More Than a Barista in Training

by Alexandra Weliever
Public Domain Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

I knew switching my major from engineering to creative writing would raise a few eyebrows. I just wasn’t aware that some people would take my decision so personally.

“But what are you going to do with that? What can a degree in writing be good for?”

I can see these questions form in their minds, as they actually say things like “Oh, how fun!” and “I took an underwater-basket-weaving-Harry-Potter-analysis-participation-points class once, it was cool.”

I appreciate the sentiment that I’ll end up with a degree worth less than the gilded paper it’s printed on, all while living off my parents’ salary and writing fan fiction in the basement. Really. People only comment out of concern for my future, I get that.

Why, however, is there so much concern over a choice to major in the field of liberal arts?

The way people treat liberal arts students is preposterous, and I should know, because I started college as an engineer.

Well, technically as an engineering major, as upperclassmen make fun of freshmen for calling themselves “engineers” before they even have a job.

Well, actually I was in First-Year-Engineering, because Purdue doesn’t let freshmen even join the engineering program until after their first year.

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Purdue instead welcomes starry-eyed engineering hopefuls with a hellish idea of an introductory program where students learn three coding languages in one semester, the average grade on physics exams hovers around 20 percent and most would cry from happiness if they got a C the second time they took Calc II.

See, you can tell I used to be an engineer by the way I manage to complain about coursework in any conversation. Classic engineering major move.

Why not enroll as a creative writing major in the first place?

Maybe it has something to do with the stigma toward Liberal Arts majors. Or the fact that explaining my chosen field’s average starting salary would elicit the wrong kind of gasps at family gatherings now. Or the fact that people would assume that I was quitting engineering classes because they were too hard for me (spoiler alert — I aced ENGR 131, so sorry to disappoint).

All of these factors force people like me to constantly play defense, watching out for others who may want to critique our life plans. To some, all liberal arts majors do is sip espresso at hip coffee shops typing out a few words a minute on laptops or drape themselves over old armchairs rereading classics and argue the sexuality of the main character.

I mean, that’s not all we do.

The constant need to define students by their abilities and classify them as either bookish or mathy leads to a lot of problems. First, it completely discounts business and marketing majors.

More importantly, the dichotomy of “you’re either good at science and math or reading and writing” simplifies complex human beings, reducing them to Mary-Sue cartoon characters. We allow students to believe being good at reading literature automatically makes them terrible mathematicians, and that physics geeks can only read force diagrams, and are otherwise illiterate. Students who earn high grades in AP English feel justified in getting lower grades in AP Calc, as they’re “language arts” people who are simply not mathematically inclined.

This thought is terribly confusing to the multi-talented students who find themselves forced to choose an academic path that, as they’ve been told for 18 years, will dictate the rest of their lives. Those who can do back-of-the-napkin calculus and like holding discussions over “Crime and Punishment” are at a loss when the only apparent option is to choose the path that leads to the highest salary, regardless of personal happiness.

Look at one of my best friends, Ryan, a computer science major. He spends time learning new coding languages, creating websites from scratch and usually can be found in the corner of a party writing in C++ on his laptop.

Ryan’s also The Exponent’s best reporter and, in the fall semester, will resume his role as City Editor, investigating the happenings in the Greater Lafayette Area and keeping a watch on his team of reporters. His articles are informative, well-written and interesting, well-suited for a journalist. At one point in the semester he wrote a story so long that it was actually taller than him if you stacked the columns on top of one another.

The constant need to define students by their abilities and classify them as either bookish or mathy leads to a lot of problems.

People like Ryan are proof students can be good at more than one thing. Will he switch majors to journalism? Probably not, seeing as Purdue doesn’t have a journalism school. Will he ever touch journalism again after getting out of college? I think so, seeing as he took a writing internship at his local paper this summer.

Unfortunately for those who, for some reason, want their children to be simple two-dimensional characters, most people are like Ryan, and have more than one skill.

For all the big talk of “exploring all the opportunities” available to us in college, parents still get ruffled when their little scientist they sent to summer STEM camps decides they love their school’s English program and wants to be a writer.

Of course, parents want their children to be happy. The children want to be happy.

The problem unfolds when this happiness derives from different places — for the parents, a steady and reliable income, and for the child, the innate pleasure of working in a field they love.

That steady and reliable income would come easier with a job in a STEM field. There’s no debating that. Earning a livable salary as an artist, writer or journalist is generally more difficult than stepping out of engineering college with Boeing begging at your feet.

Jobs in the liberal arts actually do exist though (and I don’t mean ones working behind a Starbucks counter). If everyone could stop making those graduates with a baccalaureate in philosophy or creative writing feel like they just paid $60,000 for beautiful stationary, maybe liberal arts students wouldn’t always have to watch out for well-meaning critics. Students in the humanities can find careers everywhere people interact, whether that be through writing, talking or an art medium.

Liberal arts students just have to work harder to find those jobs — and since when has anyone been against hard work and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps?

A Greencastle native, Weliever studies at Purdue University and writes for the school’s newspaper, The Exponent.

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