Non-STEM Stigma at Lafayette

There’s a short list of “viable careers,”--at least according to judgemental relatives with a narrow view of the working world. But how does this sort of non-STEM stigma play out at Lafayette, a liberal arts institution? There is a pervasive sentiment that non-STEM fields are better suited as hobbies or side projects rather than practical goals, and that those majoring and aspiring to work in these fields are dreamers of sorts. Even though it’s definitely more subtle than an uncle rolling his eyes at Thanksgiving when his niece explains she’s majoring in English, the stigma transfers into dialogue at Lafayette between students. As your friendly Theatre and Neuroscience dual-degree student, I’m here to unpack the non-STEM stigma from both sides of the equation and explain why it’s so destructive.

As a tour guide, I always state my majors. Prospective families are almost universally impressed with Neuro and inquire if I’m pre-med (I imagine they’re thinking I must be fun and quirky for doing theatre on the side). When I inform them that Neuro is more of a secondary major for me, they gawk. As funny as it can be to watch their facial expressions change, I can’t help but take offense sometimes; it becomes difficult to state your career goals with confidence when it feels like you have something to prove in doing so. Announcing I want to act feels like I’m already auditioning, because somehow it’s like I’m saying I think I’m good enough at it to be successful. Something people seem to forget is that skill needs to be involved with any major--if you suck at coding, you probably won’t be a very successful computer scientist. But no one wonders if I was clueless in Orgo when I say I’m a Neuro major.

Daily conversations expose the stigma to be alive and well amongst students also. So many of my artsy friends lament future job prospects, asserting they’ll “live in a box.” I’ve even tossed this phrase around myself in the past, hoping to make myself seem more down-to-earth to my driven STEM friends and show that I’m realistic about the challenges of the theater industry. Putting aside the glaring anti-homeless sentiment and ignorance of that statement, it’s also irresponsible to engage in this negative talk with others because it further damages the overall image of the arts’ and humanities’ career viability. 

What about the STEM side? From my own Lafayette experiences, there is a decent level of respect for hard-working non-STEM majors and their creativity (at least in comparison to what I see in those prospective families on tours.) In Neuroscience especially, there is value in art; a course entitled Art, Neuroscience, and Consciousness is even offered by Dr. Reynolds to explore the intersection of the two. Yet, how many STEM folks out there haven’t jealously talked down another student’s 4.0 by saying, “Oh, well, they’re just X Humanities major, so it’s easier.” Again, I’ll own up to being guilty of this myself. Engaging in this sort of toxic talk erodes respect for the arts and humanities by degrading it as a “not real”--less valid or less difficult-- major. 

What I’m getting at is that we’re all hardworking students striving to achieve our goals, and the way we talk about our aspirations and those of our classmates matters. Though we may not be able to stop Uber drivers from offering their (unsolicited) opinions on our career goals, we can affect the dialogue at our institution. Lafayette claims to be a welcoming space for growth across the liberal arts. Let’s act that way.