Major decisions

Five students on how they found their paths
Five SRJC students tell the Oak Leaf how they selected their majors and what they hope to accomplish in their careers. Clockwise from top left: Sarah Barnett, nursing; Gabriela Andrade, psychology; Meghan OLeary, nursing; Langley Durham, mechanical engineering; Mandy Miller, filmmaking.
Five SRJC students tell the Oak Leaf how they selected their majors and what they hope to accomplish in their careers. Clockwise from top left: Sarah Barnett, nursing; Gabriela Andrade, psychology; Meghan O’Leary, nursing; Langley Durham, mechanical engineering; Mandy Miller, filmmaking.
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“What’s your major?” 

That is a common question Oak Leaf reporters ask Santa Rosa Junior College students when we find them on campus and interview them about miscellaneous topics, like their Halloween costume of choice or song of the summer. What’s never asked is why students chose that major. Yet everyone seems to have a story behind it. It can be as simple as hailing from a family of business owners or as complex as having tried out multiple majors before finally finding their true passion.

The following five students each have a story worth telling.

Meghan O’Leary – Nursing

Meghan O’Leary is in her third semester in SRJC’s nursing program after identifying nursing as her career of choice following in-person observations of a nurse practitioner at work. (Sam Guzman)

Meghan O’Leary knew six years ago when she started at SRJC that she wanted to be in the medical field, but she didn’t know specifically where.

Growing up, both of O’Leary’s parents struggled with drug addiction. When O’Leary was 11, her mother died after weeks on life support in the hospital.

“It was always the nurses in the ICU who talked to me, and they were always trying to reassure me, but without lying to me,” O’Leary said. “They were very honest about what was happening. And they always were just more supportive than anyone else in the hospital.”

O’Leary originally majored in microbiology. After taking classes in that field, she took a job as an instructional assistant in SRJC’s life sciences department.

O’Leary’s interest in nursing began during an internship when she followed a nurse practitioner on the job. “I saw that they were able to take the sample from somebody they assessed, and they looked at it under a microscope and they diagnosed the person and were able to treat them,” O’Leary said. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that sounds really similar to the physician assistant role,’ which is what I was initially going to school for.”

SRJC nursing student Meghan O’Leary practices her bedside manner with a manikin. (Sam Guzman)

Seeing this nurse practitioner at work changed O’Leary’s life and her path at SRJC. She said she sees more diverse opportunities for nurses than for physician assistants or medical doctors.

“Those two pathways are more rigid. If you choose to be a PA or M.D., then you kinda stay there. You don’t normally switch over to psych or to critical care,” she said. “In nursing, the opportunities are endless, in that you can change specialties, which is something I find more fascinating because I like to know a little about everything.”

She also found that the work of a physician assistant or doctor just wasn’t what she wanted to do, while the nurse practitioner engaged in work that truly interested her.

O’Leary is now in her third semester in SRJC’s nursing program and is also the co-president of the Student Nurse Association, a campus club.

“I think what I really enjoy about nursing is that you get to learn so much,” O’Leary said, explaining that it’s more than just the medical concepts and procedures. “You get to learn about patients and their lives.”

Mandy Miller – Film

Mandy Miller spent years unsure just what she wanted to do until she found her passion when she decided to try and go for her dream job. (Bryan Fructuoso)

Film major Mandy Miller spent a majority of her adulthood not knowing what she wanted to do — until she finally let herself pursue her dream job.

Miller grew up in Sonoma County and embarked on an uncertain career path after graduating from high school in Petaluma. She attended the University of Puget Sound in Washington for two years, then paused her studies, returning to her hometown to work as a retail manager for PetSmart.

Miller then returned to school and pursued a degree in geology at Sonoma State University. After graduating in 2009, she realized she didn’t fit into that field. “Everything was mining, oil and gas, you know, a lot of things I just didn’t ethically believe in,” she said. “There’s other jobs, but it didn’t quite ever feel right.”

