Student Spotlight: “Bricks Were Released Off My Shoulders”

Alyssa Panella had not heard of the Career Center until career consultant Erin Wheeler came into her first-year academic foundations class. Since then, the rising sophomore has been hooked.

Panella had been struggling with the decision to switch her major from biology to something that better suited her strengths when Wheeler spoke to her class.

“Biology didn’t seem to be the right fit for me, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to switch out or continue on with it,” she explains. “I worked with Erin for a few months at the end of my first semester and the beginning of my second semester freshman year to make the decision and I’ve never met anyone as helpful as her.”

Panella had started off as a biology major because of her interest in healthcare. She was planning to become a physical therapist or a physician’s assistant. However, when her first-year core classes began, Panella was overwhelmed.

“My classes were not exciting for me,” she says. “I like science, but chemistry and biology are not the sciences I’m fit for.”

When she spoke to Wheeler about her concerns, Wheeler initially suggested Panella change her major to psychology but continue with the core science classes so that she could still pursue a PA track in the future.

“It was a good idea, but I was so stressed thinking I’d have to still do all these science courses my second semester. I think Erin could tell I wasn’t happy with that.”

Wheeler’s next solution was that Panella completely drop her biology major and the core science classes and fully pursue a psychology major, going down the healthcare route for that path, instead. While this idea checked all of Panella’s boxes, she was still hesitant.

Panella had not officially declared her biology major yet, so she was still considered “undecided,” making it fairly easy to switch her major to psychology. However, if she wanted to switch back to biology at some point in the coming years, it would be difficult since she would have to restart with all the core science classes again.

“I really needed that outside push of someone else telling me that psychology seemed like it would be better for me and that I could be successful studying that,” Panella admits. “When I heard that from Erin, bricks were released off my shoulders. I was so relieved.”

Panella now plans on becoming a psychologist and helping others manage their mental health.

“Recently, I’ve been figuring out that I’m more of a communicator than a researcher. I prefer talking to people rather than looking at cells in a microscope. I find disorders and behaviors so much more interesting, and I really want to evolve my skills in that field.”

Despite finalizing her decision about her major, Panella still plans on visiting the Career Center often.

“I’m definitely going to go back and keep meeting with Erin,” she says. “She understands my perspective, she told me her story from when she was in school, and it’s similar to mine. We have a strong relationship and I feel comfortable saying how I feel academically with her, being candid like that.”

Panella also has advice for new first-years who might be struggling like she was.

“Take it slowly; don’t speed through it,” she advises. “I used to stress myself out over one exam or one assignment, but it’s always followed by another one and another one and another one. If you realize that you’re doing something that you don’t enjoy, that’s the right moment to go get help.”

At the Career Center, Panella took some online tests to evaluate her strength areas. These tools are used to give students a clearer idea of which majors or professions might be most compatible with their talents.

“They’re really great for people who might be doing well in a major, but just don’t know how they’re going to go into that field after college,” Panella explains. “I feel like this is actually a common problem for freshman. Once I committed to Pitt in high school, I chose to pursue biology because I thought that sounded right to me, but I didn’t really know if I wanted to do bio in the long-term.”

Panella reveals that many first-years do not spend a lot of time picking their fields of study, simply opting instead for what they think will look good to friends, family, or future employers. After two semesters of college, many students have a clearer idea of what they like and do not like, and whether or not it is feasible for them to stick with the same major.

“First-year students are under so much pressure because Pitt students tend to be the type that do well in high school, but college is so much harder, and you’re kind of just thrown into it,” Panella notes. “The stress is unreal and that leads to negative mental health.”

Panella offers a solution to overcoming this culture shock: realizing that each person is in a different place in their trajectories and that it is okay to change your mind.

“Some of my friends are doing really well and love what they study right now, and others are still struggling to find out what they like, what interests them,” she says. “It takes time, and trial and error. I’m only slowly starting to get there myself.” 

By Dionna Dash
Dionna Dash Nordenberg Scholar