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Friday, November 24, 2017

Do You Want Fries With That?

This summer I was attending an academic conference and during one of the breaks, an outgoing young man sitting nearby struck up a conversation with me. He was 18 years old and excited about starting college in the fall. We talked at length about literature, writing, and related topics.  Then he paused and I could tell he was hesitating, weighing whether or not to proceed with what he was going to tell me.

"My mom is a biochemist and my father works with rocket propulsion, so I joke that my parents really are rocket scientists. (nervous laugh) I really want to major in English but they are against it. They don't think I can have a worthwhile career with that degree."

I was immediately fired up by this assertion - being someone with a Bachelor of Arts in English - and  so I launched into a passionate defense of the study. I told him of all the different industries I've worked in: non-profits, entertainment, tourism, an engineering firm, the hospitality industry, the automotive industry. I told him about all the different projects I'd worked on from writing reports to creating copy for marketing materials to managing social media and everything in between. More than anything, people will always need to communicate, and not everyone is good at doing it in writing, so they need help. The work may change forms but it's always there.

The boy's father returned to his seat and I clammed up, worried he'd get mad at me for contradicting him and filling his son's head with promises of a career he didn't believe existed.

Throughout my college experience, when asked what my major was and I replied "English," I would consistently get one of two responses. The most common one was, "Oh, so do you want fries with that? (Chuckle)," implying I wouldn't be able to get a job with that degree and would have a career in the fast food industry after all was said and done.  It was such a frequent joke I could set my watch by it.  The other response was, "Oh, so you want to be a teacher," with the assumption it was the only thing you could do with an English degree.  I received such negative or pigeonholed responses based on this question, I didn't even bother to tell them I was actually a dual major in English and Art. "Starving Artist," anyone?

Thinking about my conversation with the college-bound boy, and my own college experience, made me angry all over again.  Sure, you need to be practical and make money to take care of yourself and be a productive citizen.  But more than money, more than a successful career, there are greater reasons to choose a field of study. Thinking specifically of the arts, we should support these skills, these fields of study, because of their value in and of themselves, and encourage those gifted with those talents, instead of trying to cram students into a line of study that may be more sure or more lucrative but also be guaranteed to make them miserable and leave them unfulfilled.  Money and success aren't everything.  Thankfully, I had parents who recognized and supported my talents from a very young age and never pressured me to go into an area I wasn't interested in.  I'm so thankful for that.  (Although I do think my mother secretly wanted me to become a teacher.)

I hope the boy I spoke to at the conference finds the courage to pursue an English degree, and I hope his parents find the courage to support him and guide him without smothering him.

I hope this blog post finds its way to someone that needs the encouragement.

1 comment:

Chad Olson said...

Degree in Russian always gets queer looks. They're not even sure about the fries. How do you even say that in Russki?

Kids should pursue their dreams, agree with you there. It's hard for parents, though, because I think their respected less in our very individualistic society. "You do you" is the constant theme. When the "you" you're pursuing is a very unwise choice, a parent should step in.

That said, my father wanted me to be a biochemical engineer, because he wanted to be a biochemical engineer. It never went to far, but that was a total misreading of my talents!