Discerning Direction

The career pressures we place on college students

The student who sat in front of me was having difficulty looking me in the eyes as he shuffled his hands. He gradually began to speak. He was a second year engineering student having second thoughts about his chosen field of study. He knew he liked being creative, but he was becoming increasingly convinced that his gifts and interests were pointing to exercising creativity in some other area. I listened as he slowly shared his story, trying to tell if he was just having a bad week, struggling with a particular course, or if he was genuinely discerning a call to a different area of study. In the end, I decided that his wrestling was due to the latter, and we discussed some different options. I encouraged him to finish the semester, but also to pray and speak with others as he picked a new major.

I could identify with his struggle. As a first year engineering student, I too questioned my chosen area of study. I phoned a former high school teacher in my uncertainty, telling him how I had become disillusioned with the grueling schedule and rigorous engineering classes. My former teacher listened patiently, and when I finished sharing my woes, he gently encouraged me to keep going. In my case, he knew I had the gifts to be an engineer; what I needed was not a change in major but some wise encouragement as I navigated the transition from high school to the demands of university.

‘Will that get you a job?’

Some of the saddest situations arise when students enroll in engineering or computer science strictly due to parental pressures and expectations. Many parents, out of genuine concern for their children, steer them towards areas of study that are “safe” and have good job prospects. Unfortunately, I have seen firsthand how this can place a heavy burden on students. I have sat in my office with students who are near tears, unable to meet parental expectations in their studies while their hearts long to study something else. One student confided in me that he loved psychology but that his father had made it clear he was expected to pursue computer science. A colleague had another student who was pressured by parents to study computer science, but he really wanted to become a dancer. He was able to join an extracurricular dance guild, but dutifully completed his computer science degree. Another student, pushed into computing by a demanding parent, was tempted to cheat as he struggled with the demands of his studies.

Passion and practicality

As a father of young adults, I understand this parental instinct. Who wants their children stuck living in the basement after they graduate from college? The time has long passed when just having any bachelor degree was sufficient to ensure gainful employment. A utilitarian view of education has led to ridicule for arts and humanities degrees and influenced parents to push their children towards professional programs. Our own children chose majors in college for which there was no guaranteed career path. Although I would have been delighted if my children followed in my engineering footsteps, I encouraged them to study what they loved. My wife and I resolved that our children become the people that God made them to be, trusting that they will find a way to serve with what they learned. However, my practical parenting instincts were not completely absent; I encouraged my children to pursue their passion alongside some practical courses, being open to a “plan B” just in case.

Unfortunately, the epidemic of depression and anxiety among young adults can be partially explained by the incredible pressures they experience to succeed in school and in life. I have witnessed this pressure firsthand as I talk with students in my office.

Frederick Buechner once wrote that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” As parents, teachers, pastors and mentors, we play a crucial role in helping to encourage young adults by pointing them in the direction of that meeting place.

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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