I chose to study mechanical engineering because I wanted to empower people and create things. And what better way to do that than to create things that empower people? So I launched myself into the world of assistive device design where I felt that I could best achieve my goals. I worked with clients who inspired me to design products that helped them lead more independent lives.
For me, my work was always more about the people I served than the products I built. I was most satisfied when I was sitting face-to-face with a user, getting their feedback and really understanding the pain points that they faced everyday. Through working on these projects, I gained a confidence that I could make an impact and a new appreciation for the problem solving acumen, technical skills, and immunity to failure that can result from authentic learning experiences that solve actual problems in the world.
But although I was inspired, I was also frustrated. Why didn’t I get these opportunities earlier? Were other students getting these experiences at all?
This frustration sparked MIT Design for America (DFA), an organization dedicated to helping students design real solutions to real problems in the community. By working on projects that apply their skills to meaningful causes like increasing food security and improving hospitals, students see their direct impact in the community and become more confident in their contributions. In addition, they gain technical, teamwork, and communication skills that empower them for the future.
But most importantly, a recent survey of students in DFA showed that 100 percent enjoyed their experience. Using authentic projects as a learning tool has huge promise for engaging students with learning that they enjoy.
That got me interested in exploring how this could be scaled up to K-12 education. More students need to experience authentic learning, and I wanted to be part of the efforts to bring those experiences to students. After researching what was already being done in the education space, I became obsessed with innovative learning strategies that rethink what classrooms are and can be.
I was inspired by places like Altschool, Khan Lab School, and Design Tech High School that are pioneering incredible new school models that focus on real-world applications and personalize education so students are in charge of their own learning. As our world shifts to a new economic era where automation and globalization replace routine jobs, it is more critical than ever for students to become creative thinkers and problem solvers.
So this left me with a dilemma. There was this big, compelling problem in education that needed solving. But then there was also engineering. How could I balance the two? I tried mashing them together to create some sort of career chimera. Mechanical engineering … teacher? Engineering … learning tools? Those didn’t sound quite right. Teaching ran the risk of becoming another cog in the broken system and I wanted to fix the system. Building tools would again take me a step back from the classroom and the students I wanted to design for. Just because I had combined my interests together didn’t mean it made it the best of both worlds; it was more of a mediocre combination of the two. It took me a while to realize that the mental hurdle blocking my decision was in my perception of what is worth creating.
At an engineering school, it’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that the only kind of meaningful creation is technical. Technologies, products, and machines all fall into that category. However, DFA helped me realize that creating experiences and excitement could be just as meaningful. More importantly, I got more personal satisfaction from working on organizational design problems than from working on product design problems. If people were what drove me, everything pointed towards going all in with education and leaving engineering behind, at least for now.
Looking back (obviously with 20/20 hindsight), this was a decision long in the making. I’d been involved in education since the sixth grade in some form or another: first through tutoring and coaching, then through starting outreach programs and designing curriculums. But I had dismissed education as a non-serious pursuit because of my own perceptions.
We all live with a unique worldview prejudiced by our own experiences. Since most of what I was surrounded by was engineering, my mind was naturally biased towards valuing technical pursuits highly. Because of that, I limited my own options by rigidly defining my peripheries of possible. When my perception of meaningful creation shifted, so did the boundaries of my possibilities.
This makes me question whether in a parallel universe, I would have been following a different path. Passion is often defined as a static, inherent entity. Advice like “find your true calling” and “follow your dreams” presumes that there is a single calling for each person. They don’t mention the effect that unique experiences have on shaping what you become passionate about.
If I had attended a more humanities-focused school, chosen different internships, or met different people along the way, my path might have been drastically different. I would have been inherently the same individual, but shaped by new experiences. I like to believe that I would still be following my passion, but potentially a different one.
Passions aren’t singular entities, predestined and waiting to be found, just like how your soulmate is probably more a product of the experiences that shape your worldview than a result of some predestined force that had paired you two since birth. For both cases, it’s more of a pool. You have your pool of things that you could potentially be passionate about: perhaps writing, design, and education all fall into mine. Hell, maybe even fry cook and car repair are in there, but due to financial situations and gender biases, I probably would never have found that out.
This pool is, for the most part, static. Then, what you end up choosing out of the pool is dependent on the random twists, turns, and falls of your life. And the great thing is you can’t really go wrong. Anything you choose from this pool will lead you to a fulfilling life of rewarding work, albeit in different forms. And it seems you’ll never know the true boundaries of your passion pool since we only have a finite amount of time before we need to finish exploring and make a choice.
But then again, ours is a generation that has more career shifts than any, so there might be time to explore those other paths as well. We just need our experiences to reveal the breadth of the options available to us. The more experiences we have, the more expansive our pool becomes.
As I graduate in six months’ time, there’s a lot of decision paralysis. What am I going to do? Is it the right choice? What are my friends doing? Should I be doing that? Who am I even? Stressful times all around. But perhaps there’s no right or wrong. Perhaps there’s just choosing something from the pool, and moving into the jungle gym of life to get started.
Now, my plan is to research education and implement new classroom strategies in schools. With new technologies and cutting-edge research supporting models like project-based learning, socio-emotional learning, and personalized education, there’s a lot of work to be done to integrate more of these learning strategies into classrooms and explore the best ways to do that to improve schools.
Education is my first step into my jungle gym.
A version of this article was originally published at https://medium.com/@ckliu95. Connie Liu is a member of the Class of 2016.