Google “useless college degrees.” “Music,” along with a crappy stock photo of a confused man/woman in a graduation gown scratching his/her head in worried bewilderment, is on that list. I assure you.
I have heard it so, so, so many times. From unimpressed aunts and uncles, from my sometimes unsure parents, from inexplicably shocked fellow students. It’s a tough life, and it often feels unfair that this course of study that I’m embarking upon, with every passion I have within me, pales in comparison to the science-technology-engineering-mathematics fields. It doesn’t exactly help that UC Davis is a premier research university. My music degree, in comparison to the highly-regarded STEM universe, often feels like a death sentence. I know so many people who work in labs, who study in bays and farms, who have dreams of medical school, who take internship opportunities that will lead them to prosperous days of discovery — and for a living nonetheless.
And you have me, lost, not sure and maybe a little scared of the future, studying something I’m passionate about.
It’s not that I don’t have the opportunities I need. I have great classes. Many professors share the passion that their students strive to maintain. For example, I am enrolled in an amazing jazz composition class; our class is four students big and every Thursday our own, original material is read by student musicians and workshopped by our fantastic instructor. In another class, I’m finally learning the distinctions between European styles of opera and the way political influences informed music making in the Baroque era. My academic future is busy and bright: more composition, more one-on-one learning with a private instructor, more interaction with a small faculty. It’s nothing short of awesome.
And yet I still feel that skeptical dullness in your eyes when I tell you I’m a music major.
I know a lot of people will nod and say, “Oh, cool!” at some sort of attempt at sincere interest. But I don’t blame you for looking down on me. It’s been internalized since childhood that engineers make a lot of money. That high school teachers are underpaid. That doctors are the breadwinning geniuses of the world. That musicians won’t make a buck. That lawyers hold a noble, generously-paid occupation. That artists are often called “starving” for a reason. But know that, even with all that stigma, I want to be a musician — just like you want to be a doctor, or an anthropologist, or a mechanical engineer brainiac. I want to be a musician. Because you know what? My future is just as valid as yours.
Of course, it’s impossible to rewire year upon year of arts and humanities shaming in a heartbeat. Don’t forget — many music majors struggle with that same internalized self-doubt, with that same skepticism, with that same harmful expectation that we will never be as successful as we want. But we study in spite of what you think, what they think and most incredibly of all, what we ourselves think.
It’s indubitably a struggle to continue sometimes. I don’t have those same move-out-of-my-parents’-house, job-secure, food-on-the-table prospects to resort to when I feel like I’m falling. And it happens a lot, because I’m a college student just like you, just like every first- or second- or fourth- or fifth- or sixth year-student in Davis. I have my highs and I have my lows. Sometimes learning is the best, most fulfilling thing; sometimes it drives me to tears. I feel on top of the world, and in the next moment, the burden of my future crushes me to anxious crying, shattered remains.
I’m not asking you to kiss the feet of every music major that you see, to profusely apologize to every arts and humanities major that you’ve so discourteously wronged. I’m beseeching you to look upon us with validity, with respect, with dignity. Look me in the eye when I tell you I’m a music major, and just as I imagine you with your doctor coat or chemist goggles or engineering gloves, imagine me making a difference in peoples’ lives through the art of sound.
STEVEN ILAGAN enjoys light literary discourse, for he is also an English major! Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.