For some kids, answering that cliché, “What do you want to be when you grow up” question is a nuisance. For some, it’s a chance to dream. And for still others, it’s a luxury often out of reach.
Studies show that having purpose in life — a sense of core goals, aims and direction — is beneficial for mental and physical health. But opportunities to find that purpose, to dream big and to determine what and who you want to be aren’t always distributed equally.
Research from Harvard University, Brown University, and the U.S. Census Bureau found that children of color are more likely to face generational poverty and mass incarceration; and according to the Pew Research Center, kids of lower-income parents are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. Such circumstances can add up, chipping away at the ability to explore passions and track down a purpose in life.
“When you’re a kid, it’s all about your dreams and your goals, and you can dream as audacious as you want,” said Minda Harts, a former Chicagoan and founder of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color. “Then somewhere along the line, disappointment meets us, and we stop dreaming, and we stop seeing what’s possible for ourselves. Allowing ourselves the freedom to explore and not feeling guilty when we want to do that is key; I think we owe it to ourselves to explore some of those curiosities.”
Attendees at the Museum of Science and Industry’s annual STEM career event Oct. 13 had the opportunity to do just that.
Ten-year-old Rayne Lumpkin expressed her passion for robotics and science, sporting a grin, lab coat and goggles. The John T. Pirie Fine Arts and Academic Center student dropped hints to her mother, Yvonne Butler, about getting a JJRC R2 CADY WIDA robot for Christmas.
“She’s been into robotics since last year,” said Butler, a Chatham resident. “She really wants to build robots; it’s the first thing she’s really into.”
Saeed Muhammad, 7, and his brother Hasan, 4, spent time at the event in awe of the ultraviolet light emanating from Sudhanva “Raj” Govindarajan’s liquid-filled beaker. A member of the American Chemical Society, Govindarajan explained to curious onlookers that insects see light differently than humans.
And at an adjacent table, members of the Black Girls Code organization chatted with passers-by in hopes of getting young people interested in technology and programming.
“Interest is there, but interest starts to fade at age 13. … Something happens, so we’re working on building a support system for girls from 7 to 17 — girls who are not seeing or speaking to role models in the field,” said Monique Wingard, a member of the outreach team. “We’re here to show that women of color do have jobs in the field.”
Wingard recalled a father driving his elementary-age daughter from Michigan to the Chicago area, so she could see and talk to black women in the technology field, a great age to do so, according to Kelly Fair, founder of the Chicago-based Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program.
“Thinking about who you are and how you present yourself to the larger world — those things are formed in the third- to fifth-grade range. … I think that’s a really great space to begin to start thinking about what you want to do with your life,” she said.
Project Wayfinder, a Bay-area-based company that provides a purpose-learning curriculum for K-12 schools around the world, including some in Chicagoland, emphasizes that type of self-curiosity. Part of its “Toolkit” involves asking students a series of questions focused on self-awareness. What are parts of my identity? Who is my support crew? What does society expect of me? What holds me back from new paths? What can I learn from others? How do I fit into the world?
“Definition of purpose is: What is consequential to the self and others?” said Adrian Michael Green, director of school engagement for the organization. “And once you recognize your skills and gifts and what’s important to you, you don’t stop there — you move on to purposeful action — where you take those things and actually do something.”
Martin Johnson, a senior at Northwestern University and a St. Louis native, found that his multiple passions (sports, his love of people, and being of service) intersected with journalism. The 22-year-old is now looking forward to a life after graduation where he can do his part in telling stories that “need to be told.”
“As someone who has multiple passions, I say you should never sacrifice one of your passions,” he said. “If you can only do one thing that you’re interested in, find something that fits all of those passions and run with it. And really work for it.”
Johnson’s drive is what Purposeful Work at Bates College hopes to spread to other college students. The organization helps them align who they are with what they do professionally — to flesh out their interests and launch meaningful careers that have an impact beyond themselves. Everything from practitioner-taught courses to funded internships bridges the gap between coursework and career work.
“Everyone feels confused at some point. If you look at developmental research, we go through this at least three or four times in our lifetime and have for generations. So this is a longstanding issue,” said Rebecca Fraser-Thill, director of faculty engagement and outreach.
“But you can start exploring your interests very early on. You’re not searching for one great purpose. You’re searching to feel engaged in what you’re doing — whatever that thing is.”
Johnson believes finding support is also essential, noting that family is a great place to start. If not there, he said, seek out a community that addresses your needs.
“It’s pretty powerful to hear somebody say you can do something,” he said. “A lot of people get told they can’t do things in their life, but no one ever told them that they can do this. It’s not a stupid idea that you want to be a journalist or that you want to be a scientist. If people don’t get that affirmation, my recommendation is find a place, find someone that will give you that affirmation in a genuine way — it makes a world of a difference.”