Contending With the Unconventional

Two students share how their ethnic backgrounds have shaped their college experience and career paths.

Under the Arch

Contending With the Unconventional

Two students share how their ethnic backgrounds have shaped their college experience and career paths. 

Oct 20, 2022

Lorena Campes and Nandini Gupta are illustrated as children against a pink background. Lorena is wearing a red shirt, blue overalls and holding a paint palette with two brushes. Nandini is wearing a pink saree and is holding a paper with written text.

Lorena Campes has always had a love for art, particularly painting and drawing. Nandini Gupta is similarly passionate about journalism and dramatic writing. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra and Susan Behrends Valenzuela for WSN)

Lorena Campes, Under the Arch Deputy Editor

I think a lot about a story my parents told me a few times when I was younger: my toddler-aged brother was walking down the beach with my dad when he spotted a street vendor selling ice cream — my brother had never tried it. But my mom made the Cuban equivalent of around $10 a month, and they desperately needed a new blender. It was in my brother’s best interest, of course  — you couldn’t exactly go buy sweet potato Gerber at the non-existent supermarket, so they had to make his food from scratch. I don’t remember how much the ice cream was; I just remember that the cost was far too much and my dad knew he needed to save the money for more important things. 

He bought my brother the ice cream anyway. 

I’m not sure why the ice cream story stuck with me, but it’s not the only one. I grew up hearing about the myriad items my parents had to make themselves, and the process that led to them wasn’t always as deceptively simple as buying a blender: clothes, houses and a boat to leave the country with.

I was born in the United States, where things like ice cream aren’t considered a luxury. Years before I was even born, my parents spent hours crouching behind beachside shrubbery with my three-year-old brother. They waited for authorities to leave, getting bitten by mosquitoes, before spending what I can only imagine felt like forever on a dark boat in open water, anxiously awaiting the sight of land. Like most immigrant parents, this was all in the name of giving their children and future generations a better life — and like many immigrant children, I have a hard time believing I’m fulfilling their idea of that “better life.”

My mom is a pediatrician, but she’s never forced me to follow in her footsteps or pursue some other equally prestigious field. My dad stayed home with us most of the time, helping my mom out in many ways other than financially. This undeniably altered my perception of gender roles and traditional household structures, which, in turn, made me more receptive to the unconventional. For me, this sense of the unconventional meant an interest in art far beyond coloring books and construction paper crafts in elementary school art class. 

In kindergarten, I would draw multicolored mermaids for my classmates. At around seven, I would hand-sew miniature pillows and blankets for my dolls and stuffed animals — I had a small red, yellow and blue suitcase filled to the brim with scrap fabric and loose buttons left over from my mom’s sewing projects. I spent my childhood hand-making cards and trying every artsy hobby under the sun, from air dry clay to beaded jewelry to cake decorating, all thanks to the fact that my mom never turned down a trip to Michaels. 

I’ve always been academic, and, weirdly, that’s part of the problem. I took an art class every year of high school, sometimes multiple if I had a free period. A vivid memory of my aunt leaning over the kitchen counter one day around then is seared into my brain, telling me I was too smart to study art. It hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility yet; when I got to the age where your family starts to ask what you want to study in college, I had arbitrarily decided on psychology. I liked it, sure, but I didn’t love it — it just sounded better than “I think I want to paint portraits for my entire life.” 

I love my mom, and I would never choose another one, but if there’s such a thing as “soul-parents” the way there are soulmates, Mrs. Massolio was mine. She was my art teacher for four years, and she was the reason I didn’t end up choosing a career I would regret for the rest of my existence. My parents have always been supportive, and I know they will continue to be supportive even if I shred my BFA and decide I want to be a pastry chef. It wasn’t really about that, though. I think it just meant something different to me that someone who wasn’t obligated to love me unconditionally saw the same future for myself that I did and actually thought I would be successful. 

So, I went to art school, and I’m going to graduate next semester, but I still feel guilty about it. I know it’s nonsensical given the circumstances, and probably something I should unpack with a licensed professional and not a word document, but I can’t help it. I still don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, and even though I know painting portraits would be enough for my parents and it would’ve been enough for Mrs. Massolio, I’m not so sure that it’s enough for me. 

Nandini Gupta, Contributing Writer

As a 17-year-old Indian student being asked to decide on a major while choosing which university I would attend, I was told there was no need to fret. I would eventually find my interests, and everyone would support me. That was true — I did find my passion in journalism and dramatic writing. But instead of support, I was met with panic.

When I announced my decision, I was met with remarks along the lines of, “Dramatic writing?” and, “English?” or, “The arts?!” Then there was the occasional, “Who does that?” and, “Are you okay? Have you caught a fever?” Everyone told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life by studying what I actually enjoyed. I was labeled a failure without being given a chance to succeed.

There’s a common belief in India that anybody pursuing the arts does so because they didn’t get admission to any other stream of study. For the longest time, I felt that just because I didn’t have a taste for math and was more creatively inclined that I wasn’t good enough. The misconception that studying the arts will limit career opportunities for students almost ruined my chance of writing my first novel and pursuing other artistic interests.

Since I maintained good grades throughout high school, my family expected me to study something more concrete than writing. I was not terrible at math, and I enjoyed physics and biology to some extent. But did I really want a career stemming from these subjects? Not really.

It didn’t help that my parents are both engineers. The rest of my family believed that I would follow in their footsteps, perhapsbecome the CEO of a successful company like my father. But here I was, the youngest in my family, bringing shame to the name they’d built for themselves.

I thought my mother shifting her career from engineering to fashion design at the age of 45 would help. If she was allowed to pursue what she actually liked, then surely I would be able to do so too. But that bubble of delusion bursted the second I started taking classes on contemporary Broadway musicals and writing for newspapers instead of participating in hackathons — coding and software events for programmers. Those close to me didn’t care what I cared about. To them, I was a student who had deviated from the path.

When I took one mandatory core math class at NYU, my family suddenly seemed very interested in my studies. Our hour-long calls were filled with talking about questions I was solving in my problem sets. Each time I would show the slightest interest in math, the engineers in my family would ask me if I wanted to change majors.

“It’s not too late,” they said. “Things can still look better.”

Along with the daily dose of changing majors were indirect comparisons to other Indian students who were studying conventional majors like economics and computer science.
Such conversations led me to question whether I belonged in my writing classes. Was I supposed to ditch my play readings to become a master in coding?

I started talking to some professors about the struggle between my ethnicity and my college majors, and challenged myself to read and write more. I wanted to believe in my dream even if some of my family didn’t.

After my debut novel “Daughter of the Night” was published, I saw some change in my family. Some members were starting to understand why I was studying writing, but my endeavor couldn’t break the stereotypical belief the rest of them held. They still saw it as a one-time attempt by a wannabe writer. Now that the novel was out in the world, I had supposedly lived my dream and could go back to reality — to math.

It’s ironic that my family loves reading. Books by well-known Indian authors including Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi crowd bookshelves and nightstands in our home. But when it comes to someone close to them trying to pursue something similar, they don’t share the same vision. When parents hand Bhagat’s books to their children, why don’t they encourage them to be the next Chetan Bhagat? Why give us his books if you’re going to take them all away one day and replace them with engineering books? Not all of us are interested in reading those.

I want to practice my art without feeling ashamed or doubtful. Just because many Indians — like some in my family — have been wired to think that engineering guarantees success, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the path for everyone.
Sidelining students like me who are trying to make it in the creative world while boasting about my cousins who are all engineers or doctors or lawyers is worse. By crushing someone’s dreams, you’re destroying — no, pillaging — their entire life. You don’t have the right to do that.