Choosing a College Major: What You Need to Know


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"Buridan's ass" is a well-known (and unfortunately named) philosophical paradox where a famished donkey sits equidistant between two similarly delicious bales of hay and, unable to find a rational reason to select one over the other, ultimately starves to death. Strangely enough, this rather absurd and morbid 14th-century tale is relevant to the dilemma faced by many college students today.

Never before in human history have young people had such an endless array of desirable career paths as they do in 21st-century America. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes over 1,500 academic programs offered by the nation's colleges and universities. These include everything from your run-of-the-mill liberal arts, social science, and STEM majors to your more unique upstart disciplines such as Blacksmithing (Southern Illinois University), Puppet Arts (UConn), and Race Track Management (U. of Arizona). Given this cornucopia of potential career paths, it is little surprise that settling on a major is a difficult enterprise.

The Age of Exploration

The concept of a four-year undergraduate degree is becoming an urban legend on the scale of Bigfoot and the Chupacabra. At non-flagship public institutions nationwide, only 19 percent of students graduate on-time. At flagship institutions, the number climbs to just 36 percent. Shockingly, the six-year graduation rate across all public and private colleges and universities in the United States is only 56 percent. There are a multitude of factors behind these abysmal numbers, but the process of settling on a major is right at the forefront.

Research tells us that the best laid plans of high school students frequently falter early into their post-secondary experience. It is estimated that 80 percent of college students will change their major at least once—the average student will switch a stunning three times before graduating. Even at Princeton University, a campus filled with some of the most driven and focused young people in the world, 70 percent of this elite student body elect to pull the old major switcheroo.

Let's pause to point out that switching a major is not inherently a bad thing, and is, in some cases, an unavoidable outcome. Not every high school senior can be expected to map out, irrevocably, hir or her entire academic and career path. It is perfectly normal for one's interests to shift and develop as new experiences unfold, and nothing is worse than sticking with an academic path you know is the wrong choice. As the saying goes, "It's better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one that you don't."

While changing majors is inevitable for some, others end up abandoning their initial pathway due to poor planning, lack of information or following misguided outside influences. Math and Science departments tend to see the largest exodus as freshmen receive first and second semester grades far lower than anticipated. These students typically did not seek out the most rigorous options at their high school to ensure that they could handle college-level STEM coursework. Student pursuing a STEM field should avail themselves of AP opportunities and/or take courses at a local college through dual enrollment. Your first college-level course should not feel exponentially more challenging than those experienced in high school.

Another popular category of major-switchers selected their initial area of study for the wrong reasons. The majority of high students, almost two-thirds, select areas of study that do not match their interests—an extremely odd phenomenon and one that is ultimately counterproductive. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who pick a major in an area of high-interest are more likely to finish their degree in 4 years. Seems obvious enough, but many adolescents feel tremendous pressure from their parents to pursue economically viable and/or prestigious fields. Interest, passion, and enjoyment take a backseat to projected future salary. Yet, outside of a few fields, salary data based on your undergraduate major can be highly unpredictable.

Starting salary data

Articles ranking the highest-paying college majors are easy to find but are typically of little help in selecting a career. Take a quick glance at any such list, and you'll notice that just about all of the degrees producing the handsomest return on your tuition dollars end with the word "engineering." This is great news for anyone interested in becoming a petroleum, computer, chemical, civil, electronics, nuclear, mechanical, or electrical engineer and wholly irrelevant news for the other 99 percent of prospective college students. The fact that the average petroleum engineering major makes $103,000 right out of college does not mean that all you future humanities majors out there should abandon all of your former passions and immediately register for Fossil Fuels 101. Planning the extraction of crude oil from subsurface reservoirs may be lucrative, but it isn't for everyone.

It goes without saying that the decision on what to do with the next 40 plus years of your life should not be driven entirely by average starting salary figures. However, students should be cognizant of their post-graduate earning potential when selecting what type of school to attend. To ignore this factor can be a set-up for financial distress later in life — stress that with proper planning, could have easily been avoided.

