Oh, the Humanities!

A liberal arts degree is what you make it, and a number of Asian students are making it work. This piece also ran in the Spring 2009 issue.

By Jonathan Chan

Society often dubs Asians the “model minority.”  Part of the stereotype includes them being geniuses, with high SAT scores and the Ivy League education to prove it.  Asian characters on television – such as Hiro Nakamura, a Japanese computer programmer on “Heroes,” and “King of the Hill” cast member Kahn Souphanousinphone, a computer program analyst – quietly impose stereotypes about Asians and their careers.  But some Asians are going against the stereotype by pursuing degrees in the liberal arts instead of professional or technical degrees, such as business, science, information management and engineering that we see on TV.

Perhaps these stereotypes exist because those degrees tend to make the most money.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional degrees tend to have much higher starting salaries, and a study conducted by UCLA reported that Asian-American college freshmen were more likely to come from families that were making less than $40,000.  Possibly coming from a working-class background motivates these students to make more money than their families did.  And with the American economy in a state of recession, more families have less to spend, and private universities – SU included – are raising their fees to keep up with inflation.  A technical degree may provide students with more financial security.

Consistent with stereotypes, more Asian students complete science, technology, engineering and math degrees than the national average.  Nevertheless, Asian students show more of an interest in obtaining liberal arts degrees than Caucasian students do percentage-wise.  A 2008 College Board report showed that “there is a larger share awarded to students majoring in social sciences and the humanities than is true for the national average.”  The study found that 26.1 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders completed degrees in the liberal arts.  The national average was 19.5 percent.

Jagdeep Chadha, director of student support at the College of Visual and Performing Arts, said that there is an increase of Asian-American students taking on non-professional tracks.  “These trends do seem to change as generations come and go.  More Asians are being exposed to non-traditional careers and many are having constructive conversations with parents and are convincing them to trust their judgment,” Chadha says.  “It doesn’t happen overnight, but takes patience, motivation and diligence.”

Asian students like Patrick Choi agree with Chadha’s take on non-professional tracks.  He’s very optimistic that his liberal arts degree is the key to his success.

“I just like the way that my majors help me shape my mind in approaching the way I need to think about things,” says Choi, a junior philosophy and history major.  Choi values the in-depth mental development that a liberal arts education offers.  Students such as Choi, who are enrolled at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, take on a humanities core that includes courses in writing and psychology.  They claim that they beauty of the liberal arts degree is the provoking thoughts and heavy research in the curriculum, and feel that it better prepares them for a technical field or graduate study.

Bella Woo sees things similarly.  She’s a junior law and society major at American University, where 27 percent of its undergraduates are studying liberal arts.  Originally, Woo’s parents wanted her to stay in her home state of California studying finance.  Yet, with her East Coast experience, Woo feels that her education introduced her to a broader spectrum.  She also feels that her intimate education helped her interact more easily with a wider, more diverse range of students, an experience she may not have had with such a big university like SU.

There is a stigma attached to pursing a liberal arts degree.  One joke mocks students studying liberal arts, “I have a degree in liberal arts.  Would you like fries with that?”  Similarly, a purple advertisement in Room 204 in SU’s Huntington Beard Crouse Hall for an online poker club says, “Before: Philosophy major.  After: Finance major,” followed by the words “Escape to the world of winning.”  The poster attempts to identify with SU students by regurgitating a set of values that they can understand.  And according to informal surveys, many students at SU consider a liberal arts degree to be inferior to a professional degree.

But despite this stigma, Choi and Woo plan on winning with their careers in the liberal arts.  Choi intends to go straight into law school in hopes of becoming a human rights attorney in inner cities.  Meanwhile, Woo hopes to take on a career dealing with law or social work to raise awareness of the effects of gang violence.  They are optimistic about what their broad academic and social exposure through liberal arts will lead them in the future.  They’re sure it’s more than a side of fries.

Asian Attitudes toward the Liberal Arts…

A-Line conducted a survey with 35 Asian students, 21 of them from SU.  Here are some of the results:

  • Despite generational differences or backgrounds, more than 80 percent of the students said that their parents wanted them to pursue degrees in business, engineering or science.
  • Nevertheless, two-thirds of all students surveyed said that parental influence was the least influential factor in selecting their major.  Instead, they cited personal selection and financial stability as being important.
  • More than three-fourths of the survey takers said that nobody in their family had even completed a liberal arts major.

On the Horizon…
Check out what Syracuse University has to offer:

  • English: With a mastery of the American spoken language, English majors can become teachers, journalists, writers or editors.Famous Asian-American: David Henry Hwang, a playwright known for his dramas concerning the Asian-American community.
  • International Relations and Political Science: Studying the political contexts of the nation and the world, students majoring in these fields can take on careers as policy analysts, lawyers and politicians.Famous Asian-American: Bobby Jindai, the current governor of Louisiana got his master’s in political science at Oxford.
  • Economics: An economy in recession makes today’s economics majors in high demand.  Financial analysts and statisticians prove to be important in trying times.Famous Asian-American: Elaine Chao, former Secretary of Labor, got her bachelor’s degree at Mount Holyoke.
  • Psychology: Psychology majors learn to conduct research and work with people, skills that are invaluable to social services and employee relations fields.Famous Asian-American: The Sue Brothers, Derald Wing and David, have been the architects of counseling the culturally diverse.
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