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All Communities Diaspora Diaries

The battle between the mind and heart: A student’s dilemma

By Khushy Vashisht

Growing up, 12-year-old Zoya’s* favourite subject in school was math. But once she reached high school and was exposed to a larger variety of courses, she found herself gravitating towards classes involving religion, philosophy and law. If she’d had it her way, she would be attending law school in England. Instead, eight years later, she’s a third-year mechanical engineering student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU)—a program of her parents’ preference.

Outcomes like these are not a foreign tale amongst students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, said this sort of situation isn’t surprising and it’s “relatively common” to see some students enrolling in the post-secondary programs of their parents’ choices—in Zoya’s case, engineering. “A lot of our students come from Eastern traditions, where it’s very family-focused,” he said. “There’s also—depending on the background—usually a perception that certain career paths are highly respectable and the kind you would like in your family.”

An article titled “A Systematic Review of Factors That Influence Youths Career Choices—the Role of Culture” in the academic journal, Frontiers in Education, vindicated Joordens’s sentiment. After conducting studies in countries that emphasize community relations including Indonesia, South Africa and India, and others more individualistic such as Canada and the U.S., researchers found that young adults from the former group were placing more value in parental and societal expectations.

“The opinions of significant others matter significantly to youths from collectivist cultural settings,” the study states. “Whereas, in individualistic cultures, youths tend to focus on professions that offer higher income and satisfy their personal interests.”

“Our parents definitely play a big role within our lives”

Zoya never pictured herself studying a subject in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related field, but she applied for engineering programs knowing that’s what her parents wanted her to pursue. Her two older sisters were in similar disciplines—one in medicine and the other also in engineering—which Zoya said made her parents assume that she would go down a similar path.

Coming from a Pakistani background, Zoya said, “Our parents definitely play a big role within our lives.”

Roughly a year before she began university applications, Zoya’s paternal grandfather passed away. While it was a profound loss for her whole family, it was particularly hard on her father—who started to talk about some of his personal regrets in life and not being able to fulfi ll some goals his father wanted. “That also played a factor into why I didn’t really want to go against my parents,” Zoya shared in a hushed tone. “I know [my dad] was extremely sensitive at that time.”

Despite doing well in her current program, Zoya said she wishes she was “encouraged to take more risks” earlier in her academic career.

“I know that, at the time, I was very uncertain [whether] law would have been the right path for me,” she began. “I feel like if I had given it a shot, if I had the opportunities to make those mistakes, I feel that would have been something.”

Zoya continued, saying “Ultimately, even if law didn’t work out for me, it would have been beneficial for me in the future—just in a path of being able to discover and pursue my passions.”

The intersection of family and education can also be connected through psychology concepts. Joordens made the connection to intrinsic and extrinsic motivations as well as the self-determination theory. He defined intrinsic motivation as one’s “inner drive” to take action because “it comes from within.” Meanwhile, extrinsic motivation is all about “external rewards”—such as enrolling in a program of your parents’ choice for their approval.

According to the psychology professor, the self-determination theory is about what someone needs in order to feel intrinsically motivated. He also brought up autonomy as a key concept that plays a large role with this specific motivation. “Anytime we feel like someone’s telling us what to do, we do not feel motivated to do that thing,” explained Joordens. “But if we decide we want to do it, if we see the value [and] understand the purpose of that thing, if it reaches some point we want to reach, then we enjoy it and get that intrinsic motivation.”

“If you have faith in yourself and you believe in yourself, that’s what it takes”

Damian Rose, a creative industries student at TMU, has had a rather unconventional path in academics—to the point where he is unable to definitively say which year of the program he’s in due to taking semesters off in between terms.

Ever since he was three years old, Rose has always had a passion for all music-related activities. He got his first guitar at the age of 12 and started getting paid for playing gigs at 14. Whether through playing at corporate events or weddings, Rose said he’s gotten a taste of various venues across Ontario.

Although Rose would have been more than happy to pursue music full-time, he shared that his father—who is a vice-principal—and his strict, Catholic family members take schooling very seriously. They wanted Rose to get a university degree. After reviewing his options, Rose settled on the creative industries program.

