That ‘unusual’ English Literature degree (according to home)

I know I am not the first and certainly not the only one to step away from my home country to pursue an English Literature degree. And this is no life-changing tale, no big fancy drama. But I know that I am lucky to have gotten this far in three fleeting years, especially given my previously more ‘science-y’ background in high school. So if I may – this is my journey.

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Safety first, so they say

Like many countries, opportunities for art and humanities students are limited in Malaysia. In public schools there is already a huge divide. Being a developing country, the government figured that it would be more beneficial to focus on producing graduates who were experts in science and technology, at the cost of paying less attention to the latter. In Fourth Form, students are asked to choose between the Science Stream or the Arts Stream. For certain schools there might be the Sub-Science Stream, which is similar to Science but offers Accounting in place of Biology. Odds were partial to Science students; you’d never hear the end of things like:

“The Science Stream is for academically good students and the studious/hard workers etc. The Arts Stream is for those who are weak/lazy/ slow-learners etc.” (Which is not true – I know many who perform tremendously well in commerce, although I feel sorry for those who lose their self-esteem because of this conception.)

“If you go for the Science Stream, you have the option to change to commerce if you want to, but not the other way.”

“Science Stream classes get the ‘better’ teachers/ treatment/ class environment.” (Sadly at times not far from the truth.)

In other words, to pick the Science stream (in public schools, at least) is to escape the social stigma. Not having a clue about I wanted to do at that point, I picked what I thought would be ‘safer’.

Taking the Leap

When it was finally decided sometime between then and my first year of uni that English Literature was what I wanted to do, finding information about it was not so straightforward.  It was easy to find out about courses like Accounting/Finance, Law, Medicine/Pharmacy and Engineering, whereas things like Literature, Designing and Performing Arts were not impossible but very unconventional. I remember asking a local uni representative at a career fair in my Fifth Form about this.

“But you are in the Science Stream. You get good grades. Why do you want to take English?” she replied.

Then she started shoving me brochures about some unrelated stuff. I had to excuse myself and walked away.

Honestly I could not have done it without the support of my parents. I know many people are pressured into taking courses with ‘better returns’, either by personal conviction or by their folks. Sometimes I wonder if I would have buckled under the pressure but thank goodness I was told to steer my own life. With all the help I needed I managed to get into university to study English Literature. (To my parents: if you are reading this, thank you.)

People stared at me with bewildered eyes whenever I told them what my plans were. I was also often asked, “So what are you going to do after you graduate? Teach English?”

Which is probably why I have no intention of becoming a teacher.

Doing something you enjoy

For most of my three years at the University of East Anglia, I was perhaps the only international, non-EU undergraduate in my course (I say ‘most of my three years’ to take into account transfer students). Being in the UK, studying English Literature and being around like-minded students – it did a lot of good.  I was shocked by the sheer number of students who had no qualms about going down the humanities route. I have seen the career paths an arts degree can lead to and I am telling you, it is abundant. Who cares about whether it was tough or not: there is nothing to regret, nothing to change if time can be rewritten.

So yes, I know I am not the first nor am I the only one to have gone through something similar. I salute those who have done it in the past because it must have been so much harder then. I hope you’d understand that the conception of “Science is good and Arts is bad” is merely a stereotype. And I hope that no matter which path you choose when pursuing your education, where it is you start from or how you get there, it is something you are passionate about. I hope you are happy.