A Little Person

Michelle Nguyen
Harvard College '13
National Junior College, Singapore '08
Email : michelle.nguyen@facebook.com
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Petite Life ♥

In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education

It's a truth universally accepted that the humanities are on a steep decline. In 2009, William Chace, the current president of Emory College, president emeritus of Wesleyan College and an English professor, wrote an impassioned article in the American Scholar on The Decline of the English Department. Four years later, things have gotten much worse. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, national publications like the New York Times, and Harvard publications all have lamented the fall of the humanities.

As someone with a degree in English, I wanted to provide my perspective. I arrived at Harvard with a background in science (shocking, I know), studying Higher Math, Chemistry, Physics and History for my A-Levels. I had spent every summer of high school in a lab, doing research at Singapore's prestigious Institute of Biology and Nanotechnology (IBN), then the National Technological University (NTU), and going on to present my research at national fairs and international conferences. Then, something happened. In my final year, I won an international writing competition, ranked first in history and general paper (English) in several examinations, and thought, hey, this is fun! So yes, I could've pursued a more "useful" major at Harvard and graduated in 3 years. Instead, I decided to get my ass kicked for the first year and a half in government and history classes, finally switching to the English department and never looked back. In fact, I never took any math or science classes beyond the requirement. I graduated from Harvard College last May with a BA in English, job offers in finance in the United States and Europe, full merit scholarships to top masters programs in Europe, and a spot at Stanford University Graduate School of Business for their MBA Class of 2018. The point of this rant is that all hope is not lost for the prospective humanities major, but it is not easy.

Here are some of the cons.

1. Nobody outside of the US understands your major

If I had a dollar for every time someone expresses incredulity at the mention of my major, I could probably finance my MBA degree. Why on earth would anyone go to Harvard to study English? More than a few Vietnamese people have taken this to mean I was studying English as a second language. I suppose I needed to improve my familiarity with prepositions and stuff. My sister often says, not ironically, that my only career option is to become a teacher. And anyone who knows me knows that I have none of the patience or compassion that is required of the profession. Even my parents didn't know I majored in English until graduation. I hated having to explain to acquaintances that Harvard is a liberal arts college that does not offer any vocational training. For years, I flip flopped between saying "political science" (which doesn't exist at Harvard) or "economics" just so I didn't have to give any further qualifying statement or embarrass my parents.

Even in Europe, no one understands the value of an English degree outside of the relevant industries. During my finance internship in London, the other interns were either doing master's in engineering or master's in math or some other legit-sounding things. Sometimes I felt a bit like a joke and a charity case.

2. Few people in the US understand your major
(Unless you want to become a teacher, a writer, an heir of some sort, or a trophy wife)

Too much has been said about the untenability of a liberal arts degree in these times of economic uncertainty. Science majors (the "real" ones, psychology majors can go sulk in a corner with the humanities bunch) think of you as full of fluff, lacking substance, lazy, stupid, incompetent in math (but what are calculators for??), unfairly benefiting from grade inflation, and possessing only the ability to bullshit our way through life. How else would a lowly English major land a job in finance and/or consulting and/or making any real contribution in life?

3. The job market is tough

The sad reality is that the publishing industry is struggling. There are few jobs, even fewer well-paying jobs, for aspiring writers and editors. Many of my friends, academic superstars and brilliant writers, are doing internships after graduation. Unless you're amazing or amazingly lucky and well-connected, you probably are going to have a hard time finding a way to feed yourself after graduation. This is when I hate Sex and the City because it paints an entirely unrealistic picture of a columnist living in an Upper East Side apartment by herself with a walk in closet that is fully stocked with designer labels. No, that does not just happen unless your last name is Trump or Rockefeller or something.

There are jobs in finance/consulting, but as public sentiment increasingly turns against liberal arts, hiring committees also grow suspicious of a philosophy guy wanting to go into banking. Also not helping your cause is the Obama administration's constant fanfare for STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math). You, the only liberal arts kid at every job interview, are perceived as full of fluff, lacking substance, and lacking any direction in life. (But seriously, which 20-something aside from the computer science people know what they're doing with their life? Because I'd like to meet you.) Or you must have been high on something during your undergraduate years to go for liberal arts when everyone and their mothers and YOUR mother and the president is telling you to suck it up and do applied math.

4. You've got a shot in hell at those "prestigious" deferred admission programs at HBS and Stanford

There are only so many times HBS could publicly enunciate its preference for STEM majors, which accounted for almost half of 100+ HBS 2+2 admits. In a program that explicitly says it targets non-business majors, business and econ majors make up 19%, while liberal arts and humanities are a mere 17%, and that is including the math/english double majors. (People do that, as it turns out.) See? You're even less desirable than the people they SAY are undesirable. I think the number was even sadder last year.

