More than a career path

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When I started at UC Berkeley last fall, I already knew I wanted to major in English. I love literature and exploring it: finding and analyzing authorial patterns, studying social contexts, discovering interesting books. In elementary school, my mom was constantly confiscating my flashlight late at night as I tried to read under the covers. I even offered to do summer reading assignments for my cousins in the hopes of getting to read more. Literature has been a constant influence in my life.

I didn’t always want it to be my passion, though. My family is one that deeply values hard work and providing for others. I was never discouraged from entering a humanities field, but I constantly worried that I would never be able to help those in my life with a degree that had no obvious career path attached to it. English seemed to be the only thing I wanted to study, but I felt it would limit my possibilities. I thought the degree would provide me with no hard skills, and that it would be too open-ended for me to be hired anywhere.

I anxiously switched around my career aspirations whenever someone asked me in high school. My general plan became going to law school, taking my LSAT and becoming a lawyer — an interesting career choice for someone with a fear of conflict.

That anxiety remained even after I started taking English classes in college; it was my passion and what I was good at, but I still wasn’t sure it would provide me with opportunities after college.

Even as I met my professors and took interesting classes in the department, I wondered, in the back of my mind, “What in the world am I going to do with an English degree after I graduate?”

Suddenly, the question seemed more real than it had ever been in high school. It felt like a switch flipped, and suddenly the indecision I had felt for years meant serious failure on my part. Family, friends, other students would ask, and I would feel instant pressure to respond with something concrete. UC Berkeley’s competitive environment only compounded my worries.

Even though I wasn’t interested in computer science or a pre-med track, it began to seriously stress me out that other kids seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do and what company they wanted to do it at from the moment they stepped on campus.

That stress followed me from class to class for the entirety of my first semester. During my second semester, however, I took an upper-division English class on Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.”

At the beginning of class one day, as our professor caught up with us, he passingly mentioned that some workplaces were actively seeking out humanities majors, specifically English majors. When I asked why they were looking for those graduates, he responded that workforces, in all areas from corporate to local organizations, wanted to see students who could write, students with developed critical thinking skills, students who could extrapolate based on given information.

Though this may feel like a simple acknowledgement, I was blown away. I realized that I had devalued my own skill set and the skill sets of my peers and had gotten caught up in the traditional capitalist undervaluing of humanities fields. I didn’t necessarily need to have a crystal clear career path or for my major to give me skills that directly apply to a certain field.

I could now see the concrete parts of my major and of the humanities at large all around me.

All of my classes suddenly seemed to not only be interesting explorations of literature, but full of applicable life skills. Being a humanities major has taught me skills that I genuinely credit with giving me good relationships with those around me — clear communication, for example, is a skill that I got from learning to argue my ideas in papers. When we write papers, we develop our analytical and technical skills; when we have group discussions, we learn to defend ourselves and back up our assertions with evidence; when we close read, we learn to pick up on minute details in tone, in imagery, in form.

While developing these skills, we are also reading about and trying to understand humanity — its meaning, its origins, what makes living worthwhile. The complex mix of skill sets and subject matter means that humanities majors are endowed with empathy beyond their literal capability to work.

I can now say, emphatically, that humanities majors are good post-graduate hires. When someone’s entire undergraduate training has consisted in learning how to critically think and analyze, they’re going to be able to adapt to the environment around them as it develops.

After finishing my first year, I declared my major in English.

If you had asked me two years ago what I was going to do with an English degree, I would say that I have no clue; if you ask me today what I might do, the answer would actually still be that I have no clue, but now, my possibilities feel endless.

Sebastian Cahill is a deputy news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SebastianCahil1.