A Liberating Education

May 18 was a glorious Sunday in the Boston area. Tens of thousands of families and friends descended on one of the nation’s best-known education corridors to celebrate the class of 2014. My husband and I were among the happy crowds joined by my family from Shanghai for our son Andrew’s graduation from Tufts University.

We fully immersed ourselves in the joy of gathering, cheering, listening, reflecting and photo snapping—including some selfies. Our weekend of celebration culminated with Andrew’s commencement speech on behalf of the Sociology Department. In a mother’s unbiased opinion, his 5-minute speech was brilliant, perceptive, and entertaining, an affirmation of the value of his college education in shaping his outlook on self and the society. Surrounded by family, I cheered and laughed as I listened to him. It was a moment of pure joy and pride that no other accomplishments of my own could possibly match.

For me this was also a big moment of relief and vindication. What made it sweeter was that Andrew had landed a job in a field he is passionate about, urban and community planning with a real estate consulting firm, two weeks before his graduation. It felt like a long exhale following four years of brutal college payments, and agonizing over the job prospects of a liberal arts education in this still sluggish job market. Looking back, I congratulate myself for having the foresight to encourage him to get a solid liberal arts education. In fact, I went so far as to tell Andrew that he should take advantage of the college days to study the “impractical” subjects because once he really grows up, the demand and stress of the working life would make focused learning a luxury that few can afford.

I know I am an anomaly among many parents. For the past four years, I had to answer three unavoidable questions time and again of which college he was in, what he majored in, and what he planned to do after college. My answers often surprised people. First, the mention of Tufts University usually drew blank stares from my Asian-born friends. Most either set their sights on the prestige of the Ivy League, or went with the practical value of a good public university education. Second, I told them it really didn’t matter what he studied because the world changes so fast that by the time he graduated, much of what he learned in college would be outdated if not obsolete. What is relevant is a core set of skills including critical thinking, writing, and speaking; an expanding and deepening awareness of self and the world; and the ability to learn new things on one’s own. Finally, I don’t really care what he does after college as long as he’s productive and happy.

I am not crazy. Studies show that my son’s generation, the millennials or Gen Ys, will have 2-3 careers (not jobs) in their lifetime. The last thing I wanted was for my son to be trained for a job. I want him to be trained for a life. My own life and career taught me the critical importance of having a set of transferable skills that are generally applicable to anything I do, except I had to learn them the hard way as an immigrant.

To be fair, Andrew was fully aware of the challenges of a liberal arts education in the job market and had interned in related fields to develop a general sense of career direction, which helped greatly in his job search. His strong writing skills, ability to articulate and analytical thinking were major factors of consideration for the hiring company.

I commend employers who give our liberal arts majors a chance to prove themselves, and the parents who allow their kids to be who they are. Unfortunately, while our society increasingly needs generalists with cross-disciplinary skills, we continue to make them feel like underdogs compared to their specialist peers. Liberal arts majors may face initial hurdles of proving their worth, but over time, they soar and lead. More than anything, I am proud that studying sociology and environmental studies has given my child the mindset to care about the greater good more than just his personal success. While I have made many mistakes as a parent, I can pat myself on the back for his education.