My mother was an artist. She went into college as an artist and came out of it as one. At no point did she second-guess this career because of dips in the economy, cautionary tales of the struggling artist or the expansion of departments in “usable” majors. At no point did she doubt herself and acquire a backup. However, I grew up always making sure I had a safety net, as if I were afraid of the next fall. Regrettably enough, I’ve found that this is the case for many Princeton students. Why is it that so many students fear the “no-guarantee” pathway even if that risk might be right for them? Why is it that so many Princeton students shy away from visual arts, music, philosophy and creative writing or at best, say they’d only pursue these subjects through extracurricular activities, rather than more professional means? Can we really consider it wise and advisable for students to make their passions their backups if their “real” jobs don’t pan out?
From speaking with second-generation immigrant students, I’ve heard stories of their parents pursuing bold careers in the arts and humanities in their own countries, only to direct their children toward more secure futures. While I completely understand this desire for their children to have financially stable lifestyles post-college, I worry that this mentality will produce an entire generation of workers in the corporate, law and medical industries, and not a single artist or intellectual to be seen.
I consider my college experience to be somewhat of an equalizer. To a certain extent, I’ve been able to get financial aid for projects and international trips that would be beyond my family’s income, receive the same education as the kid whose father once worked on the board of a Fortune 500 company and make a decent number of connections at and outside this institution. So why do I still have money on my mind? Why do I associate certain jobs with poverty if many people in these professions have been successful? After all, if someone in this world has to make money from being an artist, writer or philosopher, why can’t it be me?
The American Dream supposes that through hard work, you can succeed at what you’re good at, so why does “what I’m good at” have to be restricted by jobs in economics, medicine or STEM? Shouldn’t the Dream leave space for students to create new niches instead of merely filling out pre-made positions? I realize that this might be asking for an ideal, but maybe this is what the University needs to do if it’s “in the nation’s service.”
Just from logging on, we can see so many examples of young entrepreneurship — of people wanting to connect with people in new ways that wouldn’t have happened unless some person had taken a chance on an idea. They redefined limits and used their talent and ingenuity to create space for their work. In this way, the leaders of startup companies have made entrepreneurship become a reasonable career choice, something that might not have been so readily pursued a few years ago. Perhaps encouragement of trailblazing can be applied to other fields as well.
We should consider that if students are so scared of pursuing certain majors, then the University should provide additional support to encourage learning and development of skills in these areas. This could include providing professions advising tailored for liberal arts majors, offering less competitive funding opportunities for research projects and holding panel discussions with professors and professionals in those fields. If the University caters so successfully to certain majors, the support should be distributed across the board. After all, we should be nurturing students to allow them to demonstrate exceptional proficiency in the arts and humanities. Such skills should not be left vulnerable to societal beliefs of what a successful career is.
Isabella Gomes is a sophomore from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.