Recently at an outreach meeting, a high school student asked me, “When did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?”
I wanted to say, “Since I was young, I always wanted to know how things worked, and I enjoyed building things.” But that would have been a lie. In fact, I am not sure if I would have chosen engineering had I had other choices. Well, I had three: to become a doctor, an engineer, or a failure. These were the only choices every Indian student faced when I was growing up.
Becoming a doctor was out of the question because I was unable to stand the sight of blood. Failure didn’t sound like a good option. So all that was left for me to do was to become an engineer—not because I was passionate about it, but because it was my only choice. It was truly an arranged marriage, the old-school Indian way.
I grew up in Chennai, formerly known as Madras. My parents never forced me to do anything; they let me make my own choices. None of my older siblings chose engineering or medicine, so definitely there was no pressure that I felt from family members. An invisible but constant social pressure to “fit in” guided my choice.
Many arranged marriages are successful and one reason may be that the bride and groom’s expectations about each other are very low at first. Since they don’t know each other yet, they are probably prepared for things to not be completely rosy. Also, couples in an arranged marriage focus less on personal joy and more on creating stability, compatibility, financial security, and children. What is often overlooked is that couples do fall in love within arranged marriages as the partners get to know each other better.
This is exactly what happened to me. While I was not overly excited about studying engineering, I worked hard just to make it work. I compromised some of my interests. In school, the study of literature, history, and geography fascinated me. These subjects took a backseat in my mind when I started college. I redirected all my energies towards studying engineering. I soon started seeing the desired results for my hard work, and I was always at the top of my class. But, deep inside, I would often wonder if engineering was really for me.
I had a great teacher who taught us Russian literature. She was the best teacher I ever had. In her soft but deeply engaging voice, she would talk about great poets and writers as if she had known them. She had such a mesmerizing effect on me that I couldn’t wait to read the works of Pushkin, Lermontov and Dostoevsky. I would spend an inordinate amount of time reading books unrelated to engineering to the point where I even considered switching majors. But, there was another force at play which boiled down to my inner drive to excel in academics.
In college I felt inspired by some teachers and frustrated by others. When I felt inspired, I spent a lot of time on those subjects and absorbed as much as I could. But when I was exasperated with a course, I spent even more time on it and focused my energies on getting the job done. As I made my way through various courses, inspiring and exasperating, I found myself developing a better understanding and appreciation of the field of engineering. It dawned on me that engineers were responsible for everything we have and use today—homes, furniture, clothing, cars, and televisions even down to the food we eat. Without engineering, we would be back in the Stone Age; engineers made all of this happen.
Suddenly, I felt part of an exclusive club and the title of “engineer” made me proud. Since I initially had low expectations, even small positive changes in my attitude toward engineering had an oversized impact on my overall attitude towards the field. What was once a chore I didn’t want to be part of became a pleasant activity I looked forward to engaging in. I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way I fell in love with engineering. Today I have no regrets about the only choice I had to make. And I am still able to pursue many things I always wanted to do, albeit later in life.
Today, the world is a very different place compared to the time I was at school. Many Indian parents, especially those who live in America are providing many opportunities to their children and letting them choose career paths that were once unimaginable for my generation. One important truth that many young people don’t realize is that even if you do get into the field of your interest, you are invariably going to encounter difficulties, uncertainties, and self-doubt. And your overall happiness with your choice is going to be determined by how you face these obstacles along the way.
I often see students not wanting to explore anything other than what they think they are interested in. To them I would say, “Don’t roost in the pigeonhole of narrow interests.” Some students tell me they hate a subject, or activity, or even a professor, because of certain preconceived notions. To them, I’d say, “don’t be bogged down by a hurdle on your way. Expect more hurdles. There is great satisfaction in overcoming obstacles, and in the end you become a better “you.” Whether it is choosing a college, a major, or even a profession, there is a lot to explore outside your comfort zone.
P.S. I am not writing this essay to promote arranged marriage. My marriage was not arranged.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Huffington Post.
Dr. Mariappan Jawaharlal is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He has received awards for being an outstanding educator who uses innovative and engaging teaching pedagogy.