“What made you choose environmental engineering?”
For unknown reasons, for the past three weeks I’ve been asked this question four times by four separate people. This morning, the question came up again that maybe it’s significant enough to dedicate an entry to explain. Maybe however small and trivial, my answer will help others whether that is to inspire, mull, re-consider or whatever else. While it is obvious that I don’t understand why it’s important, it’s clear enough to me that it sure seems important. Fair enough, so here goes.
Here’s my short answer: I didn’t.
It was a practical choice. It was the result of a negotiation with my parents. I wanted to pursue journalism which they gave a solid no to, so I settled for environmental science because at that time, I was involved in a few environmental-themed projects in school like rainwater harvesting and realized that I rather enjoyed them.
Throughout my formative years, I swore I’d never pursue engineering – or dentistry, really – because engineering was Dad’s forte, while dentistry was Mum’s. I could not possibly top them, and Dad’s collection of engineering textbooks in his library in the family home were enough to give me a headache. Parental pressure too, of course. This man teaches mechanical engineering for a living; he lives and breathes his collection of books, ergo he knows exactly which were bought when and purchases the most recent versions when possible. I swore I’d never do engineering, because heat transfer? Fluid mechanics? Thermodynamics? Excuse me, but what in the what?
One day though when I was merely seventeen and greatly lost, Dad suggested, “Why don’t you look into environmental engineering?” He explained that environmental engineering is often considered as ‘soft’ engineering, as opposed to the ‘hard’ ones namely mechanical and electrical. I did my background reading, and was piqued by the possibility of specializing in solid waste management. At that time, I had zero interest in anything related to water. They reasoned that an engineering degree is more flexible than a science degree, so if I change my mind in future, the playing field is thus wider. Above all, the reality is that the probability of acquiring a scholarship is higher with an engineering degree. The scenario is probably slightly different now, but six years ago, this was definitely true.
So we struck a deal, and environmental engineering was it.
Here’s the important bit: this is why I mean it, when I say I don’t believe that we must pursue what we’re passionate about to be professionally successful. Moot argument. I didn’t. I don’t believe it either, when folks claim that passion is ingrained, or more specifically, it’s passion-or-nothing. Moot. My ‘true’ passion, as we’re all aware by now, lies in writing. I lucked out because I got involved with those environmental-themed projects in my last two years of high school, though honestly for all we know, had I done I don’t know, robotics? Heck, maybe I’d be a mechanical engineer by now…
I’ll be honest again: I hated the first two years of college. I hated them so, so much. I hated physics in high school and never did well even though I was taught by the best physics teacher in the school as well as took after-school lessons on the subject. I am not particularly in love with math either, but I don’t hate or dislike it. So you see, everything that supposedly defined an engineer – I didn’t fit the mold.
The first two years of college was hard. My passion was elsewhere, and even though it turned out I wasn’t a hopeless case when it comes to the sciences, the learning process was not fun. Getting up to go to classes was a drag. Having to learn basic programming taught me the satisfaction of swear words. Group work forced me to speak up and express myself, or to fake it like I know it. My passion – frankly, what passion?
Here’s the thing, and this is the bit that’s important: passion isn’t ingrained. It’s not passion-or-nothing. I forced myself to like environmental engineering by doing background reading, and picking up topics related to it for class projects whenever possible, whether those were for general engineering classes, English, design – whatever courses that I could slot an enviromental-themed topic in, I did so. By sophomore year, I burned out and was basically just misguided, lost, and frustrated. My passion was still lacking, and courses were getting tougher. I still couldn’t speak in the same lingo the way my peers do, all excited about bridges and robots and whatnot. I was fortunate – the co-op happened, and that really, really helped. The six months experience finally sparked my passion in environmental engineering, and here I am now, pursuing a masters in the same field.
What are the odds, frankly speaking.
