I like to tell my students that I entered college fully intending to be a chemical engineer. I’d been good at science, enjoyed chemistry, and really liked that chemical engineers were at the top of the starting pay scale.
However, since graduating, I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life teaching English. I’ve taught writing at every grade level from 3rd to upper-level college courses. Nearly every day I see some article on the internet about which majors pay the most, or what you can do with different degrees. English is never on those lists. I know how lucky I am to have a choice in the type of work I do each day; my dad spent his career working the ticket counter for an airline instead of crafting wooden boats. But those lists still bother me, and I still read them, hoping to find some message about following your heart. Instead, jobs today advertise for very specific skill sets, degrees with specific letters. They say that following your passion is only smart if your passion happens to be something that is currently valued by society. Otherwise, you’d better get a day job.
Yes, I have a day job. And I’m lucky, again, that teaching is another passion of mine. I had a job teaching high school for five years at an excellent district along Lake Michigan. I could walk to the beach from my house, and did, nearly every day. I was the AP Literature teacher. Then I quit to enter an MFA program in Georgia, a state I’d never been to, because I wanted to be a writer.
Even though I had to substitute teach for a year after graduating, took a teaching job in a difficult rural county in North Carolina, and spent many nights worrying about paying the mortgage on that house, entering the MFA program was the best decision of my life. Yes, it helped me get my current job as Writing Center Director for a small university, but beyond that, it reminded me of what I love to do and how to make that an integral part of my life.
I’ll be leaving a good job again this summer to move home to Michigan. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next year for a living, but I know I’ll still be writing, and I know that I can create a good life. This is where K College comes in, not only for the critical thinking skills and the liberal arts education, but because we were told that it was okay to play around. I took a for-credit backpacking class that was someone’s SIP. We created a marching band with just a dozen people and got to take the field. With a few exceptions, if I wanted to do something, K encouraged it.
There is a push toward getting students “career ready,” which unfortunately often means “narrowly focused on a specific skill set.” I remember asking a freshman composition class why they came to college. One hundred percent answered that it was to get a good job. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing—but wouldn’t it be nice if at least some of the students had said that they wanted to learn skills that will help them create an interesting life?
That is why I tell my students that I had planned to major in engineering, but veered back to creative writing. And that I left a good, stable job (twice) to pursue a passion. I tell my students where I started so that they, college freshmen, know that it’s okay to change their majors. It won’t work out perfectly, but there’s value in creating that messy, unique life.