Thoughts on the Value of an Arts Degree

This afternoon I attended a program and reception welcoming our international students (here early for Jumpstart) to the Faculty of Arts. One of our International Academic Advisors, Robert Tudhope, organized this event and I’m delighted that he invited me to speak at it, along with a current student and three faculty colleagues. My talk went something like this…


My name is Dr. Catherine Rawn, and here are some of my thoughts on the value of earning a degree in the Faculty of Arts. I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, a master’s degree, and a PhD both from UBC. I now teach here in the Psychology Department. All of my degrees have pretty much the same specialization: Psychology. And I’m proud to say they’re all from Arts. Every aspect of my life has been influenced by my Arts degrees. My bachelor’s degree in particular had a profound impact on my entire life trajectory. I wasn’t bound my history anymore. I created the foundation of a future on my own terms—a future I am now living. It is this opportunity for drastic life changes that excites me most about a degree in Arts.


In my opinion, one of the most important features that makes an Arts degree valuable is the opportunity to collect.

We get to spend four (or five) years taking classes, collecting different perspectives and ways of understanding the world around us. By studying Arts courses, I learned to use those perspectives to look inward and to call myself on my own prejudices and assumptions, so I can continually strive to be better. (My one regret from undergrad is that I didn’t collect even more different perspectives than I did… so I’m fixing that now by taking a course every now and then, and by collaborating with faculty from different disciplines.)

We get to collect people. For me, and maybe for you, I had friends in high school, but they weren’t really my people. They didn’t really get me. They weren’t interested in the things I was really interested in. It wasn’t until my Arts degrees that I found friends with common interests who would accept me, while challenging me to grow. As I learned to let myself get excited about learning, I met fascinating people who were also ok with getting excited about learning. It is the people I collected during my Arts degrees—not in high school—who I still call friends after more than a decade (and one of them, I also call my husband).

We get to collect experience that’s relevant for the working world… even though it might not be pre-packaged in that way. By taking courses in Arts, we get to collect a vast array of skills, including teamwork, writing, how to learn a lot… and quickly, how to ask questions and seek answers, speaking, thinking, research, video editing, (statistical) reasoning, social media management, club management, event planning, and the list goes on. These are all skills we can take into the working world, regardless of the exact content that we’re studying.

The challenge for you, then, is to set yourself up to collect the skill set you’re going to want to leave UBC with. This thought leads me to my next point…


When choosing among the vast number of courses and specializations in Arts, we decide which of those perspectives we’re going to keep building and cultivating in our collection, which we’re going to discard entirely, and which we’re going to let sit dormant, potentially ready to influence our thoughts some day in the future. We get to take all of those skills and ideas and connections we’ve collected and we get to mold them into a career however we want to. We might even create that career, it might not even exist yet.

In some fields, perhaps engineering or business or nursing, education is pre-packaged for one career. In Arts, each of us builds our own package. We curate and then showcase the collections we’ve acquired over the last four years, and we do all that on our own terms.

The way I see it, the right question for an Arts student choosing courses isn’t “what can I do with a degree in X?” I urge you to consider instead, “will this major/course/club/research assistantship/Go Global opportunity… help me to develop a skill set or perspective I want to collect, in a topic I find somewhat interesting?” Build your own collection, on your own terms.

So, what’s the value of an Arts degree? For me, it comes down to opportunity. Coming out of high school, I was just a kid from the low-class neighbourhood of a small city who had “potential”. None of my close family members had ever been to university before and I had no idea what opportunities awaited me. Carefully, I charted new territory, built my own collection. My undergraduate degree changed my life. Your life is about to change, too.

I urge you to start now: collecting perspectives, collecting people, collecting skills. I think that we—in Arts—have the richest opportunity of anyone else on campus to build our own unique and exciting and marketable collections. Welcome to the Faculty of Arts. What collection will you build?


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