Identity, Life

Stop trying to make us all doctors and engineers

Non-traditional careers are vital for empowering our marginalized and misrepresented communities.

Like many kids with recent immigrant roots, my parents and other family members wanted me to be a doctor. Thankfully, this was expressed to me in the form of advice rather than pressure, and I’ve instead gone on to pursue my interest in politics and public policy.

Most people recognize by now how, while many immigrant parents may urge us to become doctors or engineers because they want us to be successful, this is predicated on a narrow definition of success. More of us are asserting the importance of following your dreams career-wise — but getting involved in fields that are less traditionally acceptable is also important for the long-term well-being of our communities.

I went to a talk a few years ago about young Arab-American experiences, and someone asked the speaker how Arab-Americans could combat negative stereotypes apart from just being their everyday friendly selves. His reply was that they needed to get more involved in the world of ideas and culture. It’s not enough to keep your head down and make money when media narratives so profoundly affect how we are treated in everyday life.

To challenge negative narratives, we need to take active roles in shaping them ourselves. Because we can’t write non-stereotypical, three-dimensional characters of color into a popular TV show, or produce nuanced news coverage of marginalized populations, without breaking out of the traditional career mold.

To challenge negative narratives, we need to take active roles in shaping them ourselves. Click To Tweet

I’m sure plenty of my family members still low-key wish I had gone into medicine. But although I’m not directly saving individual lives, I’d like to think that the political work I will do to improve people’s lives on a structural level matters too. Through pursuing traditionally favored careers, many people with recent immigrant backgrounds have achieved significant financial gains. But when they’re not active in the political process, they remain at the mercy of policymakers who at best don’t understand their needs, or at worst seek to actively harm them. Working in political advocacy – or even seeking public office yourself – helps bring your community’s issues from the periphery to the center of the conversation.

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There are plenty of other unconventional career routes that can achieve similar goals. Like medicine, teaching is an extremely noble calling. However, brown kids aren’t being encouraged to go into education nearly as much because it doesn’t come with as much wealth or prestige. Wouldn’t it make a big impact on popular perceptions of Muslims, for example, if non-Muslim students had more Muslim teachers and were educated about what it really means to be a Muslim?

I'm sure plenty of my family members still low-key wish I had gone into medicine. Click To Tweet

There’s nothing terribly wrong with seeking a career that will ensure economic prosperity or bragging rights for your family. But we need to recognize that other careers also have value — and not just to the individual worker who gets to do something that they’re genuinely interested in. As they often say in politics, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” People in STEM or business can come to the table too through volunteering, activism, and other forms of civic engagement. By taking more diverse roles in society, we can combat stereotypes and improve our experiences outside of the realm of economics.

Mariam Ahmed

Mariam Ahmed

Originally from Texas, she recently completed her Master of Public Affairs degree at the University of Texas at Austin.

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