College grads in the bottom quartile of earners actually make less than the average high school graduate. Some of the lowest paying majors include Early Childhood Education, Drama/Theater, Social Work, Library Science, and Psychology. Students entering these fields are wise to avoid incurring unnecessary debt in pursuit of their degrees. The same goes for graduates in STEM fields that do not typically lead to high-income positions right out of college. While engineering and computer science grads enjoy solid starting salaries, meteorology, biology, and zoology majors begin their careers paid below the median college grad. As stand-alone credentials, many undergraduate diplomas, even from elite schools, do not alone qualify someone for a high-paying professional job. It is in these situations that salary data broken down by college major becomes particularly hard to interpret.

Majors dependent upon grad school

Many bachelor's degrees have limited value on their own but can be parlayed into relatively lucrative careers through continuing one's education. Psychology is perhaps the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Those with bachelor's degrees in clinical or counseling psychology enter the field making less than $25,000 on average. Most will find entry-level employment in the behavioral/mental health field, working in positions such as a drug and alcohol counselor, probation officer, group home coordinator, or social worker.

While accounting majors can call themselves "accountants" upon graduation, psychology majors need to pursue advanced degrees to claim such a credential. Master's level psychologists will more than double-up their bachelor's-only peers and those who eventually earn a Psy.D. or Ph.D. will see average earnings above $75,000.

If you plan on entering a graduage school-dependent field, make sure you don't break the bank on your undergraduate education. Students with ambitions to enter fields such as law or medicine should prioritize undergraduate affordability and performance over prestige, given the costs of a professional degree and given the secondary role that college brand plays (to grades and test scores) in the graduate admissions process. Aspiring doctors and lawyers, along with would-be professors and scientists, should also realize that graduate credentials, not undergraduate name, will determine their job prospects.

Don't end up a starving donkey

As with any element of post-secondary planning, decisions about your college major should be made within the context of the bigger picture of your career and life goals. It's important to be aware of financial outcomes for graduates in your chosen area, but future salary considerations are often highly dependent on future educational attainment. Your own internal compass should guide the major selection process more than any outside voice.

When it comes to post-secondary choices, young people today possess a level of choice that would make Buridan's donkey's head explode. If you make your choice strategically and follow your instincts, you'll be able to successfully pick out the "bale of hay" that best fits into your life plan.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.

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About this Blog

College Transitions

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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Calendar

January 2019

Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
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💕It's time to consign at Cary's BIGGEST Consignment sale - Voted BEST in the Triangle and Top 10 in the Nation! ✳️Register now at KidsEveryWEAR.com ✳️Read our website's consignor...

Cost: free

Where:
Cary Towne Center
1105 Walnut St
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: Kids EveryWEAR Consignment Sale
Contact Name: Gail Walker
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Spend the afternoon helping to maintain and beautify the nature center. Ages 16 and older.

Cost: Free

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27518
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The Hillsborough Classic Film Society hosts a series of classic, foreign, and independent film screenings once a month on alternating third and fourth Sundays, excluding holidays. Each screening is...

Cost: 0

Where:
Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Celebrate community heroes on MLK Day at Marbles. From 10am-2pm, meet real community heroes like a paramedic, teacher and police officer. Be a hero by packing food for Backpack Buddies to...

Cost: $7 ages 1 and older

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Rale, NC
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Spend the afternoon helping to maintain and beautify the area around Good Hope Farm in honor of MLK Jr. Day of Service. All ages. Volunteers age 15 and younger must be supervised by an...

Cost: Free

Where:
Good Hope Farm
1580 Morrisville Carpenter Rd.
Cary, NC
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Winter can be a fun season if you are dressed properly for outdoor activities. Bundle up and come out for some nature exploration outdoors and indoor crafts. For ages 7-12 (kids drop off program)....

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Ages 2-5 enjoy movement and mindfulness. Learn basic yoga elements through age-appropriate breath-work techniques, games, storytelling, and creative visualization.

