From STEM to STEAM: The Value of an Arts Degree

Whether you’re just starting grade 9 or finally approaching high school’s finish line, I think we can all agree that high school isn’t an easy race course to navigate. It’s a confusing time in our lives between childhood and impending adulthood, and while many of us try to forget it (myself included), there is no denying that we all have some pretty big decisions to make very soon, such as whether to go to university and what to study.

Heading into my third year at WCI, I decided that I was going to focus most of my courses in the direction of the liberal arts, with American history, French, and the new journalism class that houses this site, to name a few. Though my parents were supportive of my decision, many of my peers expressed concern that I didn’t plan on taking any science courses. Even though I knew the university programs I was interested in didn’t require science pre-requisites, I started to doubt my choice.

After doing some research, I found that universities have seen the number of arts applicants drop in the past few years because of a recent push towards STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Many people assume that students who pursue STEM in university have an easier time getting a high-paying job right after graduating. The Globe and Mail even cited a CIBC World Markets Report in a recent article that argued that “universities wasted funds on producing graduates in out-of-demand fields, such as arts and humanities, while turning away thousands of qualified STEM applicants.”

I was never really inclined towards science or math, and with the arts being my passion, it was disheartening to hear that a career in that direction might not be practical. To gain perspective on turning this passion into a career, I decided to interview four people who strongly believe that the arts are a viable career path: Amy Rola, a friend and integrated arts program graduate from Eastwood Collegiate Institute (ECI), Christine Girardi, a history and medieval studies student at Wilfrid Laurier University (Laurier), Marshall Ward, a local freelance writer, and Dr. Richard Nemesvari, the Dean of Arts at Laurier.

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Amy Rola’s songs, such as “I Wish I Was Her,” which was turned into a music video, can be found on iTunes.

Amy Rola, whom I’ve become close friends with in the past two years, graduated this past spring from ECI’s Integrated Arts Program and is taking a gap year to complete her first album with a grant from the city. When September rolls around again, she hopes to attend Humber College for their jazz music program and one of their writing programs.

“You cannot get me into math and enjoying it,” Rola said. “Music is a way to express yourself … It’s the only thing that feels natural to me.” Even though the odds are stacked against her, she plans to try to break into the music industry because of this love for her art. Rola addressed these concerns, saying that she’s “always worried about it because, obviously, it’s difficult to get a job in the arts, but it’s not impossible.”

While it may not directly compare to the task of entering the competitive industry of entertainment, there are many people who have successful jobs in their artistic fields and are not the “starving artist” that one might expect. One of these people is Christine Girardi, a Laurier graduate who has a Joint Honours Degree in History and Medieval Studies. Almost immediately after graduating, she earned her Bachelor of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, which was followed by a position at The Museum in Kitchener as their public programs coordinator. Now, she is the assistant curator with the History Museum of Niagara Falls.

“I’ve always been drawn to the arts,” Girardi wrote from Niagara through an email interview. “Exploring history has always been a part of who I am.” Though she may not currently have a job in her specialised area—Medieval Studies—she was able to find a job in history. “I may not use my direct historical knowledge of the medieval period at the Niagara Falls History Museum,” she continued, “but the research, critical thinking, writing, and organisational skills I learned are used daily in my job.”

Another Laurier graduate who has “made it” in the world of the arts is Marshall Ward, a local freelance writer and artist, whose list of credentials and accomplishments is endless. Along with being published by Rolling Stone Russia and interviewing Beatles bandmate, Ringo Starr, for Los Angeles-based Rock Cellar magazine, Ward’s work can be found in a weekly column in The Waterloo Chronicle and gallery exhibitions throughout North America, England, and Japan.

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Marshall Ward before interviewing Ringo Starr in Niagara Falls. The photo was provided by Ward and taken by photographer, Mark Walton.

Despite his other impressive achievements, Ward said, “Teaching for five years in the Fine Arts Program at Wilfrid Laurier has been the most rewarding experience of my arts career, as I absolutely loved seeing those students explore and achieve far beyond what they originally thought they could.”

