By Ishita Chintala
In my Indian culture, families expect their children to pursue careers in healthcare, computer science, law, or software engineering. None of those options appeal to me, though, and sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in with my friends and my society because the career path I want is unusual.
When I was just six years old, I became fascinated by NASA’s “picture of the day.” Colorful nebulae, sparkling stars, spiraling galaxies, and swirling clouds on Jupiter stole my breath away. In my teenage years, I dug deeper into astronomy. I learned more about pulsars, quasars, white dwarfs, brown dwarfs, Magellanic Clouds, and supermassive black holes. I read articles online, watched YouTube videos, and even visited observatories to stargaze.
I loved outer space so much, I wanted to share fun facts about it with my friends. The problem was, they preferred talking about subjects like biology or business, which were subjects I didn’t care much about. Not having a mutual interest made me feel disconnected from them. So, I tried to fit in.
I thought studying psychology might be interesting, but it turns out it wasn’t. I tried studying biology for a few days, but I never understood it. In the end, I came back to astronomy every time. Which meant, my friends and I didn’t have much to talk about.
Fortunately, my parents recognized how excited I was to share information about outer space and appreciated the sparkling glint in my eyes whenever I’d find a star in the sky. They saw my passion and grit for learning astronomy, and instead of discouraging my atypical interest, they encouraged it.
They helped me enroll in a computer science class in a local university, as coding is heavily used in astrophysical research. They encouraged me to created a blog called “Astronomy for Minds of the Curious” to share Instagram posts and provide fun facts every week so I could expand expand my reach and find more people interested in astronomy. And my dad took me to local observatories to stargaze at night—we even shared a magical moment when we spotted Betelgeuse (a star in the Orion constellation) together.
I had my website, I was enrolled in a college class, and I was even volunteering at an observatory—still, I felt like I had no connection to my peers. It wasn’t easy being with them when they were disinterested in the one subject I loved. When I was with my friends, I felt strange and alone.
Eventually, I realized I hadn’t found the right people to socialize with yet. I became convinced there had to be other people at my school who loved astronomy as much as I did—I just had to find them. I lacked confidence to do that, though. I couldn’t do it on my own.
My mom stepped in. She gave me courage to form an Astronomy Club at my high school. Now I have people that I can turn to whenever I want to share something amazing I learned about astronomy. I even have a colleague, who helped me evolve my first blog into “Midnight Eclipse,” an organization dedicated to educating teens about astronomy. We post blogs bi-weekly about topics like black holes, galaxies, and more.
I don’t think I could have accomplished all this without the support of my parents. They encouraged me to follow my passion even when my peers and my culture made me feel like a weird outsider. When I didn’t have a community of people who shared my interests, my parents helped me create one.
How to Encourage Your Teenager to Pursue Their Passion
1. Get curious about their interest.
When my peers showed no interest in astronomy, I really appreciated that my parents wanted to know why I loved it so much, and it was really exciting when their research showed ways to turn my interest into a career. We were surprised to discover there are many applications of astronomy in fields like healthcare and computer science, for example. Maybe you can help your own teen explore how they can apply their interest to various career paths. The results might surprise you, too.
2. Assess their skills.
I love writing and I’m good at it. But not every teen is like me. Some are really good at public speaking. Others like to build things. Some like to experiment or observe. Some like to create things, others like to dismantle them. What’s your teen good at? What do they enjoy?
3. Showcase their strengths.
When my mom identified that I’m good at writing, it was fairly easy to brainstorm ideas about how to showcase that strength, which was how I came to start a blog. If your teen is good at public speaking, for example, they might enjoy hosting a podcast or a YouTube channel. For content, advice, and to build their contacts, they can email experts and the people they want to meet.
4. Encourage them to make friends who share their interests.
It was really important to me to have friends my age who share my interest, which was why I started an astronomy club at school. If your teen is having trouble connecting with their peers maybe there’s a club at school they can join. If they’re already a member, try lending them the courage to run for president or become an officer so they can become more involved. If a club doesn’t already exist, ask them how you can make it easier for them to start one.
Keep Gazing Skywards
I’m so thankful that when I didn’t have friends who understood me, my parents made me feel validated and worthy. Whether you’re helping your teen pursue astronomy or some other unusual interest, I hope that I’ve given you some ideas about how you can support them, too. Try to show your kids you’re interested in them and offer them your love and attention, especially when times seem tough. It’s easier for us teens to reach for the stars when we know our parents are looking out for us!