My Reflections on Returning to India After Completing a Liberal Arts Education

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By Saanya Gulati

Originally published on Huffington Post

In the Indian education system, students are accustomed to making choices about whether they will study ‘science,’ ‘commerce’ or ‘arts.’ The Western system of a liberal arts education is however emerging as a popular alternative for Indian students, more and more of whom are opting to complete their higher education overseas.

Many Indian students who complete a liberal arts degree overseas are faced with challenging questions from those who are not familiar with the concept back home. People often assume you are a student of ‘arts,’ when in actuality, the Liberal Arts education allows you to choose majors as diverse as mathematics and the physical sciences, from English literature to psychology. Then, come the quizzical looks from relatives and friends, for whom subjects such as ‘Art History,’ or ‘International Relations,’ sound more like hobbies than ‘real degrees.’

Having completed my undergraduate degree from a liberal arts college over two years ago, I became a witness to these reactions on returning home for winter and summer holidays. From being surrounded by likeminded peers and scholars of similar subjects at my university, I was suddenly the outlier. I was the one who had chosen the less-trodden path and not only gone astray from India’s top-3 conventional professions of engineering, medicine, or law, but even the default fourth: business!

But the toughest battle yet to be faced was that of employment. The pre-conceived perception is that a Liberal Arts degree does not make you a competitive applicant in the mainstream job market. Variants of the ‘so what are you going to do with this degree?’ question occur ever so repeatedly in conversations, to the point where you will start to internalizes this uncertainty. From a starry-eyed freshman (first year student), I became a jaded senior (final year student). My craving for intellectual stimulation had metamorphosed into a yearning for a more concrete pursuit. I wanted to see my education translate into remunerative rewards that could justify the cost that my parents had invested in my future. Like any student on the verge of graduating, I wanted a job.

The breadth of subjects in the liberal arts education system can end up exposing you to a little bit of everything, but not enough of anything. This can be daunting when applying for jobs, because you tend to underestimate your potential. My journey has taught me that embracing one’s uniqueness often pays more than trying to fit into the mould that we believe our education is supposed to shape us to fit into.

My first job interview was for a Fellowship with the Indian Parliament, in which I was asked to share my views on the Arab Spring. Given the question was unrelated to the job itself, I was caught off-guard. I rambled about the quest for democracy in an attempt to sound semi-knowledgeable. My interviewer probed me more, until we reached the topic of whether the tenets of Islam and democracy are compatible. I thought back to a course on ‘Islam and Democracy’ that I spontaneously chose whilst on an exchange program. The jaded Liberal Arts student in me would have never believed that this course would have practical value in the ‘real world’ let along come in handy during such an important interview. I got the job, and worked with a Member of Parliament for a year.

I have learned that if a Liberal Arts education teaches you enough of anything, it is to communicate your own views effectively and convincingly. This is a skill that can go a long way. In my third year, I interned at an international news organization in Boston. Initially, I was nervous about being surrounded by students who were studying journalism, which I knew little about. I did not know what a ‘lede’ or a ‘nut-graph’ was, but I knew how to write a story. I was familiar with international news, because they would come up daily in our class conversations. As for the technicalities of journalism, I learnt them on the job. Pro-actively reaching out to people who I could interview was like the constant effort one makes to meet professors during their office hours. In my fourth year, when I got selected for an internship with a prestigious news channel that makes documentaries about current political and social issues, it was once again my passion for the issues, rather than my technical knowledge of journalism, that stood out.

The beauty of being exposed to a little bit of everything is that it enables you to try and test the waters before diving deep. I am not a journalist, but a lot of my work involves networking with the media, and occasionally writing for media platforms. I can thus draw a lot from my past internships in the work that I do today.

I find that good writing is rare in India, because our education system does not value it enough. It is unfortunate that the humanities are demoted to the lowest-rung of our self-assigned education hierarchy, because the skills that one can build from these subjects are invaluable. I often contemplate my decision to have opted for a liberal arts education, especially when I look at friends who have gone onto work in investment banking, or consulting. The career trajectory for a liberal arts student is definitely more unstructured and unpredictable. But it is up to you to challenge the stereotypes associated with ‘arts’ in India and our society’s narrow definition of ‘success.’ My father often says, and rightly so, that I don’t just have a degree, but an education.

Follow Saanya Gulati on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BombayDelhiGirl

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