Essay: Societal pressures shouldn’t keep students from following their passions

If my 15-year-old self ever found out I wasn’t majoring in political science, she would be up in arms. I was your classic debate-loving politics nerd in high school, known for skipping school to attend climate strikes and post snarky tweets about the presidential primary before I could even vote. GW was on my radar for all four years, mainly because I knew it was one of the best places to get an internship on Capitol Hill, set myself up for law school and run for office by 30 – the typical career path in the District, and a way to make my family proud. But now that I’m here 2,000 miles from home, I’m planning on majoring in American studies, with no strong convictions about what sort of career I want. And while my younger self might be disappointed, I couldn’t be happier.

I tell this story to anyone who will listen because I got lucky and saved myself from the misery that is being trapped in a major you’re not meant to pursue. Despite the competitive and overly political environment at GW, I stuck with American studies because I truly love it. I want to spend college exploring more than just clear-cut politics – I’m interested in analyzing American literature and film, examining philosophies, critiquing culture and combining more creative forms of academia with my passion for social justice. Facing one of the most important decisions of my life, to pick a career path at such a young age has been daunting. It’s hard not to wonder if I’m making the wrong choice, but I know that doubt is external and has nothing to do with my actual academic interests. Still, it takes a conscious effort not to succumb to second-guessing about what the “right” major is. Students travel from all over the world and pay thousands of dollars to study at GW for a few years. To savor their experience and save themselves from insecure regret during this short timeframe, they should choose to follow their passions and disregard societal pressures.

Because of the glowing opportunity to engage directly in national politics in D.C., political science and international affairs have become the dominant majors that attract a majority of students and underscore the academic culture at GW. As a student who doesn’t belong to one of these more popular majors, I can’t help but feel out of place and insecure studying in this city with plans that steer away from Capitol Hill. STEM majors face similar judgment as a field of study that doesn’t gel with its surroundings as easily. Liberal arts majors, like philosophy or film studies, also receive constant flack for not majoring in something more “practical.” When I introduce myself with my major, I’m often met with a blank stare and awkward pause, or simply, “I’ve never heard of American Studies. What kind of career can you get with that?” I even catch myself desperately pointing out similarities between my major and political science as if its proximity to a more popular major is the only source of its value. In reality, I chose my major for its own merits, even if they are less obvious to the average person. In what other department can you get credit toward your major for a course called Zombie Capitalism? Passion for a subject, even if other people haven’t heard of it, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Political science and international affairs have become so prevalent on campus that they have created a sense of imposter syndrome for those who study as part of the majority. What might have felt like a niche interest back home has created an ocean of students with the exact same passion at GW. The more popular the major here, the more likely it is to be seen as “basic.” We’ve all heard jokes about the stereotypical characterizations of “Elliott kids” who wears a suit to class, the cookie-cutter “Hillterns” who study political science and the replacement of college football with Mock Trial or Model United Nations. The tendency of students to cling to their major and potential career for a sense of identity speaks to the harmful American culture we’re adopting that associates work and social contribution with individual value. Adhering to the stereotype can make you feel invisible while fighting it makes you feel like an outsider. The art of justifying your major to others is universal, whether hundreds of students – or just a dozen – are studying it.

Fields of study should not be to blame for the insecurity that students experience. The overwhelming pressure to succeed and make a life-changing decision about what to study at such a young age creates an emotional experience, capable of derailing one’s mental health or self-esteem. Young adults don’t need to know right away what to do with the rest of their lives. Everyone is simply trying to survive in a pool of thousands of other students who do not quite understand themselves either – I know I am. Studying at GW is a privilege and an incredible opportunity, so to allow insecurity into my studies would be a travesty and a waste.

My major isn’t the most important thing about me – it’s a tool that I can use to explore my interests and make a life for myself. Students should explore what they honestly love and be proud of it. When responding to the typical ice breaker that asks for my name, pronouns, hometown and major, I embrace the opportunity to share my field of study with others, even if it might require further explanation. It takes courage and effort to stick to your convictions, especially when it seems like you’re on a different path than everyone else, but it’s worth it. Finding your place in the world is extraordinarily difficult, and everyone deserves a space that embraces them for who they are and what they love.

Terra Pilch-Bisson, a freshman majoring in American Studies, is an opinions writer.

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