I don’t know how many times younger me had to hear “the future is STEM ” from my teachers. As someone who’s never excelled in any stem subjects and dreaded every math class I had to take, consistently having STEM subjects pushed down my throat as something to pursue got old real fast. Math and science never came easily to me so I had to work twice as hard to understand lessons while others around me picked it up quickly. I continued to work at it and forced myself to take STEM classes I hated. Now you may ask why I tried so hard when it was clearly not for me. The answer is the deep-seated pressure I felt to succeed for myself and for my family.
Many black students come from cultural backgrounds where they are heavily pressured to pursue STEM concentrations, especially at ‘top’ and ‘prestigious’ schools such as Brown. So, where does this pressure come from? Why is everything that is not STEM-related considered a waste of time?
The deep pressure parents put onto their kids when choosing a concentration stems from years of racial institutional exclusion and as a result, many families want their kids to have a stable future, primarily through financial security. The push towards STEM and other fields with high post-graduation prospects stems from the historic oppression of black students from the education system. The exclusion of black students from higher education originated during slavery (doesn’t everything at this point). Withholding education from black people was used as a method to suppress uprising and rebellion which only intensified the desire for education. Shortly after emancipation, education was poorly relegated with many private colleges never explicitly forbidding black students but engaged in de facto segregation. It wasn’t until the 1960s that many black students began to enter predominately white schools in larger numbers, but at the cost of facing hostile and racist environments. (History of Black Education (kenyon.edu))
Many black parents and families see non-STEM concentrations as resulting in little to no job prospects post-graduation or in ones that don’t pay much. Social class is also a huge factor as this concept is exacerbated for first-generation and low-income students who feel the pressure to support their families financially in the future. This can result in students pursuing subjects they’re not passionate about but yet continue to do so because sometimes we can’t afford to just think about ourselves. On the flip side, many students from high-income and wealthy families can also face pressure to pursue certain concentrations. Although students from all socioeconomic backgrounds may feel influenced on their subject of study, students from wealthier backgrounds may be the only ones that truly have a choice in what they pursue as financial security may not be a significant factor in their decision. But there’s a catch, as students from these backgrounds may face expectations to follow in parental footsteps such as taking over a family business, pressure to concentrate in certain fields such as business which may make it easier to land a job through social networks or may simply be due to societal expectations of learning subjects in esteemed fields. No matter your background, it looks like society has already made the choice for you long before you even knew.
Additional social and cultural pressures such as family honor can be a barrier in choosing a concentration for black students. There are varying degrees and ranges of how young students are pressured into pursuing STEM majors. I’ve met students who are heavily influenced through subtle shaming, to full-on force through the threat of not having their tuition paid. The social pressure of honor can be used against students as something that would ultimately bring shame to the student’s family and may make them out to be the ‘dumb’ one who couldn’t handle a traditionally ‘harder’ concentration.
To many, getting a STEM degree is one step closer to success and to building a better future, but working towards such a prestigious degree at a top college is also a form of rebellion against the racist systemic and institutional systems and structures that were built to keep us out. Yet we are here. STEM or not, we are doing what the white man tried to prevent us from doing all those years ago, advancing and elevating.
At the end of the day, Brown is still an Ivy League school with massive influence and extensive alumni networks. Having a Brown degree in itself is a signal to many of the type of worker and leader you could be. Remember: it’s not what you know, it’s about who you know.
As black students, we are already more likely to be paid less and discriminated against. So the question really is, do you have input in choosing your concentration, or has that choice already been made for you? Are your economic security safety needs more valuable than self-esteem and accomplishment? Are you willing to sacrifice one of these? Which will you choose? Or has the decision already been made for you due to the social class you were born into? So, who really chooses your concentration, because it’s not you.