Answer by Francis Chen:
Having made the switch from engineering to urban planning in the past, I can heavily relate to this question as a 1st generation born Chinese-American. I’ll try to speak from my personal experience.
I’ve divided my story by:
- My process of picking a “stable” major and why I switched.
- How the Chinese mindset of choosing a major is different than in the US due to the poverty/competition in Asia
- How choosing a liberal arts major made me a much more active, entrepreneurial job hunter than if I stuck with engineering.
- My personal examples of how one can be entrepreneurial with job hunting as a liberal arts major.
- How this entrepreneurial mindset is almost completely new to my parents, and how I conveyed it to my parents
- My advice to those who are deciding between a “stable career” versus a “liberal arts path” in college.
While urban planning has been heavily affected by the recession (government jobs) and does not have the stability as engineering does, looking 10 years from now, I don’t think I will end up in engineering OR urban planning, but rather a combination of lots of different professions (design, art, environmental planning / public health, technology, business, language learning).
A stable, recognizable degree is not a 100% sure fast way of getting a good job, but rather what you do with your work experience and how competent you are.
As simple as this fact seems, it took a lot of time to communicate this fact to my parents. For example, when I was applying for college majors, my parents recommended majoring in engineering because they envisioned me ending up in a stable career, with a good salary immediately after college that allowed me to take care of myself. This sense of guarantee made it easy to not worry about me, but in reality, this mindset is really dangerous. It was a very passive mindset to job hunting.
It does not take into account a lot of different values: for example: What sort of lifestyle do I want? What cities do I want to live in when I grow up? What sort of value I want to contribute to society? What is a definition of a meaningful life? What sorts of relationships I want to make in the future?
Growing up at home, I don’t think these were questions that I got answered in depth at home. However, coming from my parents, who immigrated from very poverty-stricken areas in China, the most important things were the bare necessities: food, a house to live in, clothes, being able to pay the bills. So, one can see why a stable career seems like the best choice more than answering those questions above. One has to really respect your parents for really wanting the best for you.
However, American society is very different; you have an access to a lot of opportunities. You have a huge culture of innovation, where there are multiple ways/avenues of paths of being successful.
Compare that to China, where one college entrance exam (gaokao) can determine what college you study in China, what major you end up in. That’s why applying to colleges is hyper-competitive in China for high school students. Unfortunately, these measurements determine what job you get: your major and college you go to really matters in China. It’s a very different culture in the states. You had very limited opportunities in China.
My parents came from a society where picking the right degree actually matters. It was the sure-fast way in the past in getting a good job.
However, I had parents who brought this mindset when choosing my major. It’s hard to come to terms with your parents, who immigrate and live in the United States with a Chinese mindset, but at the same time, you are a Chinese/Asian American high school student influenced by American values of opportunity. These ideals conflict.
For me, when I made the switch of majors, I chose it knowing that urban planning is something I highly value and could see as one way of contributing to society. At the same time, I became much more active in my job hunting and was much more myself, and began answering the questions :
Being a liberal arts degree (B.A. in Urban Studies) has taught me to be very creative about how I utilize my career in the real world. I’ve depended less on my degree and more on how I utilize my work experience, skill set, and jobs that I developed through internships, side projects, lots and lots of networking with people who work OUTSIDE what I studied in school. I am learning things every day that have very little with what I’ve learned in school.
I’m much more dependent on starting personal projects, networking with people from different professions, and actively looking at how I use my perspective as an urban planner to other professions/industries, such as design, art, music, technology, public health, etc.
- How can I use my perspective as an urban planner to contribute to the work of big data to enable city governments to use the combination of skills of programmers and architects to design successful public parks?
- How can we use the resources and knowledge sets of PUBLIC RELATION / ADVERTISING + firms to create awesome info-graphics / interactive mediums to promote stronger civic engagement in city governments to solve our local public transportation issues, in order to create more better cities that reflect the needs of every day people?
This is a very risky mindset that took a lot of confidence to communicate to my parents, a very entrepreneurial mindset, but at the same time, from a job perspective, it makes me a very active job hunter rather than passively relying on my degree. In other words:
I’m not dependent on the degree to sell myself, but I’m dependent on my own stories, my experiences to help others create value for others as well as establish a meaningful life.
At the early stages of choosing a major, in some ways, one could say Asian parents are passively choosing a “stable major that leads to a stable job” without realizing that “the act of finding a job is an active process”.
The entrepreneurial mindset that I live through day to day is completely unknown to my parents, and extremely hard to communicate because it is so new, innovative, and extremely risk taking; even in the industries I’ve described, this sort of collaboration is almost starting to take place.
I think how I’ve communicated my ideas to my parents is really important. I’ve mentioned that in the next 10 to 20 years, my work and mindset will be really important in the technology, advertising, public health, environmental planning, design fields, art, etc. I mention that I’m actually diversifying my job hunt by actually reaching out to these industries, which have a wealth of resources. I tell stories of people and role models who have done stuff similar to what I’ve done.
In addition, I start talking about the impact that our profession makes in our daily lives, with really tangible stories that they don’t think about (for example, those bus routes, did you know we plan those? or those parks, we help design those?).
In other words, to translate this new mindset, to get away from the “stable degree mindset”, I had to communicate to my parents that how valuable your service and contribution to society is much more important than what you study and your job is. This is the society we live in now. Your life will become much more meaningful with this sort of mindset.
I’ve spent hours, weekends, and lots of phone calls explaining my rationale for switching majors, and this perspective. I’m happy to say that my parents, while feeling uneasy, feel a bit more certain about what I am doing. While they might not understand what I’m doing and saying, I believe establishing this strong outlet of trust and communication early on is very important.
For those who are going through similar dilemmas about choosing “a stable career versus a non-stable careers”, here is some advice to re-assure your parents that you know what you are doing, two tips:
- Find strong mentors who can guide you: I have three that I work with actively. They help re-assure your parents that you are an independent person who is able to utilize the resource of others effectively without depending on a degree or your parents.
- Provide examples of successful role models to your parents who have done similar paths, and explain their stories, slowly, in detail: There is a really good chance others have done something similar to what you have done before. Provide Chinese language articles of similar people; show YouTube interviews of these people.
- Don’t expect to convince them in one day. My entrepreneurial mindset is culture shock to my parents. It takes a lot of time to digest the entrepreneurial mindset, so give them days, weeks, months. However, this time frame is worth investing because you are establishing trust and a stronger relationship between you and your family.
P.S. This is still a very difficult story to tell for me, knowing that our relationships, as we get older, are defined by social/economic strata, so others will disagree with my paths. However, I think it’s important to admit this for others to understand my motivations and rationale, as well as what I value.