University of Minnesota Alumni Association

First Person

What a Liberal Arts Education Did for Me

As a first-generation American with no interest in becoming a lawyer, my English degree showed me how to live as an artist.

When I was 21 years old and working toward my undergraduate degree at the U, I took a summer course on feminism in film. The students happened to all be women, and my teacher was a Canadian lesbian with an aversion to Michael Douglas (“He’s always playing the victim to strong women,” she said; after watching Disclosure, Basic Instinct, and Fatal Attraction, I agreed). We did watch other, non-Michael Douglas films in class and studied criticism and theory.

During one discussion, a classmate raised her hand and said this was the first time she had taken a class outside her major. This was also the first time anyone had ever asked for her opinion in a classroom. In her regular courses, she said, “No one cares what you think.”

It’s been over 10 years, but this moment has stayed with me. It boggled my mind that having an opinion was a form of luxury and the ability to share that opinion even more so.  

In this day and age, when student loans are piling up, many students feel the pressure to major in math, science, or technology—hard skills that will, in theory, land them high-paying jobs. Some of the liberal arts have fallen out of favor, with declining enrollment in programs like English, history, and political science.

Since the eighth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also felt pressure to make a practical living. In ninth grade, I joined a program at the Pioneer Press to learn about journalism; it didn’t suit me. I made myself attend the same program in tenth grade—just in case. It still didn’t suit me. So I did what any practical teenager would do: I attended a summer program at William Mitchell to learn about law. (My career aptitude test had listed “attorney” as a second ideal job.) It turned out lawyering also was not for me. 

In my third year of college, I did what I should have done as a freshman: I declared myself an English major. This was a big deal. As a Hmong American, I was part of the first generation in my family to go on to higher education. My parents came to this country as refugees and lived in survival mode. They worried about basic necessities like housing, food, and clothing. They wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer. They would have settled for social worker, too. It wasn’t that they had unrealistic expectations for me; they just didn’t know enough about the American workforce to see other options.                  

"Because there were few or no stories about people who looked like me, I hungered for more. This led to my foray into writing."
May Lee-Yang

Though I was officially a refugee too, entering this country as a 9-month-old baby, I was a different kind of refugee: loud, lazy, and mouthy—in essence, American. Still, even I felt it was audacious to study a field that was about ideas and not something physical, about self-expression instead of community, about “fun” instead of “work,” a field that, in theory, didn’t guarantee a job.

My parents unknowingly contributed to my journey as an artist. When I was a teenager, they feared that, in spite of my thick glasses and social awkwardness, I would join a gang—or that they’d recruit me. Gangs were apparently not very discriminating then. Restricted to the house, my siblings and I passed the time watching TV, playing video games, and I took things a step further by reading books. This was not just a form of escapism. Books, in fact, taught me about invisibility. I don’t need to relate to every story—that would be narcissistic. However, because there were few or no stories about people who looked like me, I hungered for more. This led to my foray into writing.

During and after college, I worked a 9-to-5 job at various nonprofit organizations and did my art making after hours. Though I loved working with young people, especially around leadership development and gender equity, in 2009, I was at a job where my opinion didn’t matter. I found myself listening to Radiohead’s “No Surprises” on repeat for six months. The lyrics go like this:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill

A job that slowly kills you

Bruises that won’t heal

I quit that job. I didn’t want to transition from burnt out to toxic. When you get to that stage, you’re not good for anyone or anything. I assumed I would just get a new job. I didn’t. Instead, I accidentally became a full-time artist. When asked what I do for a living these days, the quick answer is that I write plays, I perform, and I teach. The more complicated answer is that I get to tell my story. I work in collaboration with people to amplify marginalized voices. I get to do something unprecedented in my life: I get to bring my full self to the table.

This past summer, Theater Mu in St. Paul produced my play The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity, which is about a Korean drama-obsessed Hmong woman and what happens when she meets a real-life Korean heir. The play is packed with Korean drama, music, education, romance, cultural clashes, Midwestern passive aggressiveness, and ghosts. Like ramen and American cheese, the play might seem like something that shouldn’t work together, but it does. We had a sold-out run after all.

I’m almost 40 years old now and I’ve learned that there is value in nurturing our whole selves, in doing work that doesn’t kill your soul, in having an opinion and being heard. To paraphrase the mission of Springboard for the Arts, one of Minnesota’s great arts organizations: There is value in not just making a living, but also a life.  

May Lee-Yang is a writer, performance artist, and teaching artist. She received her B.A. from the U in 2006 and returned to get her M.F.A. so she can complete her memoir projects. She is a Playwrights' Center McKnight fellow and a former Bush Leadership fellow.

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