“Study something you love that you can make a lot of money with,” my mom’s advice echoed as I thought about what options that left. For immigrant families, that often means becoming a doctor or a lawyer. So, I pursued STEM, as I felt I was passionate about it. It would make a lot of money, so that we could have more financially stable futures than my parents did.
I saw my older sister succeed with her Chemistry degree and thought that was the path I would be following. This was the path our parents wanted for us. They came to the United States with us so that we could have more educational opportunities. They could see their success vicariously through us.
But, it took my entire freshman year at Harvard to realize I wasn’t as passionate about STEM as I was about other areas of my life. They were areas that I didn’t yet see having academic potential. I found that I continued in an area I was growing more and more miserable in each day, not only because of what I thought my parents wanted, but also because of the way I heard STEM concentrators invalidate other people’s paths.
The environment was cutthroat, but I stuck through it because I felt I had to. I felt enough imposter syndrome within Chemistry, I could only see it getting worse if I went into the humanities or social sciences. I feared being seen as someone who couldn’t cut it in STEM, even if that wasn’t why I was leaving. I didn’t want another concentration to seem like a backup option.
It wasn’t until I saw the work of seniors outside of STEM, who came from marginalized backgrounds like me, getting validated for their academic achievements that I started to picture other paths of success I had been closed off to. Most importantly, I recognized their passion for their work that I didn’t feel for my own. It is the privilege behind the Harvard degree that gave room for me to feel comfortable leaving STEM with the assumption that Harvard students were set for life.
After exploring various disciplines, I am surprised to see that there are many hierarchical views of concentrations. It’s not just a STEM versus non-STEM binary. I see people competing with lengths of papers, projects, or quality of readings. I see different levels of admiration if you’re doing theory versus studio art. Distinctions still exist within the “hard” versus “soft” sciences. I see condescending views when people do research on communities they are a member of as it is seen as easier and condescendingly labeled “me-search.”
I ultimately ended up in History and Literature and added Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality as my allied field last semester to line up more with my interests. I noticed my own bias as I was surprised by the amount of theory when transitioning with four WGS classes this semester to catch up on tutorials.
It was in my WGS junior tutorial this semester that I also realized most of the class had a joint concentration with WGS. I thought of this as a sign that WGS is not validated as a stand-alone field but after hearing about all the great projects my classmates are doing, I realized the value and need for interdisciplinary work. I recognized the importance of all our concentrations.
We all made it to Harvard. We all worked hard to get here. But I wonder how many of us feel like we have to over-perform how well we are handling things and how much work we are able to get done. With the comparisons of concentrations comes competition over who is doing the most work and who is sleeping the least. It comes with conversations of who will be making the most money after college or over the summer. I hope we can shift the conversation to prioritize ourselves more. I hope we can shift the conversation to pursue what we are most passionate about and not conflate our success as just monetary.
Laura S. Veira-Ramirez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.