“I remember I went to the university job fair and was like ‘What program can let me be a musician, an actor, a director [and] an author?’” Rose shared. “They [said] ‘there’s not anything that’s going to be exactly what you’re looking for, but the closest thing is going to be creative industries.’”

While his mother is supportive of his pursuits and his father has been “coming around a little bit more recently.” Rose expressed that his biggest supporters were his maternal grandparents—to the point where they financially supported his artistic endeavours. Within the last three months, both have sadly passed away.

“[Their support] meant the entire world to me,” Rose said. “Whenever things were kind of rocky at home, I would always have a safe place [with them] to go.” Rose emphasized one message that he also practices within his career and life. “No matter what you’re going through, push through it because you can do what you set your mind to, no matter what the circumstances are,” he said. “If you have faith in yourself and you believe in yourself, that’s what it takes.”

Sanaa Mansuri, a third-year psychology student, practiced a similar mindset when deciding to pursue the program of her choice. During high school, she had shown interest in numerous student initiatives. From joining the student council and debate club, to having an avid interest in biology, Mansuri said she tended to pursue anything that piqued her interest and that she was always called the “smart kid”—a label she didn’t necessarily like.

psyUp until grade 11, everyone—including Mansuri herself—thought she would go down the ‘pre-med’ route in her post-secondary years. However, once she learned more about “the social aspects of science” after taking a high school psychology elective, everything changed and she shifted her gaze to pursue a psychology degree.

“The whole thing I loved about science and biology is [how] I could apply it to real life. [Psychology] just felt like the better version of that,” she said. “I’m learning about people and not on a physiological level, but on a social level too. I just like this better.”

Mansuri said that her parents didn’t react well to the news, and that their reactions were fuelled by two major factors. The first was the general stigma surrounding mental health and psychology in the South Asian community. Ultimately, their reaction boiled down to the second: confusion.

“They didn’t understand why I was changing my mind [unexpectedly] and why, all of a sudden, [for] something that wasn’t so secure of a future,” Mansuri said. She explained that in her culture, students are expected to pursue “safe, secure money-making jobs that have a generally high status,” including doctors, lawyers and engineers. She also explained how others outside of a student’s immediate family tend to make comments about their academic choices.

Mansuri touched upon the concept of ‘immigrant child guilt,’ stating that it can be hard to prioritize yourself because of this feeling.

“My parents packed up their lives and moved across the world for me [so] I [could] have a good future, a stable job,” Mansuri shared. “Now, in my head, I’m not even taking a stable career [path].”

“I know a lot of Western society is individualistic but that’s just not the way South Asian and Desi communities work,” she said. “It’s very community-based.” However, with time and exposure to what the program and discipline consist of, Mansuri’s parents have come around, only “wanting the best” for her.

“At some point you want to say, ‘Come on, find that thing you love and go that direction”

Joordens said some of the consequences students may face by enrolling in a program that isn’t their choice, including a disinterest in the work. This could lead to poor grades, trouble studying or learning and a sense of hopelessness. In some cases, he said these outcomes make it difficult for students to confide in their parents about their struggles which can become “a real mess.”

Other times, he said students are “aligned quite well with that way of thinking.” Despite being in the latter category, Zoya has heard the “just do what you want” sentiment —one that’s prevalent in individualistic communities—multiple times.

“I feel it’s a lot more nuanced than people make it out to be,” she said. “Everyone’s lives are so complicated with their interpersonal relationships…just doing it or making that jump can be a really scary thing.”

“I think depending on the person, it is definitely the right thing to do. But sometimes, it’s just not possible for some people.”

Joordens said he’d want to give students in Zoya’s shoes advice from his own “Western perspective” to pursue their own interests and goals.

“At some point you want to say, ‘Come on, find that thing you love and go that direction.’”

“But it’s not that easy for a lot of [students],” Joordens said. “There is that strong bond to family and some of them just feel like their role in the family is to try to do what their parents think is the right thing for them to do.”

*The source’s name has been changed due to privacy concerns

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