“How many of you want to be doctors?” Hands flew up all around me, and looking around the room, I saw that only one other girl and I did not have our hands raised. Upon being asked what she wanted to do, the girl confidently answered, “Neonatal nurse.” Well, never mind, that left just me, as always undecided.
I could not help but feel inferior in that moment; everyone except me seemed to know what he or she wanted to do in life. My classmates at the STEM summer program I attended last summer had figured out what they wanted to achieve most, finding a passion to make a living out of. I had witnessed their joy when they peered at hydra through microscopes or added herbs to chick embryo and their undeniable eagerness to seek answers to their infinite biology questions. It never felt the same for me, at least I could not see myself doing these things for the rest of my life. Simply put, I had not found my passion, and ironically my pursuit of passion was starting to feel like an obligation.
My classmates were lucky in my eyes; it happened their passion for medicine aligned with society’s views, specifically that of Silicon Valley and many immigrant parents, who saw the medical profession as “practical.” It is undeniable that many of the students in my school feel that same conflict between preserving their passion and meeting their unwritten commitment to their parents and heritage when choosing their career path, and those who do not “honor” this obligation are viewed with envy, awe, and often doubt.
I saw my friend set aside her love for art, because her dad had told her if she ever became an artist, she would become “homeless.” Another friend who dared to choose psychology as her major was immediately viewed by others as incapable of having gotten into the same college if she had specified any other field. She wondered why no one saw that psychology was what she loved and why everyone immediately judged her for having shunned her “duty” to join the masses of students who are accepted into STEM, business, and law fields. She realized she may not be the one every family member bragged about at Thanksgiving dinner, but it was a decision I respected and feared I would be unable to make for myself. Maybe everybody’s condescending judgment toward my friend was because of the natural STEM-geared environment we live in in Silicon Valley, or maybe it was because we all covet her ability to pursue her passions without regret.
Instead of forgoing either my passion or responsibility, I have chosen to find a balance between the two, hence attending that summer program, clearly intended for those who had already decided their path in medicine. I wanted so badly to like medicine or in fact anything that could enable me to finally answer the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with confidence.
The truth is everyone wants to find the balance, but few achieve it. For most, the search for what brings them joy begins in childhood, dictated by parents. My childhood was littered with ballet, art, swimming, tennis, piano, and cello classes, just to name a few. Every summer was filled to the brim with a new program, whether it was horseback riding or rocketry science, and every hour set in stone. As I grew older, I decided which programs I wanted to attend in the hopes that by some miracle, that would be the program where I could discover my career. My life would be so much easier, I kept thinking, if I just liked computer science, like my dad and sister, but programming classes always were constant battlegrounds for my sanity.
When I first received emails from college counseling programs promising to identify my college major and career, I laughed at the thought of students voluntarily allowing themselves to be packaged and labelled by people who knew so little about them. Now I recognize the allure of having the burden of such an enormous decision placed in someone else’s hands, but this enormous decision is still one I insist on making myself.
In all honesty I know that I could not and would not force myself to commit to something for the rest of my life based on one program I attended as a kid or the personality test results of a college counseling program, but others, often because of financial pressure, are unable to make such an easy statement that they would never abandon their passions. My mom faced this exact situation in college when constrained by her family’s circumstances, she had to decide between medicine and accounting. The latter was a much safer choice, because choosing pre-med and not getting into the competitive medical program after meant, as she once told me, “becoming a pig farmer.” However, her choice, in turn, to major in accounting, forgoing her passion for medicine, has to some degree granted me the means and support to decide my career based on what I love, and I am not going to let it go to waste.
That is why I refuse to quit my school’s newspaper staff. On the surface, people are justified in their assumption that I should not stay. It does not help my GPA, requires extensive dedication outside of school, and the stress ages me ten years every deadline night. But writing is my passion, and unlike my search for that “perfect” career, does not feel like an obligation. Where else but in my school’s newspaper class could I write seven stories about topics I truly want to write about, whether it is my opinion on China’s One-Child Policy or a feature on the STEM gender gap, every three weeks? It is in newspaper that I find myself asking questions to better my reporting, design, and writing skills with the same enthusiasm I envied of my peers at the medical summer program. Looking back, my natural curiosity of the topic and the feeling of fulfillment I gained were indicators that this was my passion. Even if I do not pursue journalism as my major, I know because of that warm, proud feeling it instills in me when I see my work published that I will always make an effort to incorporate it in whatever career I choose.
As I look to the future, my dogma is those who believe it is fine to sacrifice their current passions for their obligations are also believers in delaying happiness in the hopes of achieving it later. It is always happiness for later…but I refuse to believe I am naïve for wanting happiness now.
Last summer I did not find my passion for medicine, like I had hoped, but I still do not believe a choice must be made between passions and obligations. I will continue in my search for the best of both worlds.
Caitlin is a current junior at Saratoga High, a member of the school newspaper the Saratoga Falcon, and an avid reader, artist, and tennis player. As her community holds an alarmingly strict interpretation of success, she felt it necessary to share her story about her own struggle with passion versus obligation.