As the end of my college years draw near, it has become common for conversations with fellow internationals to lead to this question, “What’s your major again?”
Answer: “Comparative Literature, minoring in Screen Studies and some Photography on the side.”
This descriptive response is a reaction to some inner fear. I feel that reaffirming every tenet of my academic specializations would justify my “life goals.” Alas! In spite of the few approvals championing my “bravery,” general responses include confused facial expressions or silent nods. A close friend of mine once jokingly responded, “All very commendable pursuits but also all equally unemployable!” I’ve jokingly internalized this sort of response to say something like, “Please pay for me! Let me leech off you! You financial bastion of potential sugar-daddy (or mommy) material.” But I’ve also realized that my reaction has been very dismissive of my own pursuits. Perhaps in accepting the perception that I am “unemployable,” I have affirmed the very position that such disciplines are not actually worth an international student’s time. So, despite my own shortcomings as a student, I’ll try my best to dissuade the international student from belittling the Arts or Humanities.
There is the opinion that courses within the “Fine Arts” or “Humanities” discipline are easy tasks that involve a fairly short amount of rigor. To say that painting a full canvas is easier than solving an abstract math problem is itself problematic. Commitment to one’s work is, relative and frankly, if you cared enough about what you were doing you’d spend as much time and effort on it , until the desired is accomplished. So instead of divisive perspectives on what we study, we should perhaps think more about the efforts we put in.
A different reason for the near negation of humanities and fine arts majors among internationals has to do with perceptions of success and economic disparity. For most international students, the pursuit of a foreign education is also the pursuit of financial security.
For those hailing from the Global South, activities like drawing, museum visits, reading are activities of leisure and decadence. To this extent, criticism (literary, artistic, political, social) can sometimes be displaced into a bourgeois mindset and, if not, it is indifferently viewed as a distraction from monetary concerns. Of course, I agree that we exist in a world where money does run everything. How else would I be here? But in this valuing of money, the activities that engage with producing or criticizing culture are neglected.
If we are to speak of time, perhaps the accumulation of money is essential for our longevity, but so is a balance to create and learn from “humanity.” Perhaps, taking courses in the arts or humanities does this very thing. In spite of our virtual and capital existence, we come back to recovering this very human act of engaging with our inner sensibilities. And once we’re past condescension and appreciation, perhaps we can all interact. As much as I have found cosmology and Carl Sagan incredibly essential to learn, so maybe you too will find that a course in photography will perhaps enable you to capture and see things differently. So I suppose the point is to not consider employment all too much when pursuing an education, for learning is not all a pursuit of income security.
Also, Clark’s Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) requirements or general Liberal Arts curricula allow a less rigid pursuit of employable education. Here are some opinions from students who are involved in the arts/humanities:
“Internationals are definitely less encouraged to study fine arts because of this concept of residency. They have to worry about being sent back to their countries or figuring out a career right away in order to stay in the U.S., and I think this pressure tends to push internationals away from humanities or arts in general. The environment I grew up in and the educational opportunities I had as a kid allowed me to realize the privileged freedom I have to study art if I want to. I think studying arts, or just being apart of any sort of class in the arts, transports our minds to understanding a new level of human expression and through that expression we come to understand the world that we live in.”
-Nainika Grover, Indian-American, Class of 2016
“I love studying art because it is the way we communicate our identity in a material way. In that sense, I think anything we produce can have aesthetic potential and thus be considered art. I find meaning in art because it highlights the way people understand the spaces they inhabit and how they want to project themselves in front of a public, whether a contemporary one or one for eternity. This to me, gives power to art as the materialization of culture. Art has always been very present in my life so it made sense for me to study it at a deeper level. I suppose I have been able to study it because I see myself pursuing a career in architecture conservation, for which a background in art history is critical.”
-Maria Luisa Escobar, Colombia, Class of 2017
“When I started college, I did not have the courage to choose studio art as my major even though it was my passion. I believed that I should choose the major that could help me get a secured job in the future. I could combine my graphic design skills while doing that job, that is why I want to work in marketing. At the present, I am majoring in Cultural Studies and Communications (CSAC) and Management, but I have taken 4 graphic design classes at Clark and I also study it on my own.”
-Duong Le, Vietnam, Class of 2017
As much as we’d like to harmonize economic pursuit and passion, it can be a challenge when seemingly it is easier for majors to decide it all for us. But as these three examples show, art is crucial to them, yet they’ve figured out a way to follow both or incorporate studying humanities into possible employability or just followed it through as a passion. Either way, I believe, that education also means a certain degree of expressing concern, about what you think is best. So commit and care about what you learn, expanding your horizons won’t hurt either.