Career choices and expectation leave many first generation high school students torn

For many students, the pressure from parents — and increasing pressure from education policy — to pick a career related to science, technology, engineering or math, poses a challenge if they want to pursue a profession in the arts, theater or fashion.

Nubia Jackson is a 17 year-old high school senior at Quest to Learn Upper School in Manhattan. She is experiencing the pressure to study the sciences but is more interested in the arts.

“I was always so passionate about drawing even when I was young. My mom wants me to be a doctor really bad. She won’t support [me] if I go further into drawing,” said Nubia, who immigrated from Nigeria.

Now that she has to pick a college and a major, she is very indecisive. “But medical school doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t think I could put myself through that and finish it,” Nubia said.

For many first-generation immigrant families, the pressure for kids to meet their parents expectations is even heavier. First generation parents often push their children to pursue career paths that are deemed “safe,” according to the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity.

Many high school students with immigrant parents experience difficulties of meeting both their dreams and their parents’ expectations.

“I want her to be happy with herself when she looks back, and I want her to be able to support herself without the help of anyone,” said Jennifer Arias, a mother who immigrated from Dominican Republic about 15 years ago. Now she has to help her daughter, Ashelyn, who was born and raised in Washington Heights, pick a profession. Arias explained that she is compelled to orient her daughter towards the sciences instead of the arts. Ashlelyn, 15, wants to go into drama.

“I didn’t come all the way from Santo Domingo for her to become an actress. She could’ve done that from the steps of our house in (the) DR. Now that we’re here, I want her to become a doctor,” said Arias.

The statistics may justify the position of parents like Arias. There is definitely a shortage of skilled professionals with high levels of knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages have grown in most STEM-oriented occupations in 2000 from 2013, an indication of shortage. An analysis completed for the Brookings Institution of census data showed a large relative increase in about 60 percent from 1980 to 2012 in the salary of STEM workers.

Statistics show a large number of STEM jobs that have not been filled. There are some 40,000 computer science bachelor’s degree earners each year, but approximately 4 million job vacancies. It is also often noted that college graduates with STEM degrees out-earn those with other majors. Also, another example of a shortage is that nearly 80 percent of STEM graduates say their degrees are very closely or at least somewhat closely related to their jobs, according to data from the Pew Research Center, a higher total than for social science, liberal arts or education majors.

Education reform has been a major part of Barack Obama’s presidency. He has proposed a bill called the STAPLE Act. The STAPLE Act, or Immigration and Nationality Act, allows immigrants with a Ph.D. degree from a United States institution of higher education in a field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics to be admitted for permanent residence. Speaking at the White House 2015 Science Fair, Obama expressed his desire for students to specialize in STEM subjects.

“No young person in America should miss out on the chance to excel in [STEM] fields just because they don’t have the resources,” he said.

Ashelynn, a sophomore at Beacon High School in New York, is hoping to get a scholarship in Juilliard or NYU to act. She is enrolled in a program called the 52nd Street Project, which teaches kids in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan about theater. She is torn between following her passion or following her mom’s expectations. She didn’t want to be quoted because she didn’t want her mom to find out.

Quest to Learn High School guidance counselor Fran Wilson said students might be less likely to finish college if they study a subject that they aren’t passionate about. Wilson encourages parents to be supportive of their children no matter what. Of course, every parent might have a profession they wish for their child to pursue, but she recommends parents to let their child follow their own interests.

A successful New York city based artist who spoke under condition of anonymity dealt with pressure when his family pushed him to become a law school. “When I started looking at colleges, I didn’t really find anything that interested me. Nothing was appealing. The only moment (when) I really felt like I was excelling is when I would spent time sketching or drawing,” said the painter. In his mid-thirties, he now feels very happy for having followed his dreams and pursuing painting. His work is now on display at an art gallery in Chelsea.

“My parents really wanted me to become a lawyer, and I did too for a while. I really wanted to make them proud. But I never could have finished it. What I really loved was art. So I did that. And it turned out good. Because I worked hard,” he added.