The engineers who ‘fled’, ritualistic death and rebirth

A depiction of the Buddhist idea of Samsara
A depiction of the Buddhist idea of Samsara
A depiction of the Buddhist idea of Samsara

As I’ve mentioned previously, I find myself often on the receiving end of considerable censure for permanently leaving a field commonly purported to be prestigious, stable and reliable in the pursuit of my vague social science-oriented dreams. There is a vast amount of cultural and economic rhetoric that go into creating the dialectic that disseminate the idea that this was a damning mistake that I will soon come to regret. I will try to configure this view in light of how I am currently viewing my engineering education, and how others have used it, in past and present situations.

Full disclosure: my choice to go into engineering over Arts & Science at U of T was contingent on the fact that I got enough scholarships in engineering to fully cover my first year of tuition and residential fees, and some more. Although some of these funds would definitely transfer over to Arts & Science had I chosen to pursue a BA or a BSc, the 17-year-old me was quite blinded by the ‘prestige’ that an engineering education seemed to confer, at least according to orientation propaganda. As I powered through my excruciating four years, I was constantly reminded that I belonged to an elite class of students who ‘survived’ while others were ‘deserters’ who ‘fled’ knowing that they couldn’t live up to the standards. This endorsement itself seemed enough of an incentive to carry on, despite that apart from a few punctuated periods of actual contentment, my values and abilities seemed better fitted to something else.

Currently, I simply see my engineering education as A) proof of my resilience and endurance in challenging academic environments, and B) something to ‘fall back on’. The latter aspect seems to provoke passionate responses from people who think I’ve ‘wasted my time’, or worse, an affront to the immigrant dream of fast and high-levels of capital accumulation in the adopted country. I find both of these reasons to be completely ridiculous because pursuing an engineering career as a ‘back-up plan’ is actually quite a luxury, and, frankly, the idea that first generation immigrants need to pursue socially-sanctioned ‘practical’ careers is insulting and exclusionary.

To celebrate my exodus from engineering, on the eve of my 24th birthday, I have concocted a ritual of ‘symbolic death’ for myself, in which I bid farewell to an older self, in preparation of the birth of the new self tomorrow. I want to take the time to remember others like me in history who also ‘fled’ engineering, and are known almost exclusively for their contribution to other fields. If these people are any indication, I’ve found myself in great company!

Without further ado, here are some engineers who ‘fled’. Feel free to leave comments to add more to the list!

Rowan Atkinson, comedian;  electrical engineering PhD dropout

Yasser Arafat, Nobel Laureate in Peace, former civil engineer

Alfred Hitchcock, filmmaker, former civil engineer

Cindy Crawford, model, actress, chemical engineering dropout

Frank Capra, filmmaker, former chemical engineer

Roger Corman, filmmaker, former industrial engineer

Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher, formerly a mechanical engineer who did early fundamental work in aerodynamics

Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, trained in reactor technology and nuclear physics

Benjamin Lee Whorf, linguist and anthropologist, former chemical engineer


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