My arts degree is not a waste of time and money

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In high school, I was your typical overachiever. I chased As and academic praise, and even when high grades rolled in like the tide, I was never satisfied. Perfectionism kept me stuck and frozen in place and when it was time to apply to university, I hesitated to tell those around me what I truly, and desperately wanted to study: English literature.

People sometimes like to joke that writers and arts majors will never achieve a career doing what they love most, and they’ll end up working as Starbucks baristas to make ends meet. I was afraid to speak up because I knew I’d receive a heavy dose of unsolicited advice.

For some time, I worked as a cashier at my local grocery store and I remember one instance when I bravely disclosed my career goals to a regular customer, who was insistent on knowing what I wanted to do after my high school graduation.

“Writing?” he said. “You can do that from your living room! Better go get yourself a real job!”

I accepted my offer of admission to UBC a few months later, anyway. I had a feeling that my decision to fly across the country involved more than just a desire to read books. I wanted to learn about the craft of writing, but I also had a deep desire to find myself.

University is such a privileged experience in a student’s life and I know that I have been beyond lucky to pursue postsecondary education. I have had the luxury of time and space to grow, and there is no doubt that my experiences at UBC have shaped who I am today.

When you study English literature, you read everything from contemporary non-fiction to medieval poetry. You explore texts from around the world and come to appreciate how language brings meaning to our lives. What I love most about studying English literature is that it has given me the opportunity to learn new perspectives alongside my peers.

Studying English literature, I learned about oppressed individuals – their history, their challenges and their resilience. The way they empowered themselves and reclaimed their agency under unimaginable circumstances.

I also learned about identity: personal, national and cultural. When you study English literature, you learn to appreciate how they all intertwine at once. For example, in my second year, I studied Canadian literature and it helped me come to terms with my own national identity, as a woman born in China and later adopted because of the one-child policy.

Now, you might be eager to ask me, “So, what did you end up doing with your degree?”

Although I am on a different path than I originally envisioned, there is no doubt in my mind that my English degree has given me a set of invaluable skills, as I embark on a new adventure of combining my passion for mental health, writing and working with children and their families.

Studying English literature teaches you how to refine your communication skills, verbally and written. Those skills are at the core of psychotherapy and its practice. Being able to connect with others – to feel heard, is an integral component of what I wish to do in the future.

More than ever, the world could benefit from critical reflection and asking the big questions. My English literature degree has given me the chance to contribute to important conversations. My literary studies have helped me flourish as a critical thinker, have given me the space I needed to challenge my own biases and expand my knowledge, all while learning how to form my own opinions and refining the skills of persuasion.

Studying English literature has taught me about diversity. It has taught me about sexuality, gender norms and political issues that are still relevant today. It has encouraged me to form my own opinions about topics that are universal and become a more empathic person.

I understand how language is intimately tied to injustice, stigma, race and the redistribution of power. I have the ability to use the knowledge that I have gained to advocate for underserved and marginalized populations and to support youths who don’t have access to the right information to make informed decisions.

Most importantly, my degree has given me the confidence – and courage – to be imperfect and my genuine self. It has allowed me to develop a strong sense of ethics, to challenge myself in ways I could have never imagined and to find my core values.

Everybody is dealt different cards in life – and some individuals will never get the opportunity to speak their minds or find their voice.

I’m grateful that studying English literature has allowed me to find mine.

Daphnée Lévesque lives in Vancouver.