Finding Yourself Before Finding X: Exploring the Dichotomy Between the Humanities and STEM

Dear Asian Youth,

The year is 2006. The setting? A quiet neighborhood in central Florida. In one particular house, two young parents are narrating one of Dr. Seuss’s many children’s novels. The audience: their three-year-old daughter, enraptured by the letters and symbols printed upon page after page. The next day, the mother stumbles across her child, grasping a well-worn copy of Green Eggs and Ham within her stubby fingers, narrating the words to thin air. Believing it was a fluke, she brings home a brand-new copy of Dick and Jane. Her daughter reads it with ease.

At three years of age, I learned how to read by osmosis: my parents’ routine storytelling enabled me to unlock the entirety of the English language. Entranced by the inked letters lining bright, colorful sheets of paper, I was able to recognize and identify words before being formally educated. Since then, my days were spent tirelessly scouring page after page of the newest novel in my literary arsenal, revelling in the beloved “new-book” smell under the incandescent light of a flashlight, book light, or even a street lamp. I remember paper cuts from sharp corners and heavy, lidded eyes. I remember being incapable of going to sleep until I had finished whichever story I had begun just mere hours before. I remember dreaming about the characters embedded within hardbound worlds.

Throughout my formative years, I solved mysteries alongside Nancy Drew, explored Prince Edward Island hand-in-hand with Anne Shirley, and—unfortunately—cut off my hair with Jo March. These renowned heroines from classic literature have indisputably helped shape me into the person I am today, but they are more than characters, settings, and plots. Writing is a capsule to histories, to ideologies, to new realities. It is a bridge to how another person thought, felt, and lived. It is eternal. I was content with the idyllic literary paradise I had created. However, even back then, I was pressured to look towards my future.

What do you want to be when you’re older?

When I was younger, I believed that I could do anything I set my mind to, that I could be whoever I wanted. The possibilities were endless. I remember ten-year-old me, who harbored a dream of being an author. I wanted to create something permanent, to craft stories that stick with young readers who are just like me.

Conversely, I also felt an undeniable pull towards STEM. The medical field, in particular, drew me in—I admired the thought of devoting my life towards protecting the most important gift: life itself. Back then, the thought of my future career was still far away, and I had all the time in the world to decide. However, as I entered my freshman year of high school, reality set in. I had to make a choice.

Growing up, my family always told me that they will support whichever career I choose, but there is an underlying expectation that I will follow in their footsteps and go into the field of medicine. Due to the stigma in the Asian community against pursuing a creative career, I gradually started closing doors that once seemed wide-open. I threw myself into my STEM courses, slowly but surely pulling away from the stories I had once loved. Yes, my interest in STEM is as certain as Newton’s third law or the mechanism of natural selection, but a part of my heart stubbornly belongs to creative expression. When forced to choose between the two, I prioritized STEM.

But who says we have to choose in the first place? In the past, I fell into the common misconception that STEM and the humanities couldn’t mix, much like oil and water. At first glance, the two fields are so starkly different—polar opposites, like fire and ice. However, why is the divide between the two so pronounced? What caused me to feel like I had to choose between two things I love, shutting down one avenue to pursue another? It would be all-too-easy to place the blame on my family and friends who have urged me to enter the field of medicine ever since I could walk, but it simply isn’t true; the pressure to go into STEM is not limited to the Asian American realm.

The Western world perpetuates the phenomenon that all Asians are good at STEM. I have always felt the pressure to adhere to this stereotype. A part of me still sees being classified as the typical intelligent Asian as a goal to strive towards, rather than a standard that hinders my individuality. I measured my intelligence by my scores on my biology and chemistry exams and by the number of questions I could correctly answer on my math homework. Sure, I’m better at STEM than the average person. Yet, it felt like everyone around me was the next Einstein, the newest mathematical or scientific whiz, while I was just me. The fact that I could easily cruise through my humanities courses with high A’s meant nothing to me if I had to put significantly more effort into my STEM classes for the same results. The message was subliminal, but clear all the same: I was only intelligent if I was good at STEM.

I often forget that there’s more than one way to measure intelligence. It’s true—the world tends to attribute a penchant for STEM as an indicator of intellect. Pursuits such as art, music, and writing are perceived as hobbies rather than viable career options. With the idea of “STEM elitism” so deeply-rooted within the very fabric of our society, it seemed like the only way to survive was to follow the crowd, to completely sever my tie to the humanities. Yes, STEM, with its regimented laws and identities and rules, has brought us to the Moon, put portable computers in our pocket, and given us architectural structures that seem to defy the laws of Nature. However, could science have given the world Emmeline Pankhurt’s “Freedom or Death” speech? Could math have instilled in me the power to communicate ideas, to change minds, and to shape worldviews? There is beauty in the humanities, unparalleled fluidity and room for individuality. Just as society needs STEM for collective development, we need the humanities for personal growth.

When people think of the field of medicine, they think of STEM, and for good reason. After all, the very definition of medicine, according to Oxford Languages, is “the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.” However, some hold a different perspective. Some believe that medicine is an art based on science. Educated medical professionals have strong scientific foundations, but the very best of physicians are artists who can take scientific knowledge and apply it to medicine. Skilled doctors know how to diagnose and treat their patients, but the finest ones know to interact with them. Yes, medicine is an applied science, but to practice it well, one requires the art of empathy and compassion.

What do you want to be when you’re older?

Once, I presented a version of myself concealed by half-truths and incomplete pictures—the person I felt I should be. I have put forth an image of a STEM-loving individual with one ultimate goal: pursuing a career in the medical field. Yes, it’s true, but it’s not the entire story. I cut out major parts of my narrative while highlighting the ones I believed mattered more. It’s time for me to pay homage to the version of myself who grew up with literature, because that is a fundamental part of who I am. I’ve made my choice, but not between one field or the other. Yes, I am dedicating my life to medicine, but that doesn’t mean I appreciate the humanities any less, that they are less important. Just like the medical field is a combination of both art and science, the person I am today is made better by both STEM and the humanities. When I one day become a physician, I will honor this applied science, without taking the humanities out of the equation. When I one day practice medicine, I will have both a large breadth of knowledge and a full heart. Maybe one day, I’ll even be able to use medicine as inspiration for telling stories of my own.

- Justine

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Cover Photo Source: Ebsco

This article is Justine’s submission to the Young Writers Awards Contest.