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Switching out of STEM as a First-Generation College Student

If you’re a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) major, you’re likely in school for one of two main reasons: (1) because you’re truly passionate about your studies and about the career you’ll have after college or (2) solely because a STEM career looks good (to yourself, your parents or guardians and the rest of your family) and, perhaps more importantly, pays good. 

Ideally, everyone in STEM should belong to the first category. That way, everybody would be passionate about their work and happy in their careers. But, of course, that’s highly unrealistic. That view fails to consider the pressures that STEM majors face, especially if they are the first in their families to attend college. 

I’ve been there, and the expectations placed on me as a first-generation student made me lose sight of my dream career. For the longest time, I believed that I had to take up a career in STEM—or else I would never be successful. 

The hard truth is that many first-gen students choose a career path that appeases their parents rather than one that will make them truly happy. In some cases, there’s no way around this—a parent or guardian may refuse to help pay for tuition if they believe their child’s skills and passions will lead to a “useless” career. 

Thankfully, however, this isn’t always the case, and parents and guardians can be more understanding than you think. If you’re a STEM major and you think you fall into the second category, there’s no need to worry! It is possible to navigate your way onto a career path better fit for you. Here’s how. 

Journal in front of laptop
Photo by Nick Morrison from Unsplash

1. Understand that your career path should be your own choice, not anybody else’s.

It may sound obvious, but the malaise that comes from studying in the wrong field is often rooted in a sense of familial and/or financial obligation. 

For myself, the main reason I was unhappy in my major was because I wasn’t in it for myself—I chose to study computer science not because I enjoyed it (as a matter of fact, I hated coding), but because it would make my parents proud. I felt that earning the title of “programmer” (and the money that came with it) would help me win their approval. Furthermore, I believed that doing so was worth compromising a career path more fit for me. 

Eventually, I realized that I deserved to treat myself better than that. I met enough older first-gen programmers, both students and professionals, who did not like coding and were miserable in their (super demanding!) work. I would often ask them why, then, did they choose to stick with computer science. The common denominators in their responses were always “it pays well” or “it’s what my parents wanted.” 

The motivations of wealth and parental acceptance apply to many careers centered around the STEM fields. Immigrant parents and guardians often salivate at the idea of raising future doctors, nurses, engineers or programmers, and it’s understandable why—they want the best possible future for their children and those careers appear to guarantee a life of comfort, financial stability and even wealth. There is often a feeling of shame that comes with dissenting from these ideals. It’s common for first-gen students to feel like they’re doing their parents a disservice—their parents worked hard for them to receive a college education, but for what? Perhaps not the career path they were hoping for. 

After some introspection, however, I learned that wealth was not enough to convince me to study something I wasn’t truly interested in. Additionally, although I know that my parents want the best for me, I know myself better than they do. I decided almost halfway through college that I wanted to switch out of the computer science major, and further, not switch to some other high-prospects STEM field.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

2. Find out what field of study you’re truly passionate about. 

If you’ve realized that you’re majoring in STEM for the wrong reasons, the next step is to find out what career path would suit you better (and maybe even what suits you best!). 

There are two main steps to this. The first is obvious: talk to your college counselors. Logistically speaking, this step is extremely important; you want your counselors to know what your plans are so they can better assist you in changing majors. 

But I’d argue that research and introspection are equally as important. Ask yourself what you have always enjoyed doing. What have you been passionate about since you were younger, what extracurriculars did you enjoy in high school? Can you see yourself making a feasible career out of those interests, and would it feel more fulfilling to you than a STEM career would? 

For me, this step was simple. Ever since I was a child, I had enjoyed writing. I couldn’t get enough of the feeling I’d get after finishing a good book or essay, and I realized I’ve been attempting to recreate that feeling, with my own writing, for years. I recalled writing “storybooks” from the age of seven and early attempts at novels throughout middle and high school. I excelled in both AP English Literature and Composition and AP English Language and Composition, and while I did well in math, science and programming, English had always been my strongest subject. It wasn’t until late in high school that I set writing aside for a more “lucrative” career choice (i.e. programming), but I realized that my passion for writing never went away. For me, the choice quickly became clear: I wanted to switch into the English major, and I was set on getting my writing to the professional level.

If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, however, there are still options you can consider. Researching career options and trying new things are some of the easiest ways to find out what you enjoy doing. College counselors can be extremely helpful in this step as well; schedule an appointment with your counselor to go over different career paths and the education you’ll need to succeed in them.

Green Leafed Plant Beside Books and Mug

3. Have the tuition talk with your parents or whoever is helping you pay for your college education.

This conversation will look different for everyone depending on socioeconomic status, cultural expectations and your specific family situation. For some, this conversation will be easy. Your parents or guardians may understand that you know yourself best and trust you to make your own career decisions. They’ll support you financially along a more risky career path. For others, it won’t be so simple. But in any case, know that as long as you are truly invested in your education, having your dream career is possible. It may take some time, and you may have to set aside extra money or take loans out for tuition, but these decisions will make you feel more fulfilled and content in the end.

My parents certainly still bother me about not choosing a STEM career path. Even now, as an English major over halfway through college, I am asked to consider taking up pre-med or some other “less risky” field of study. Sometimes it feels like I’m going back to square one when I try to convince them I’ll be fine, but acknowledging my good grades and the opportunities I now have help me regain confidence. I am where I should be, and because of that, I feel confident that I will succeed. 

Sherissa Go

UC Irvine '22

Sherissa Go is a second-year English major at UCI. She enjoys writing about relationships, self-care, and cooking. She also enjoys practicing yoga and, occasionally, pressing flowers. Follow her on Instagram: @sherissago
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