So she returned to PetSmart, eventually opening the Petaluma store and staying there for a year and a half. She changed careers again, taking classes to become a travel agent — until the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged her from pursuing a travel industry career.

SRJC Film major Mandy Miller and two of her friends co-created their own production company PBJB this year. Together, they’re working on their first two short projects. From top: Juliya Lubin, Mandy Miller, Leah Richter. (Bryan Fructuoso)

“I was able to take some time and was really thinking about what I wanted to do,” Miller said. “I didn’t really feel like I connected with a sales job in any way, and so I went, ‘What is my pipe dream job?’”

The answer, for Miller, was creating soundtracks for film.

“I went, ‘Screw it. I’m gonna do a complete 180 from all the things that I’ve done,’” she said.

Miller looked into SRJC’s film program, ultimately deciding to go for a digital film certificate.

After taking summer classes, she quickly fell in love with filmmaking and realized it was what she wanted to do. ”It felt right. It felt like my heart was where it wanted to be,” Miller said. After completing the certificate in spring 2023, she began taking film studies classes.

“Film was not something I pursued when I was younger, and I think that was the thing that kept me from diving into that earlier,” Miller said, explaining she thought only “passionate filmmaker types” pursued it as a career.

“That’s not true. I’ve met a lot of people who [said], ‘Oh, let’s just try this!’ and just fell right in,” she said. “Writing’s a lot of fun. Being on set is a lot of fun. And so I feel like it was a good merging of all the things I enjoy creatively.”

Miller enjoys the dynamic nature of filmmaking. “Working collaboratively in a creative way with people really appeals to me a lot,” she said.

“Sometimes, I find it’s OK to just take a step back,” Miller said of her windy career path. “The JC especially, I think is a really good tool where people can take a class doing this and take a class doing that and spend a few years to figure out what they really want.”

Gabriela Andrade – Psychology

As a neurodivergent person, Gabriela Andrade feels honored to be a registered behavioral technician working with autistic children. She is studying psychology to give others the culturally responsive support she lacked growing up. (Bryan Fructuoso)

A major event dramatically reshaped the life and interests of psychology major Gabriela Andrade.

Andrade grew up in the Santa Rosa area and was interested in mental health. She is a registered behavioral technician who works alongside children with autism.

Andrade is Latina, queer and neurodivergent. During her sophomore year of high school, when she was almost 15, Andrade’s sister died of cancer. The therapists Andrade spoke to after the death made her angry, seeing her only for the grief she felt. Her sister was the only person who accepted and supported Andrade for who she is; without her, Andrade felt misunderstood and alone.

Later on during high school, Andrade met a therapist who changed her life. Like Andrade, the therapist was a woman of color. She understood Andrade as a person and the struggles unique to communities of color. 

“Being Latina, mental health is just not on the radar for lots of other Latinos, especially in my family,” she said. 

Gabriela Andrade is a psychology major and a registered behavioral technician who works with children who have autism. (Bryan Fructuoso)

After her sister’s death, it was profound when Andrade finally found a therapist she could trust. “Really, fundamentally, that was a game changer,” she said.

Her sister’s death completely changed Andrade’s sense of who she herself was. The topic of psychology began to fascinate her, and she found herself wanting to learn more about the subject.

“So as I went through high school, I wanted to do peer counseling. I wanted to help other people and be a listening ear and be a shoulder for someone else to lean on,” Andrade said. “I just gravitated toward wanting to help people and learn. Especially just [to] learn how the brain works.”

Andrade is interested in how psychology changes in response to cultural change. Developments in the psychology field can now help a variety of people originating from different cultures, races or genders, she said.

“What we’ve learned previously is not necessarily applicable to today’s culture,” she said. “It’s a major that is super open to growth.”

Andrade offered advice to students struggling with finding a major. “If one thing doesn’t work and you feel like it’s not working, maybe it’s not good to push a bad situation and [instead] try something new that you feel more confident and happy in,” she said.

