I Hate Telling My Family that I Study Linguistics—A Tale of 1st-Gen Regret

I absolutely hate telling my family that I study linguistics.

There, I said it.

For some context, I come from one of those families where “extended family” and “immediate family” are useless terms. Everyone is immediate family, and even within my extensive immediate family, I’m still the among the first ones (a few cousins no more than a year or two older beat me to it) to go to college. Among the ones who have gone to college, I am among the first three to go to a four-year university, and the first one to go to a school more than 15 minutes away from where we live. (Out of State FTW.)

I’ve grew up as “the smart one” in my family. My uncles half-joke about how I am going to make a lot of money and move us all out to the wealthy Oakland hills, and my aunts constantly tell me how once I graduate, life will be so much better not just for me, but for them, too. Back when college was a pipe dream, it was easy to smile and nod along with everything they said. Nowadays, when I tell my family, particularly my parents, what I study, I can see how their faces sink just the slightest bit. 

The first question that I get when I tell people that I study Ling is: “Well, what are you going to be able to do with that?” Linguist just doesn’t have the sexy ring that comes with Engineer! Lawyer! Doctor! Computer Scientist! Banker! Even though my late-night LinkedIn searches always find employed ling majors, it’s true that going into a linguistics field means forgoing a lot of money that I could have earned from going into something else. 

How does one admit that their parent’s sacrifices to get me to college might not pay off because their kid decided to study some language-social-science-y thing? After all, they did everything right: they left their homes in another country, immigrated, worked, and sacrificed. 

At the very least, the assortment of official and often overlooked non-official advisers (like upperclassmen friends and dorm mates, ENLACE, some professors who low-key adopted me for whatever reason) have been my gateway to learning how to get the most out of Swat’s vast infrastructure. I wouldn’t have learned about how Career Services works with alumni, not just students, or that they’ll help go over your resume, or hold mock interviews with you, or provide you with formal attire for interviews. I wouldn’t have known that Swarthmore has a conference fund that is there solely for you to go to conferences up to $500/yr. I wouldn’t have guessed which professors will let you wiggle around due dates. So many helpful bits of info that frankly my family would have not been able to help me with, no matter how supportive they are.

In short, there are tools here at Swarthmore to help me (and you!) make the most out of even a degree in linguistics. I hear from friends and other schools that Swarthmore’s programs are relatively helpful, but I don’t have much to compare. I want to feel that all this will be worth it. Right now, I have put a lot of faith and trust into Swarthmore’s pillars and hope that for the time being that they will keep me up, in school, all that jazz. But until I have a job and a paycheck in hand (worth enough to be able to make mom & dad’s life the slightest bit easier), I really can’t be certain, and that’s scary as hell.

I don’t know how this story is going to end. Usually I don’t like pondering about things that are still up in the air. Usually, if I know I can’t solve a certain problem right now by thinking it though and taking action, I just table it. Who knows, maybe my parents are wrong and I’ll actually make a fortune studying languages. I’ll find some practical way to solve some world problem using linguistics, maybe make the most accurate voice translating device, or learn how to communicate with aliens like in that linguistics movie Arrival. But for the next few years, this will all just be speculation.

Sorry if you made it this far and were expecting some positive ending. I don’t have one (check back with me in 2–6 years maybe). As much as I want to “own” my knowledge like Swarthmore wants armed with a clear conscience, I just can’t quite get rid of that ringing in the back of my head that I will be the first in my family to go to college, as well as be the first one in my family to completely blow it. 

But if I’m going to somehow “do college wrong,” I think I chose a pretty stellar place to do that.

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