Here’s the first point that I wanted to point out: it’s not going to be easy. Let me rephrase that: it’s not always going to be easy, and this is true even if you’re all fired-up and passionate about your professional choice. It’s not supposed to be, because where’s the fun if there are no challenges? Second, don’t blame or beat yourself up over needing to “figure things out”. Newsflash: almost nobody actually figures anything out in their late teens and twenties. Hell, even folks in their thirties and forties don’t always have their acts together. Realize that you are not alone in feeling lost, and quit beating yourself and everything under the sun (re: God) because the answers to your pressing questions never reach you when you’re desperate for them. You are not alone.
Meaningful things take time, and as I love to put it, adversity builds character.
Third, even if you made a mistake or think you did so, with this career choice – so what? If the thing that’s keeping you in the program is something extremely trivial, like a field trip to a place you’ve always wanted to visit – so what? It is the end point that matters. It’s your fighting spirit that counts – this is the thing that has to be stronger and more fiery than any amount of passion combined. It’s the flame that has to continue to burn long after all others have died down. I’m going to tell you two words that you need to embed in your heart, mind, soul and even veins, if so need be. Remember and commit to them: toughen up.
Fourth, making a mistake in a career choice is not the end of the world, realize that. What is however, is quitting halfway when you’re in pretty deep that the way out equals to too many things and people at stake. Let’s be realistic here – how many people we know actually end up doing what they learned in school? Or more like, how many older folks do we know have switched careers multiple times in their 30-40 years of working experience? Plenty, I’m sure. How many of them claim that the stuff they learn in school – even if they’re say, a banker who graduated with a degree in finance – helped them to solve the problems and challenges they face at the workplace? It’s not that the education doesn’t matter, of course it does, but what matters more is your reasoning, understanding, and critical thinking. What matters more is what you picked up in four years of formal education, i.e. the skills you’ve developed like working under pressure, meeting deadlines, turning negative stress into positive stress – resilience.
In other words, your fighting spirit.
Here’s what I want to drive home: if you want to quit, fine. But if you’re already in too deep with your program, major, school – whatever – then be realistic. Don’t make a permanent decision over an emotional situation. Weigh the pros and cons carefully and repeatedly, then seriously consider the alternatives and backup plans. Take your time to confirm whether this is merely a phase, or a necessary move.
If you’re in college working towards your first degree though, here’s my advice when the going gets tough, or when you’re lost and battered, or even if you’re just coasting by: toughen up and hang in there. See it through to the finish line. Whatever you do afterwards is all up to you, but get the damn degree as opposed to nothing at all.
If you’re graduating with an environmental engineering degree but wants to be a teacher, well then go for it. Your engineering degree is still marketable and has helped to form your technical and critical thinking skills, both of which are essential tools which I’ve been told are attractive feats. If you’re an engineering graduate thinking of switching to consultant or business, the same rules apply. Third Bro’s an example. If you’re a business graduate but is hoping to switch to the technical field, realistically I’ve heard that yes, it’s harder but no, it’s not impossible. Second Bro’s an example. If you’ve a medical degree but no longer has the drive, interest or circumstances just don’t work out for you to keep donning the white coat, well realize that your medical degree is proof of six hard, long years of character building ergo it’s a show-and-tell of what you’re capable of. Eldest Sis is an example.
So yes, I highly recommend doing internships, because there’s nothing like learning through firsthand observation. Even if the internship sucked or everything about it sucked, here’s the catch: internship doesn’t necessarily grant you your professional life’s calling, but it sheds enough light on what not to do – the things to cross out from your long list of potential career options. Based on my personal experience, this is more useful than figuring out that “Oh, I actually love water resources!” It’s more accurate to say that I realized I didn’t actually hate it as I had initially believed, so I went from that discovery to where I am now. Naturally, along the way I’ve come to discover more topics of interest.
Meaningful things take time, so in the meantime just enjoy the ride and pat those battle scars.
My point is: hold on. See it through to the finish line. Above all else, you made the decision. You made the call. You committed to see through to the finish line. Don’t make excuses for your fears and insecurities. Don’t underestimate yourself, because how do you know exactly what you’re capable of if you’re not challenged, pushed to your limits, and tasted the lowest pits? Don’t belittle the human spirit, because we are always, always, always stronger than we think we are. It’s called survival instincts; reflexes. It’s called – you guessed it – your fighting spirit.
You’ve got this.