Cost: $15 or use your package/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Triangle families are invited to celebrate MLK Day with a family-friendly birthday party for Dr. King with interactive activities, crafts, performances, service projects, and birthday cake in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Northgate Mall
1058 W Club Blvd, Northgate Mall, I-85 Exit 176
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: MomsRising
Telephone: 919-696-0142
Contact Name: Beth Messersmith
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Ages 5-13 enjoy a one-hour yoga class designed to strengthen and stretch the entire body, balance the nervous system, improve body awareness, encourage the development of communication and social...

Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Take part in a dental bash, specially created for kids on MLK Day. Enjoy a magician, face painter and lots of arts and crafts. Parents can also learn how to help their child...

Cost: Free

Where:
Leesville Dental Studio
13220 Strickland Rd, Suite 166
Raleigh, NC  27613
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Telephone: 919-238-7729
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Book Harvest hosts the Dream Big Book Drive, a community-wide celebration of diversity, literacy and books for all children. Donate new or gently used children’s book, volunteer to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: Book Harvest
Telephone: (252) 497-BOOK
Contact Name: Daniele Berman
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Head out to Lake Crabtree to celebrate "Squirrel Appreciation Day" and learn all about our most commonly seen mammal. Spy on the always entertaining grey squirrels that abound in the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Did you know that the gray squirrel is North Carolina's state mammal and that field research on them took place historically at Yates Mill Pond? Join us on "Squirrel Appreciation Day” as we...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Ages 2-5 enjoy movement and mindfulness. Learn basic yoga elements through age-appropriate breath-work techniques, games, storytelling, and creative visualization and more.

Cost: $15/child, use your package/membership.

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Chapel Hill
781 Mt Carmel Church Rd
chapel hill, NC  27517
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Ages 11-17 create old-fashioned taffy and hard candy using ingredients like caramel, marshmallow and chocolate. Register online. Choose course #120978.

Cost: $18/resident, $23/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
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Connect with your baby, other parents and yourself during this adult-focused postpartum yoga class. Recommended for babies newborn to walking. Take a mat, a blanket for your little one, and...

Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East Street
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Expand your knowledge of our local flora and fauna by exploring a different area of the park each month. Join park staff as they "nerd out" over amphibians, birds, insects, spiders and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Meet other families in your community in a recreation setting. The play room will be reserved for parents and their young children. Sports and recreation equipment will be available...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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Discover the joy of cooking with storybook characters. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online. Choose course #120080.

Cost: $23/resident, $30/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
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Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. Choose course #121605.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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This after-school class for kids in grades 3-5 offers fun learning yoga poses and mindfulness techniques to reduce stress. Grades 3-5. 

Cost: $15/class, or use your class pass/membership.

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Chapel Hill
781 Mt. Carmel Church Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27517
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Enjoy the family-friendly movie and a slice or two of pizza. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/person, $2 for ages 2 and younger

Where:
The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Enjoy the family-friendly movie and a slice or two of pizza. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/person, $2 for ages 2 and younger

Where:
The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Ages 11 and older with special needs learn fun facts about sports, music, movies and more. Register online. Choose course #121059.

Cost: $2/resident, $3/nonresident

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
Cary, NC  27513
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Parents learn meaningful coping strategies to benefit themselves and their child. Register online. Choose course #121424.

Cost: $11/resident, $15/nonresident

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
Cary, NC  27513
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Join us to read Jan Brett’s classic “The Mitten,” a whimsical story about a young boy, his white mittens, and the woodland creatures he encounters. Learn some knitting history and make your...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Join us to read Jan Brett’s classic “The Mitten,” a whimsical story about a young boy, his white mittens, and the woodland creatures he encounters. Learn some knitting history and make your...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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Youth ages 8-13 find out how not to be fooled by Fool’s Gold. Learn how geologists test minerals by using properties like hardness, streak, color, luster, and acid reactivity, then...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
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Enjoy single rider snow tubing at Bond Park. Ages 5 and older. See website for 45-minute sessions. Registration required online for all sessions.

