Stuck in the world of STEM

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Graphic illustration by Bennie Chang

For some, the expectations that arise from living in the Bay Area are a burden, not a blessing.

Bennie Chang

Silicon Valley. With beaches to the west, mountains to the east, a bay to the north and plains to the south — not to mention the glowing summer sun that stretches for nine long months — who could ask for more? Who could possibly be dissatisfied with their lives here?

Me. 

A symbol of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Silicon Valley reflects everything I want to abandon, not because I dislike the dreamy weather, but because it is the vortex that perpetually pushes me to do something that I despise.

With STEM as the driving force behind the success in the Bay, there lies this expectation that everyone must pursue a career in the sciences. Lynbrook, ranked number 17 in STEM high schools across the country by the US News, is at the heart of the pressure. The silent, yet noisy, expectation that everyone must take piles of rigorous STEM classes often drives me mad. 

I did not always spurn these subjects. In elementary school, I excelled in math, easily aceing tests and constantly asking my teacher about new information. I loved learning about science, doing a research project in fourth grade about the difference in cell structure between the flower, leaf and stem of a plant. However, the appeal of these subjects gradually sank as I traveled through middle school and began my high school journey.

If you do not want to pursue STEM, what do you like, Bennie? Well, unlike my peers, I love politics and public policy. My interest ignited when I picked up history books in elementary school. Whether it was cuddling in my childhood playroom or lounging in the classrooms during the daily reading time, I immersed myself with each President of the United States. My favorites included the classics — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — and the modern — John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan — not to forget prominent First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. They inspired me and showed me that there are endless possibilities in America; anyone can succeed, whether they are black or white, male or female, methodist or catholic, or a second-generation Asian American who loves politics.

As a result, I dove into the world of government and politics. From the 2012 Election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have never taken my eyes off politics. As I walked back home from school, I would dream about going into politics and being a senator. Once I arrived home, I would sprint to get a hold of the iPad, so I could pour over the latest news and polls. However, my parents were not as confident in me. How are you going to get a job? How much money are you going to make? Asian Americans do not go into politics! Get a real job! As a result, I decided that I want to be a lawyer.

I understood that my parents were concerned over my well-being, as they have not seen pathways other than STEM, but I was sure that I had found my future. Frankly, my parents are not the stereotypical Asian tiger parents who watch over every one of their children’s moves, and for that I am grateful. However, sometimes I still feel that they and other people around me are trying to sway me in some form.

My grandparents, who grew up in a completely different world than I, are completely reticent to change.  Since I was young, I’ve been in frequent contact with my grandparents in Taiwan, despite the oceans between us. Most conversations center around what is happening in our respective countries but wander to the children’s futures. Although my grandparents are the nicest people in the world, they get my blood boiling when they ask why I do not want to go into engineering like my parents. 

Thankfully, saying that I want to be a lawyer appeased some of the backlash, because lawyers earn decent wages, but I was criticized for “wasting” the opportunities available to me in Silicon Valley. They felt that I had so many resources at my disposal and were confused as to why I did not utilize them. I do not blame them. Their culture and society diverges from that of America. In Taiwan, wages are low and monetary demands are high. Anything, including giving up your passion to pursue an education and job that would earn money, is not only common but also encouraged. 

As I transitioned into high school, I discovered a wide variety of clubs and subjects to pursue, so much more than those in middle school. At first, I only went to political clubs like Junior State of America, Speech and Debate and Model United Nations. However, as my first semester progressed, others’ talks around campus got into my head. “What club are you joining? Math Club.” “Did you go to Science Club today?” “You are in Science Olympiad? Which team? A? Wow!” Eventually, the crowd drove me to participate.

I went to Science Club and vividly remember the presentation — because I had no clue what was happening. They were discussing large, intimidating concepts with loads of equations that made me lightheaded. Honestly, the demonstration was nice, but I felt lost because I knew that meeting was not where I was meant to be. As I left that classroom, I felt proud of myself. I knew I was different, and I was proud of it, even if it meant I stuck out and people thought that my interests were unconventional. That day changed my life, because I finally knew for certain that STEM was not right for me. It is safe to say, I never set foot into another STEM club meeting.

The past year, I spent my time doing exactly what I wanted. I joined clubs and organizations that caught my interest and passed on others that did not. Living true to myself and my passion has been so freeing because I know that I will not regret the path I chose.

I discovered that it is crucial to believe in yourself and follow your own path. If you are unsure, it is fine, but do not do something simply because others want you to. For those who feel stuck in a repetitive cycle of following others: take a risk, be yourself. From my experience, pursuing what you want is the most rewarding gift that you can give to yourself — just follow your gut and pursue your dreams.