However, the same year he received the Award for Teaching Excellence, the university shut down the Fine Arts program and, just this past year, the Robert Langen Gallery was closed. “I feel it is short-sighted of any institution to cut vital arts programming,” Ward said. “It signified the end of an era and is emblematic of the ongoing devaluation of the arts.” Ward was an unfortunate casualty of the spreading belief that the arts doesn’t lead to a serious career path, as universities pull funding to invest in STEM programs.

To hear another opinion from within the university regarding the value of the arts, I sat down with the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Laurier, Dr. Richard Nemesvari. Formerly a WCI student (and forever a Viking), Nemesvari is an English professor, specialising in the novels of Victorian author, Thomas Hardy, and was offered the position at Laurier after having served as the equivalent at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. While working at St. FX, he led the development of a website called Arts Pathways that gives “students a sense of the opportunities in course patterns that can lead to certain broad careers.” Talking to the Dean, it was clear to me that he is very passionate about the arts and wants people to better understand their value.

“The arts contribute critical thinking that refuses to accept common assumptions,” Nemesvari said, “[but] there’s all kinds of uncertainties and that’s why STEM can be more attractive, you know, because it looks more certain. …” He explained to me that “arts enrolments are dropping across the country” because of what he calls “the ideology of ‘the job.’” Students entering university are focusing too much on a career path and believe that by going into the arts, they are not guaranteed a stable career at the end of their degree. Nemesvari continued, saying, “I think the pendulum is actually swinging back the other way… You don’t know the future and, frankly, it’s more likely than not that you’re going to get a career because the statistics all back that up.”

I then told the Dean about The Globe and Mail article that cited the CIBC World Markets Report I mentioned earlier. “There’s politics involved with that kind of declaration. It is not purely empirical, it’s ideological,” Nemesvari responded. “I would say it’s out-of-date, as well, because increasingly empirical studies are showing that arts graduates get jobs and that they are in-demand in the kind of STEM areas that that person is seeming to claim they’re unnecessary in.”

After meeting with all of these successful and driven people who work in the arts, I no longer doubt my choice to focus most of my courses in the direction of the arts this year. While STEM subjects may set you up for a career path right out of university, the arts offer a skill set that opens up a world of possibilities. I may not know at this point what career I want to pursue, but figuring that out in university can be half the fun.

Society may push students towards STEM because people believe the arts are irrelevant, but there will forever be a demand for artists: we will always need books to fill our libraries, paintings to fill our museums, music to fill our ears. Artists are the idea-makers and the ideology-shakers, and though at times it may seem like I have no distinct direction, the excitement of being a part of that vibrant world reignites my passion for the arts all over again. After all, as I’ve heard it said before, science may save lives, but the arts make life worth living.


For more information on Amy Rola, visit:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3chzY1LeVcE

http://music.cbc.ca/#!/artists/Amy-Rola

For more information on Christine Girardi, visit:

http://www.niagarafallsreview.ca/2014/01/02/launch-date-set-for-new-niagara-exhibit

http://www.niagarathisweek.com/whatson-story/5258047-museum-gets-back-to-nature-with-new-exhibit/

For more information on Marshall Ward, visit:

http://www.waterloochronicle.ca/waterloo-on-author/marshall-ward/9c2e97dd-67c2-413a-87ce-3ba1f06fee41?sort=datedesc

http://www.rockcellarmagazine.com/author/marshall/#sthash.EMnTqsfZ.0WPbG2Sp.dpbs

For more information on Richard Nemesvari, visit:

https://www.wlu.ca/media/news-releases/june-2015/laurier-appoints-new-dean-of-arts.html

http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/thomas-hardy-sensationalism-and-the-melodramatic-mode-richard-nemesvari/?isb=9780230621466

To see the full Globe and Mail article, visit:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/the-expectation-gap-students-and-universities-roles-in-preparing-for-life-after-grad/article21187004/?page=all