At last year’s new student convocation, when Dean of Undergraduate Education Sharon Salinger took the stage to welcome the incoming class, any new student who expected a traditional academic bureaucrat was in for a surprise.

“I didn’t want to be a talking head,” Salinger says. So she grabbed her guitar and led the students in singing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

“It was trippy,” she says. “I was looking for a song with which I could spin off my message. I was trying to encourage the students to discover their passion, to say that no matter what questions interested them, they’d come to the right place to look for answers.”

Salinger has a knack for getting in tune with students. As dean, she oversees and develops policies and programs affecting student retention, course offerings, academic advising and mentoring, and teaching and learning. Yet she’s no aloof administrator; of her many responsibilities, she likes working with students best.

“This is such a wonderful position,” she says. “I feel so optimistic with the arrival of each class and witnessing their excitement at being at UCI. I see these students as the future and imagine that they can play a role in making the world a better place.”

Salinger will meet many members of the new class during Welcome Week (Sept. 24-28), when she addresses the undecided/undeclared majors as they begin to consider a key question: “How do I decide which major is best for me?” She won’t channel Dylan this time, but she won’t be dull. She’ll share her theory on how best to select a major, which she breaks down into “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

“Good is when you choose a major as a result of a personal connection. You find the area stimulating and exciting and it motivates you to work hard. Bad is when you choose a major because that is what your friend or cousin selected.”

And ugly?

“That’s when you major in what your parents told you to major in.”

Behind the humor lies a serious message. For undergraduates, she says, declaring a major isn’t a lifetime career sentence.

“This is the time in life for exploring, for investigating, for broadening one’s intellectual horizons. The university has so much to offer in areas that are totally unfamiliar to students,” she says. “Students are often misinformed about the relationship between a major and the future. Many talented and successful people hold undergraduate degrees in areas that are not obvious from their careers. Chancellor Michael Drake majored in African American studies before studying medicine. Former UC Riverside Chancellor France Córdova was an English major; she holds a doctorate in astrophysics. This summer, I met a professor of religious studies who earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. This sort of list is very long.”

Salinger majored in music until her senior year before receiving her bachelor’s and doctorate in history from UCLA. Despite her Dylan antics, she’s serious about music and plays the bassoon in the UCI Symphony Orchestra.

She’s both a professor and researcher in the history department. She’s currently working with a colleague at the University of Connecticut on a book about “warning out” in 18th-century Boston – the once common practice of greeting newcomers with a warning to “depart the town in 14 days.”

Salinger taught at UC Riverside for 25 years before coming to UCI as dean in 2005. Since then, she’s initiated new programs and has plans for more. Last year she launched seminar programs for transfer students modeled after those for freshmen. With a ratio of 15 students per faculty member, the seminars offer a “small college experience in a big university.”

“I’m committed to making our already excellent undergraduate experience even better,” she says.