The quick thrills of introductory physics are long gone. But aerospace engineering is satisfying when, after months of tedious work, my peers and I can create something truly impressive. When I graduate and get a job, I look forward to building satellites, orbiters, spacecrafts or rockets, or being a part of something that I read about growing up.
I’m certainly not in aerospace engineering just because of the prospect of a high-paying job, but I know many people who are, and that upsets me. My experience has led me to the conclusion that the most important thing is that what I do makes me happy. In retrospect, it seems unwise to choose a major based on the possibility of a high-paying job down the road. It doesn’t help that this society assigns moral value to seeking a high salary. For me and many of my peers, not going to college was never an option. Many people go to college simply because they feel obligated to do so, but they don’t have a realistic idea of what they want to study.
In many ways, I got lucky. My 18-year-old self made a choice from which my 20-year-old self is benefitting today. But given that there are big questions about the value of a college education and who should get one, it would behoove society, and parents of high school seniors in particular, to recognize that the path through college is not always a straight line and that the time spent trying to find that path will never be time wasted.
Simmons is a aerospace engineering junior from Austin.