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Deciding Undecided

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Often, adults criticize youth, calling us silly and immature and naïve. “Kids these days,” they remark with an eye-roll and a scoff. Yet at the same time, when I was as young as six years old, my family members would ask me that dreaded question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as if a six year old would have the slightest clue.

My lifelong dream as a child, which became a laugh among my family, was to be a famous “author and illustrator” (I couldn’t even properly pronounce that word at the time). In junior high, I tried to cultivate the idea a bit more and settled on pursuing a more “serious” career in journalism. Though this new aspiration was a slight improvement from before, my family still did not approve. “No food,” my uncle would always tell me when he asked me what I wanted to do with my life, implying that I’d make very little money with that career path. At the time, money didn’t seem all that important to me. After all, I was 12 years old and I had my parents around to supply me with my weekly lunch money and my cell phone, and pay all the bills. I had a firm stance, believing that happiness was true success, and I would be content with a minimal salary if I could spend my entire life traveling and writing. I researched the best schools in the nation, setting my hopes on New York University’s school of journalism.

That didn’t last long. My freshman year, as I got more involved in my dance classes, I found myself considering dance as a career. Maybe writing was not my one true passion, but dancing. But then it was acting. But then I realized being on stage in an auditorium full of people was too nerve-wracking for my weak and feeble heart. Sophomore year, I thought I might want to be a lawyer. After all, a career in law was impressive and prestigious, wasn’t it? I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I was passionate about, or even good at. I gave up obsessing about the future and instead focused all of my attention on just trying to get through high school.

But that dreadful, horrible, annoying question persisted. “What do you want to study in college?” relatives would ask. “I’m not sure yet,” I would respond. And it was starting to get old. I was tired of never having an answer for them. And I think they were also tired of me not having an answer for them.

So I started to consider it some more and continued my jumping around. The problem however, was worsened with the added pressure of what my parents want me to be. To them, engineering or medicine would ultimately lead to the most secure job. Yet the constant pushing toward being a doctor had always turned me off to that idea. There was no way I’d easily give in to something my parents so badly wanted me to do. I was a teenager after all. Our job was to do the opposite of what they wanted. Yet my junior year, as I entered the miserable, laborious world of the high school honors program, I realized I had an undiscovered passion for biology and anatomy. Maybe being a doctor wouldn’t be so bad after all. Yet I was still unsure.

Senior year came onto us shortly. And this was it. Time had finally run out. I had to make up my mind, so that I’d know where to apply. What was I to do? At this point, my family and teachers were beginning to get fed up with my “I’m not sure” answers to their common question. “You need to be sure,” they would say. “You don’t have much time left.” As if I didn’t already know that.

I was frustrated. I couldn’t fill out my ASU application until I specified my major of choice. I scrolled through the list. It was endless. There were so many programs. Should I study biology? Try premed? Journalism? Political science? Global health? The ticking clock forced me to check mark the box labeled “Business (Management)”. I picked business because it seemed like the vaguest, most general degree of all. After all, business was business. It could be applied to anything. Perhaps it would lead to the opening of many doors.

As I began my freshman year at Arizona State University, I hoped the pressure and confusion had ended. I mean, the hard part was over; now I had an answer to that question. But I was wrong. The minute classes began, so began the random bits of “advice” being shoved down my throat by advisors and peers. “Get involved,” each and every one of them would say. “ASU has over 600 clubs and organizations.” And they’d end with that, forgetting that as a clueless freshman, I had absolutely no idea how to get involved with anything.

The second weekend I moved in, I went to Camp Carey (since I was attending the W.P. Carey Business School), a 2 day retreat in Prescott for business school freshman to get them ready for the year and introduce them to the faculty. One of the most influential professors and advisers of the school gave a lecture to us on the first day. He began by asking us what percentage of college graduates find jobs after graduation in their major field. We guessed 40 percent, 30 percent, 25 percent, virtually every number. “13 percent,” he remarked somberly. We were supposed to be shocked. Disappointed. Outraged. He continued his lecture, telling us not to be part of the 87 percent who were jobless, or who worked low-skill jobs unrelated to their degrees. “Get involved,” he said (surprise surprise). “You need to decide where you want to be after graduation. You need to get involved, seek opportunity, and work so that you can be one of those 13 percent who have that job waiting for you after you graduate.”

And then I felt the pressure again. I had chosen business solely because I felt I had no option. I hadn’t actually considered what exactly in business I wanted to do. I was frustrated, and slightly infuriated by his speech. He sounded so angry, so condescending, so narrow minded. Like we were all destined for failure. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. But still, I followed his advice. I joined every appropriate club, applied for every leadership position, and immediately put them all on my resume. After all, that was what college was about: going to class, making the right connections, and putting things on your resume. So that you could have that lovely, secure job waiting for you after graduation.
But the anxiety never passed. As I went through my classes, I still felt confused. And unhappy. And annoyed by that feeling. I was tired of feeling there was something wrong with me because I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. That because I didn’t know now, my entire life was going to fall apart, that I was doomed forever. But that didn’t make any sense. My inability to choose what I wanted to do, to commit to a career path was a result of not wanting to make the wrong choice and be doomed forever, working a mundane, uninteresting job for which I had no passion for the remaining 40+ years of my life after graduation. It was the authority figures in my life who were flawed, not me. They criticize 18 year old girls who want to have children and get married. “Your entire life is ahead of you! You’re throwing it all away!” they scold. Yet isn’t this what we’re doing to every 18 year old student entering college right now? We force them to choose one career path, and dedicate the next four years of their life to it. And then a few more years at graduate school. And then the rest of their life. If a twenty-something year old woman suddenly decided she didn’t want to deal with a family anymore, it would be too late for her to change her mind. Likewise, if this same twenty-something year old woman decided she abhorred studying law and no longer wanted to be a lawyer, it would be too late. She would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars going back to school, as well as devote another four to eight years on whatever new program she decided to pursue. My mom went into electrical engineering because she knew it was difficult, competitive, and impressive. Yet at forty-seven years old, she hates her job with her entire heart, and always wishes she had done something different. My brother-in-law went through four years of college, four years of medical school, and a couple hundred grand before he admitted to his parents he never wanted to be a doctor. We tell 18 year olds that they are not emotionally mature enough to raise a child or get married. Yet somehow we believe these same 18 year olds are mature enough to know what they want to do career-wise for the rest of their life.
I’ll admit that I am a very fickle person. I don’t encourage jumping from one idea to the next so frequently. Yet at the same time, the entire purpose and nature of higher education has changed. In recent decades, it has become completely career-oriented, and no longer promotes the natural pursuit of knowledge. We don’t allow students to try new things, explore different fields, discover themselves and their passions, and become well-rounded and diversely educated. Instead, we force them to them to choose a career, and find the suitable program that will get them there. The reason I and so many others struggle to pick a major is that they try to combine all their varied interests into one job. It doesn’t exist. I don’t want a career. I want to learn. Anthropology, film, photography, music, anatomy, physics, and literature can’t be combined into a single career. But they can be learned and explored and enjoyed and appreciated.

This is not to say that colleges don’t offer these degrees and programs, because they do. Yet the mindset behind advising discourages people from pursuing these other subjects. We make fun of others. “Good luck finding a job with that degree,” we say. Educators and advisers constantly talk about careers that will get big in the future, encouraging students to consider those. The constant stress of internships and jobs causes people to forget the overall importance of learning in itself. Americans have defined success by the amount of money in their bank account, rather than by the degree to which what they do with their life makes them happy.



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