Langley Durham – Mechanical Engineering

Despite just starting out at SRJC, Langley Durham has already made significant achievements in the field of mechanical engineering. (Chelsea Kurnick)

Mechanical engineering major Langley Durham has advice for major seekers. “Try everything,” she said. “If you can see something in your brain that’s like, ‘Oh, that’d be interesting,’ try it.”

Durham was born and raised in Petaluma and is a freshman at SRJC. Despite just starting her college path, she knows exactly what she wants to do.

She is no stranger to machine work, having spent the past four years in the machine shop at Petaluma High School, which she said provided her an excellent education.

At Petaluma High, Durham also took law and 3D animation classes when exploring career paths. However, she didn’t like all the paperwork involved with the law class, and she described the animation class as “brutal.”

Durham has already achieved several accomplishments in the field of mechanical engineering. Through NASA’s High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program, she sent parts to the international space station. She also has four National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certificates.

SRJC mechanical engineering major Langley Durham operates a lathe in her machine tool technology class. Using spare time between class assignments, she is cutting a steel rod to precise measurements for certifications through the National Institute of Metalworking Skills. (Chelsea Kurnick)

Durham’s older brother inspired her to go into mechanical engineering. When he was at Petaluma High School, she watched him make designs in the basement, and asked questions about what he was doing and why.

Another source of inspiration was her father, a farrier who puts iron horseshoes on horses.

“I was working with my hands 24/7, forging, drilling holes, tapping things, doing whatever I really could, and my dad would teach me as I went along,” Durham said.

Both sources of inspiration combined with her high school machine shop experience led her to seek a design and construction career, following in the footsteps of her brother.

“I credit a lot of my love for engineering and love for something like this to my family because they really inspired me to just go for it,” Durham said.

She has also thought about biomechanical and biomedical engineering and is still interested in those fields, but she chose mechanical engineering because of the number of job options available in comparison.

Durham feels lucky she figured out what she loves and hopes she can make a living at it. “You don’t have to love what you’re doing but if it can feed your passions financially, then your life is gonna be pretty good,” she said.

Sarah Barnett: Nursing

Sarah Barnett pauses after taking a lab competency exam on catheters. She says student nurses take many exams before caring for patients. (Chelsea Kurnick)

Meghan O’Leary wasn’t the only nursing student who told us about her path.

Sarah Barnett’s road to SRJC’s nursing program was full of painful realizations. Barnett, 39, a single mother in Santa Rosa, shares custody of her 4-year-old daughter. Barnett grew up in Southeast Los Angeles but left when she was 17.

She described her adult lifestyle as erratic, having carried over a drug-and-alcohol habit she developed as a teenager. After attending college in Oregon and becoming an elementary school teacher, Barnett realized in her first year that teaching in a traditional classroom wasn’t for her.

So she traveled, across the United States and abroad, living diverse lifestyles. She taught English in Southeast Asia and then became a motorcycle tour guide in Vietnam. Barnett returned to the U.S. and continued to wander.

“I kept running around doing — we call them ‘geographicals’ — where you just keep going to a new place, trying to find answers and solutions to your problems,” she said.

Her life changed when her biological mother, died from alcoholism. “I call her my alcoholic Jesus because she died for me. If she didn’t die, I probably would be dead myself honestly, because nothing was stopping me,” Barnett said.

To avoid following her mother’s path, Barnett returned home in 2018 to her adoptive parents, who helped her get into rehabilitation.

“When I got sober, a lot of things that were real hard for me my whole entire life became very clear,” she said. “One of them was what I wanted to do professionally, which had never been clear.”

The rehab programs gave her tools to deal with life issues, and as a result of receiving those gifts, she wants to give them back to others who need them.

“Once I got my confidence back, through getting sober and overcoming these really terrible character flaws, I feel like all the doors are open and everything’s a possibility, when before all the doors were shut,” she said.

She often thinks about what kind of nurse she wants to be.

However, for now, Barnett is focused on gaining experience in different nursing avenues to find her fit. She hopes to find a practice where she can combine her nursing and education degrees with her experiences with addiction.