Why do most Asian students pursue 'practical' majors?

meritable mediocrity

In my first three semesters at Duke, I’ve changed my intended major more than anyone I know. I’ve floated around as any combination of English, Econ, Psychology, CompSci and IDM. Coming in as strongly-undecided but hopeful, I wanted to immerse myself into the humanities, but I knew that ultimately, because of complicated cultural and familial factors, I was going to settle into something practical. As a first-year, I tried to balance these motives by taking Personality Psychology and CompSci 101 in the same semester, Creative Writing and Econ 101 in the next.

It’s hard to boil down my inclination to practicality when I based my entire college application on my interests in psychology and creative writing. But at the core, they derive from family-related expectations. After getting into Duke, my mother expressed her belief that the primary reason behind sending me to such an expensive school was to expose me to high-paying employers. (Years ago, I definitely crushed her dreams when I announced that I was never going to pursue medicine).

I know that her concern for me only stems from love. I know that when my parents moved to America, they were so poor that they drove a $100 used car, and they only escaped financial turmoil by obtaining graduate degrees in computer science and engineering, and then finding stable, well-paying jobs in these fields. Education was their way out. So were the sciences. Now, they are investing their hard-earned money into my future, so I feel an exigence to justify their sacrifice.

In this same vein, nearly all of my Asian friends at Duke are pursuing traditionally practical pathways, whether they take the form of a pre-med track, engineering, economics, computer science, statistics, or public policy. Conversely, the people I know pursuing majors such as English and psychology, are mostly caucasian. In a 2015 survey that broke down categories of college majors by race, Asians  made up by far the highest percentage of STEM majors, at 30 percent, whereas the next highest group had approximately half of that, at 16 percent. I do not believe that this is because Asian students have little interest in the humanities or social sciences. A sizeable number of talented Asian students participated in my year of Project Arts, but as far as I’m aware, they are all pursuing one of the “practical” majors I listed above.

Recently, the full implications of this demographic division surfaced for me when I attended DEMAN weekend. Although I was only there for a few hours, about twenty-five panelists spoke over the course of the two sessions I attended. Strikingly, not a single one of them were Asian (East, Southeast, South or Middle Eastern)—at least visibly so.

“There is a tendency, especially in Asian families,” one white alumni said at one panel, “to emphasize what you know, rather than who you know. And the latter is more important.” The sad, harsh reality is that in most industries that aren’t the hard sciences, this observation is true. Our country’s capitalist machine runs on prudently polished contact lists and well-intended coffee chats with higher-ups whom we want to impress一which is why so many people stress that it does not matter what you study in college, but who you meet in the process.

However, there’s still an important argument to be made about college major practicality. Having grown up around Asian parents and their Asian friends, as well as having mostly Asian friends myself during my high school, I’ve witnessed most of my childhood friends encountering the same familial pressures as me to study something “useful.” 

The cultural mechanics behind this impulse are complicated, but are linked to the relatively new presence of Asian Americans in our society. In the United States, Asian populations did not proliferate until after 1965, when the restrictions on their immigration and naturalization phased out entirely. Nowadays, Asians in America tend to be immigrants, first-generation or second-generation. They intrinsically have fewer connections into various industries. Aside from the racism they confront in establishing themselves, this causes networking to be a lot more grueling. The easiest way to ensure success is to pursue traditionally lucrative professions based on hard skills, such as medicine and technology. Hence, this is a value that many Asian immigrants instill in their children. Other factors, such as the OPT extension that gives international students who studied STEM in college an extra two years to find employment in the US, maintain this practical inclination.

In the arts and media, Asian Americans are rarely visible. Whenever any major motion picture centers on Asian American characters, it becomes a cultural phenomenon of sorts (see: The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians). In the music industry, this disparity is perhaps even more pronounced. Only as recently as 2018, the members of the K-pop band BTS became the first Asian artists to top the Billboard 200 with their album Love Yourself: Tear

Clearly, as seen by the popularity of the aforementioned films, as well as the insurgence of recent Asian singers such as Mitski, there is a market for the consumption of Asian American art (not that this should be a question in the first place). In spite of the acclaim garnered by these works, it has not been enough to eradicate the stereotypes faced by Asians as a collective, or their consequences. We are seen at analytical, but not emotional. We are perceived to have hard skills, but not any soft skills or communications talent. However, the paradox is that by pursuing practical majors and professions, a self-handicapping takes place in which we inadvertently reinforce these inaccurate archetypes.

As a student, and one who frankly has very little figured out, there is not much I can do to sway other Asian students’ decisions regarding their majors. I intend to major in English, but even with my convictions about the importance of Asian representation in the arts , I know I will double with another major of which my mom will approve. However, I believe that if we are cognisant of the dearth of Asian representation in the humanities and their related job industries, we can start with smaller steps.

Too often, minority students compromise their intellectual passions for promised financial stability, but this should not be the case. This is an open suggestion for Duke to hire more minority faculty across the board, but especially in the humanities and social sciences. This is an invitation for students to explore “non-practical” subjects that interest them, despite the constraints of their family or culture一to take even one class or two in film or history or sociology. This is an encouragement for any of them  to pursue a career in theatre or journalism, with or without a concurrent degree in economics or computer science. 

Carrie Wang is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “meritable mediocrity,” runs on alternate Thursdays.


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