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Dare to dream

One of my students is facing a dilemma. She loves to write, she clearly has talent and she is passionate about her major in English. But her family and friends wonder what she is going to do with this qualification.

Given that the demand for humanities graduates in today's volatile job market is slim, they say, maybe she should pick something more practical and stable, like business or computer science.

I can identify with her concern. I heard much the same argument when I was an undergraduate back in the 1970s.

The general view of the humanities as impractical - tolerable inside the ivy-covered walls of academe but too esoteric to be applicable in the real world - is the same now as it was when I was pursuing my formal education. I doubt that attitude will ever change for some people.

When my student shared her dilemma with me, I assured her that writers write for the same reasons that painters paint and musicians compose: they are compelled to.

My sense is that she would be very unhappy indeed if she were to pursue a career for which she has no love. As Joseph Campbell so deftly put it: "Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls."

Regarding the competitive job market, I shared with her the circumstances surrounding my own search for work. Although there were precious few openings for entry-level college lecturers when I was about to complete my degree in 1972, and although I had heard many stories of frustrated academic job-seekers, I began my search in the autumn of my final year by writing 10 letters a day for 22 days, to every college and university English department in five states. My efforts yielded just three interviews, but six weeks later I received a call that led me to my own classroom and ultimately changed my life.

I have attended the annual Modern Language Association convention since I began my teaching journey four decades ago. It is a meeting where humanities professionals and students come together from all over the US and Canada for workshops, presentations, panel discussions and networking. In recent years, up to 10 per cent of the 9,000 attendees have been graduate students interviewing for a few dozen academic positions.

In spite of these daunting odds, I advised my student to stay true to her passion. The evidence of talent is in her writing. She has a clear, strong, original voice. Her wit and intelligence shine. "I want to read more from you," I said, "and so will your future audiences."

Her gifts are too precious to be squandered. I suggested that her research and writing skills could serve as a path to many rewarding careers including advertising, publishing, journalism, teaching and even medicine or law.

More than 90 years ago Robert Frost wrote about a similar dilemma in his poem The Road Not Taken. Every talented, passionate student ought to embrace the truth of his closing lines: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled byAnd that has made all the difference."

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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