Cost: $19/person

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Last Fridays of the month, middle and high schoolers are invited to meet and chat about what they’ve read over snacks with the Teen Advisory Board. At each meeting, participants will vote on...

Cost: 0

Where:
Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Hibernation, brumation, and estivation, oh my! Hibernation isn’t the only type of dormancy behavior and winter isn’t the only time of year animals might reduce their activity. Learn about these...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC  27539
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Explore Harry Potter's world with a magical craft, potions, trivia, wands and more. Ages 7-11. Register online with course #120889.

Cost: $18/resident, $23/nonresident

Where:
Bond Park Community Center
150 Metro Park Dr.
Cary, NC  27513
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Enjoy popcorn with a family-friendly movie while being comfy in your pajamas. Refreshments provided.

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
Website »

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Enjoy fun, games, friendship and more every Friday.

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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This class is a chance for adventurous women to get together for a fun-filled workshop where we explore the basics of aerial silks. No need for a background in aerial yoga, this is a workshop...

Cost: $25

Where:
Cary Hot Yoga
952 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: Cary Hot Yoga
Telephone: 188-858-79530
Contact Name: hoa bui
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Go Fort and build! Pitch your tent then curl up with a good book. Bring your blankets and a flashlight. We’ll provide the s'mores!

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

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Teens learn tips to improve their ACT scores. Register online. 

Cost: $129.99

Where:
Wake Technical Community College – Southern Campus
9101 Fayetteville Rd
Raleigh, NC
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Sponsor: Doorway to College Foundation
Contact Name: Kelsey Foster
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Enjoy single rider snow tubing at Bond Park. Ages 5 and older. See website for 45-minute sessions. Ages 5 and younger can take part in a parent-child snow tubing session on Saturday from...

Cost: $19/person

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

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The museum partners with NASA and the Raleigh Astronomy Club for Astronomy Days, an annual event that features comet crafts, solar observing, lectures, rocket launches and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy performances, authentic Chinese food and family-friendly activities. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Dorton Arena, North Carolina State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Celebrate African-American history and culture with more than 75 musicians, storytellers, hip-hop dancers, chefs, historians, playwrights, authors, artists, re-enactors, a farmers market and more....

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of History
5 E. Edenton St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Take part in an all-ages benefit event for Jordan Prince in cooperation with the Athlete Recovery Fund and Sk8 Cary.  There will be a jam from 12pm - 6pm at Sk8 Cary and after-party /...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sk8 Cary
2040 NW Maynard Rd
Cary , NC
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Sponsor: Athlete Recovery Fund - Sk8 Cary
Telephone: 919-802-6828
Contact Name: Erin Laskowich
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All ages with caregiver learn abut local birds and build a bird box to provide shelter an nesting for backyard birds. Register online. Choose course #121591.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Parents, educators, yoga teachers, counselors and others learn to teach yoga, meditation and mindfulness to teens and tweens to help them manage the stress in their lives.  These...

Cost: $60

Where:
Little Guru Kids Yoga and Creative Arts
215 Glenwood Ave., Suite A
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Little Guru Kids Yoga
Telephone: 919-720-4921
Contact Name: Jen Fisher
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Learn how to successfully navigate the college search, selection and application process. Ages 12 and older with parent. Register online with course #119878.

Cost: $7/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
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The Teen Advisory Board invites you to meet up with other gamers to mingle, snack, and test your skills for prizes! Guests are welcome to bring their own controllers/fightsticks. To register visit...

Cost: 0

Where:
Orange County Public Library
137 W Margaret Lane
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 191-924-52539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

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Join us for a fun-filled evening learning about owls. We’ll learn what makes these raptors special and what sounds different species of owls make. We’ll dissect an owl pellet and go call to the...

Cost: $4

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson Street
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood

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Saturday, January 26 & Sunday, January 27, 2019 Saturday: 9:00am–5:00pm Sunday: noon–5:00pm The Museum partners with NASA and the Raleigh Astronomy Club to help you see the...

Cost: Free

Where:
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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