By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“You’re studying history?” someone would say with just a bit of disdain. “What are you going to do with that?”
I grew accustomed to defending my chosen college major amid a sea of skeptics. Family members and coworkers questioned the relevance of my studies. They saw little value in delving deeply into the past. I viewed history as a window to the future—my future.
Research, writing and reading voluminous tomes—teasing out the most important ideas—stretched my brain in new and intriguing ways. Class discussions fostered critical thinking, forcing considerations of how human nature impacts struggles for power.
Ancient Greece, the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the American and French Revolutions and the World Wars all provided crucial perspective. I discovered a lens through which I viewed contemporary issues. Esoteric majors demand strategic thinking whether one pursues “door openers” in the form of career-related internships or heads to graduate school for an advanced degree. I chose the latter, earning a Master’s in public administration.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment stands at 7.8 percent. Many newly-minted college graduates, even those with seemingly “marketable” degrees, find themselves saddled with significant debt and less-than-idyllic job prospects. We’ve all read about highly educated baristas churning out lattes at Starbucks and living at home (again) while scraping together funds to meet student loan payments.
What’s a young, ambitious person to do? Do the old adages apply? What about the Puritan ethic—hard work, thrift and sobriety—I learned about in college history class? Does that formula work today? Where do luck, connections and plain old serendipity fall into the equation of a profitable—or at least self-sustaining—vocation?
National media seems to have seized on this particular issue. It’s a particularly hot-button topic in an election year. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (www.cew.georgetown.edu) released a 2011 study entitled “College Majors with the Lowest Unemployment Rates.” Interested in knowing what made the list? They are, in no particular order: pharmacology, engineering, science, actuarial science, educational administration, school student counseling, astronomy and astrophysics, agricultural economics, medical technology, atmospheric sciences and meteorology, environmental engineering, nursing/nurse practitioners and nuclear industrial radiology.
It is incumbent on a young, ambitious person to be thoughtful and strategic in his or her choice of studies.
I recently asked my daughter’s friend, a high school junior, what he was most interested in learning about. His reply surprised me and left me pondering.
“If you were asking me what I was most passionate about, I’d say it was music and philosophy.” (He’s an accomplished musician and a deep thinker.) “But, I happen to be really good at math and science so I’ll probably study something related.” For him, the choice is eased by the fact that he is capable across areas.
I concluded in high school that a pharmacy degree was not likely in my future—despite faithful attendance at Mr. Nagle’s Tuesday afternoon chemistry help sessions.
I then think of a friend who studied engineering because that was what her father—who paid her college tuition—“allowed” her to study. Her heart was never in it. She worked at a firm briefly, got married and never returned to the field.
Applying strategy to one’s career and educational choices is crucial in a global marketplace. What point is there investing blood, sweat and tears into a degree destined for offshoring to India? That said, I feel equally strongly that if a young person is truly, TRULY passionate about a chosen field—however esoteric or far-fetched—they should give it a shot. If their dream to become an astronaut or a Broadway star doesn’t pan out, there’s always an opportunity to re-invent.
I sense that my daughter’s friend will become a scientist, a musical and deeply philosophical scientist.
Howard Thurman (1899-1981), an educator, theologian and civil rights activist, offered these pearls of wisdom:
“To ask what the world needs is the wrong question. Ask what makes you come alive. Then go and do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”
So, what did I do with that history degree? I’ve worked in higher education, the correctional system and civil rights. I’ve drafted legislation and served as a consumer advocate. Today, I raise funds for a nonprofit for at-risk youth. I even do a little writing. Thanks for reading.