Artist finds way to be conventionally unconventional


Kalyn Watt (12) continues her progress on her AP Art portfolio as the deadline nears.

For the entirety of high school, I have been surrounded by amazing, high-achieving STEM students. However, the issue I had faced during these times was the fact that I was absolutely average at just about everything. 

I admired my friends who excelled in math and science, wishing I could suddenly wake up one day and fulfill every Asian parent’s dream by feeling passionate about the same things they do.

Instead, I was confronted with the harsh reality that I am just average at what they do. I didn’t hate it, but I was just average.

In June of 2020, I attended an informational session for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

I was hoping the session would pique some interest in the STEM field, or any other field that would give me some sense of financial stability, but instead, I was left even more lost.

College application season was approaching, and I still had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. After all, I couldn’t pursue art—the one thing I was good at—because I feared becoming a mere statistic. You know, that “starving artist.”

So here lies the dilemma that I, and thousands of other students, faced: should I pursue a field that grants me financial independence, or should I do what truly makes me happy? 

I confided in a friend who is a STEM student, and she asked me what was so wrong with pursuing STEM if I was indifferent to it.

I paused and thought to myself what really was so wrong with STEM? Maybe it was because if I chose STEM, I would be succumbing to the pressures of my friends and family, and I couldn’t do that because based on what others have told me, I would be sacrificing my own happiness.

I returned to the UIUC website and began exploring the endless list of majors offered. My mouse had gravitated towards the tab for the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Reluctantly, I scrolled down the page even though it was predetermined that I wouldn’t pursue art.

I stumbled across product design and began reading about the major, potential careers, required classes, etc. Like many other majors, it was very broad, with career options ranging from furniture design to web design.

It struck me with excitement because it was perhaps the way out of this crisis I was facing.

Initially, I was hesitant because although it falls under art, it incorporates elements of math and science. If I choose this major, would I still be giving up my authenticity?

But I realized I was so set on becoming the embodiment of individualism that I forgot there was a middle ground. Perhaps being caught in the pressures of peers and family members to pursue STEM enabled me to discover a path that satiates my need for conventionalism and passion for art.

In this sense, I gained a new perspective of what being impacted by others looks like. It doesn’t always equal sabotage to a happy future, and it most definitely didn’t mean that I had to pursue a career strictly in fine arts. There will always be something out there for you, but it just may require some digging.

Nonetheless, being surrounded by the highest achievers has been a little toxic at times, but it has more importantly pushed me to challenge myself in ways I otherwise would’ve never done. And who knows? Maybe I’ll come to enjoy taking art into unexpected fields.

At the end of the day, the saying “do what makes you happy” should still always come first, but if you find yourself “doing what makes you happy” while focused on desiring stability or meeting parental expectations, then that is perfectly fine too.