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On “wasting” my Rice degree

Channing Wang/Thresher

By Aster O’Leary     11/5/19 10:17pm

“So, what are you doing after graduation?” It’s the question every college senior has to answer at some point, and at Rice, it feels like most people have the perfect response. “I’m going to law school.” “I’m going to med school.” “I’m becoming a consultant.” And then it’s my turn. “I’m becoming a high school teacher.” A pause. A look of mild bewilderment. The conversation continues. 

I’ve had these career discussions with friends, family and mentors and until very recently, I felt a certain degree of shame in expressing my true aspirations. I anticipated disappointment and feared that I would be viewed as somehow inferior to my peers, who are pursuing paths that promise social prestige and potentially high salaries. Unpacking why I felt — and occasionally continue to feel — this way highlights the sentiment of some students and faculty that a “prestigious” Rice degree necessitates a “prestigious” career path. 

I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. My passion intensified as I progressed through school, because I hoped to be like the mentors who gave me the academic confidence to apply to Rice in the first place.  When I matriculated in 2016, it was difficult to confront the unspoken belief that  “unconventional wisdom” is great, but only if it’s being used to obtain conventional success. I began to convince myself that my lack of interest in other career paths was a result of incompetence rather than a conscious decision to actualize my true aspirations. 

Seeking external approval is human nature and for many of us, college is our first experience falling short of real or perceived expectations. From a young age, we learn to distinguish ourselves by our accomplishments. We are taught that we should be defined by the things other people find impressive, not by the things that bring us joy. In higher education, we are thrust into an environment where we are surrounded by ambitious, capable peers and suddenly, being “exceptional” becomes a lot harder. Instead of making ourselves miserable over our imagined shortcomings, we should strive to look within ourselves for the validation we so strongly desire. 

All too often, we are taught to view failure as a minor hiccup on the road to success. But we are rarely encouraged to think about what “success” really means, and whether the way Rice frames it — as an advanced degree, a high-paying job or a prestigious fellowship — accounts for the importance of feeling comfortable and satisfied with yourself, your life and the path you choose. 

This past summer, I completed a teaching fellowship that enabled me to reground myself in personal goals and values. Now, I’m learning to feel less obligated to say that maybe, eventually, I’ll get my doctorate, or become a policymaker or go to grad school. Feeling the need to verbalize these things stems from a part of me that seeks the praise of strangers, a part of me that feeds the imposter syndrome that pervades college campuses across this country. As a community, we need to work to change the dialogue surrounding success. 

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