Author’s Note: Although this post targets parents, my hope is that anyone who works with parents and students may find this blog useful and shareable. Students: have you talked with your parents or other adults in your lives about your college major? If not, I hope this post can kickstart a conversation.
We used to live in a Kansas City neighborhood that was filled to the brim with kids, and on Halloween night, I’d dish out candy to nearly a hundred adorable superheroes, monsters, animals, or Disney royalty. Every Halloween, though, I’d be on the lookout for one child in particular, a little guy who would always present himself dressed in the garb of a different working professional. One year he was a doctor sporting scrubs and a stethoscope, and the next year, he was a pint-sized judge, wearing a miniature black robe and juggling a gavel along with his plastic pumpkin. I remember waving to his mom in the driveway as she called out, “We’re starting our career planning early!” while thinking to myself, in so many words: interesting strategy.
That tiny trick-or-treater comes to mind when I discuss college majors and future careers with my students. I feel for their parents, who are doing their best to steer their children into occupations that will allow them to be fulfilled and financially secure. I’ve been on the parental side of the conversation, and I didn’t want my three kids boomeranging back into their childhood bedrooms after graduation either. It’s clear that the instability of the last couple of years has created extra tension and concern about colleges being “worth it” and job prospects being assured. But I’m concerned about the increasing emphasis I see parents placing on pre-professional, business, and computer science majors for students who are uniquely gifted in other areas, namely the arts.
When a parent tells me, “Sarah spends all of her free time drawing and painting, which are wonderful hobbies, but we think business would be a good major for her,” I know I need to do some digging with the family. A business career might make great sense for Sarah, but developing her artistic talents in college doesn’t preclude her from getting there. Or it might make terrible sense for her, and we need to discuss better options suited to her strengths. I believe that if our parental college major and career coaching doesn’t speak to how are children are wired and what their interests are, then our best-laid plans for their futures will roll right off of their little black robes. (For more on selecting college majors, read this post from my colleague Veronica Leyva, or listen to my colleague Arun Ponnusamy in this podcast, Episode 8 - Rapid Fire Myth Destruction. You can also investigate how interests match with a range of careers through the O*Net Interest Profiler from the U.S. Department of Labor).
The reality is that not everyone can, or should, be a doctor, lawyer, financier, computer programmer, or engineer; or, if one of those occupations is indeed their destiny, that they must follow a prescribed path in college. Medical schools do not only admit biology undergrads, and law schools eagerly accept excellent creative writers and performers. Our economy needs photographers, actors, musicians, dancers, sculptors, filmmakers, authors – the list goes on, and I thank my lucky stars for the content generated by this community in the past several months. But an artistic education is relevant to a wide variety of occupations outside of entertainment, too (read this Marker business blog piece called “Creativity is the New Productivity”). Arts students are trained to tap into their abundant creativity, and they also become outstanding collaborators and problem-solvers. Recruiters are taking notice.
I mentioned that I’ve been on the parental side of this conversation. Eleven years ago, when we lived in that Kansas City neighborhood, our oldest daughter told us - her two stodgy MBA parents - that she wanted to go to college to be a documentary filmmaker. This was prior to the streaming services explosion, and the only documentarian I was familiar with was Michael Moore, who looked nothing like our delicate teenaged daughter. And yet we weren’t really surprised. She’d been writing plays, conducting mock news interviews, and directing siblings and neighbor kids in homemade films since she was in elementary school. Even so, this career path was totally foreign to us, and the uncertainty about its outcome was scary. We had the angst-ridden “but will she ever support herself?” conversation many times.
Ultimately, we decided to believe in her own vision for her future and got behind her. She was admitted to an excellent film school in California (with a scholarship - even better!). Since graduating, she’s supported herself steadily and lucratively with jobs in television, digital media, and yes, documentary filmmaking, with not a boomerang in sight. I’m happy we trusted in her artistic path, even though it was wildly different from ours, and I hope my little Halloween friend grew up to be exactly what he was meant to be, too.
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