Stanford admits some 30+ college seniors per year for its program, so nobody has a real shot, but it helps if you do physics or something.

5. For international students, you've got a shot in hell at a work visa

There are a very limited number of work visas for people with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, so good luck getting one. Not all majors are created equal in the eyes of the USCIS, and to quote Friends, there's rock bottom, fifty feet of crap, and then there's you. Okay maybe that's an exaggeration but I love this line! So the truth is that if your post-college goals involve working in the US, better switch into STEM now.

Baring a major shift in public opinion, you need a lot of tenacity, willpower, initiative and extremely thick skin to persevere in your liberal arts education and find a good job after graduation. But in my experience, after having to fight against so many things and doing some major soul searching questioning whether to dump English and head to the Science Center, I become a lot more mature and assured that my education would, in the long run, make me a better human being. It also makes for a pretty good answer to the question "So, English? Why do you want to go into finance?"

I would pick English again if I could. The truth is, I loved the education I've gotten at Harvard, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I learned to communicate and comprehend. I became more sympathetic and socially aware. I refuse to believe that if I had picked, say, Chemistry (I used to love the discipline and was on the Olympiad team), it would have better prepared me for whatever career I choose, especially when I have no intention of becoming a scientist. I wouldn't have become more analytical, or more quantitative, and as someone who has struggled a great deal writing a paper on philosophy, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the humanities as fluffy or easy. I probably wouldn't have been any better off at the job search, despite what many would have me believe. Maybe I would have done well as a STEM major, maybe not, but I would have been that much more miserable rotting in a lab and solving equations.

But here's the caveat, I could afford to be an English major without any intention of being a full-time writer because, in many ways, I am privileged. My test scores (SAT, GMAT) and high school record prove that I'm not quantitatively challenged, which, in turn, helped when I wanted to find jobs in finance. The Harvard name on my resume, coupled with a decent GPA, means that most employers across different industries were willing to give me the time of day so I could explain why I had wanted to study English. I could afford to come to college without any real concern about my employment prospects because my parents had never pressured me into finding a job right after graduation. My high school and Harvard education were fully covered by scholarships, thus I was never in any financial quandary. I could study whatever it was that I liked, that I had deemed to be personally fulfilling. Finally, I had always planned on going to graduate schools, either to study law or business, so a more "frivolous" undergraduate specialization was somewhat justified. Now that I had to sit down with my sister, who is less inclined toward the quantitative subjects and graduate schools, and carefully plan her college years in order to make her as viable a candidate for employment as humanly possible, I realize even more how privileged I have been.

I would admit that in more desperate times (such as when I got the boot from a top consulting firm, or was waiting to hear back from HBS and Stanford and feeling my glimmer of hope dimming), I had harbored ill will at the fervent, seemingly global, endorsement for STEM majors. I find it rather unfair and unfortunate. While many STEM undergraduates do turn out to be brilliant scientists, many do not, and the birth of many brilliant writers and the future Faulkners and Hemingways could be thwarted just because they were pressured into thinking that science is better for them. (My favorite Philosophy professor has a Master's in Math, and another English professor whose class I took majored in Econs and worked in investment banking before he realized that he just loves to read.) Imagine how dull a world it would be if there were only scientists and mathematicians! I read recently that some half of the world's most successful hedge fund managers had a bachelor degree in the humanities (so do Hank Paulson–former US Secretary of the Treasury, Mitt Romney–founder of Bain Capital, etc.) so I am not convinced that STEM is the superior choice for anyone unless the person is genuinely interested in STEM, or plans to pursue a career in research or academia.

(Let's not forget that Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bradley Cooper were all English majors. It is my biased view that we -that's right Matt and I share a pronoun now- are better looking than average!)

But at the end of the day, I would never dismiss the importance of STEM, even though I would not choose it for myself. My dad has a PhD in mechanical engineering, and many of my friends are brilliant STEM majors who would no doubt make many real, tangible contributions to the progress of our societies. The point I'm hoping to put across is that those of you who are interested in pursuing the humanities should not be discouraged from doing so because of "practical" reasons. Yes, there are many challenges, but what you get in return is well worth it. The things that I have learned, and I have no doubt you will too, are immeasurable to your progress not only as a future member of the workforce, but also as a human being.

Michelle: Auf Wiedersehen!

6/23/2013 02:57:00 AM

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