Degree of Panic
Attending and graduating from college during a recession is as bad as it seems
By Daniel Hirsch, Jackie Johansen, Cassandra Landry and Denis Lindsay
With a Friend like Craig
Last night, I woke up in a cold sweat. I'd had a dream about Craigslist. In it, I trolled unhappily through the job section. The plain text of blue links passed before my eyes. I could sell my eggs and win a $25 Starbucks gift card. I could take an experimental medication that would pay the rent but might cause kidney failure. In my dream, I hunched over the laptop with clammy palms and peered into the ominous, pale glow of the terrible future.
I woke up, only to remember that I have no eggs to sell and that Craigslist haunts my waking life, too. I'm trying to start a career at one of the worst times in recent memory to be doing so. This week is past the midway point in my summer internship here at the Bohemian. At the other side of that hump, I am faced with a big, gaping void.
I graduated college this past June, which for me only means one thing: no matter how hard I beg, they won't let me come back in September. I went to a big, fancy, private school and got a big, fancy degree, but in this economy I'm still more or less unemployable. The unemployment rate is somewhere around 9.7 percent, the highest in years. And what about the unemployment rate for troubled industries like my much-bedraggled journalism? What about for people with impractical degrees like my beloved BA in American studies? What does American studies even mean, anyway?
Students and parents should be prepared for the post-graduation freak-out, but don't let me scare you. Though the terrible yapping voices of career doubt and economic uncertainty wake me up at night with their fearsome screams, there are other calmer voices that lull me back to sleep. "Day by day," they say in soothing motivational-speaker cadence, or (with a slightly French accent) "Man is condemned to be free."
I like to hum this last one to myself when I visit a friend in San Francisco who snagged a high-paying corporate gig right out of school and lives in a ridiculous SoMa apartment for successful young professionals replete with a climbing wall and other posh amenities. It would be fun to live somewhere like this and fun to have a hefty paycheck, but I'm not jealous of my friend and her two-year contract, her endless hours of data entry and her Sunday afternoons spent at the office. With my uncertainty, I have freedom. Who knows what I'll be doing two years from now, but today I'm working on figuring out tomorrow. I'm cuddling up with Craig and diving into infinite possibility—or so I tell myself.—D.H.
Over Before It Ends?
I ran into an old high school friend the other day. She was the high school friend I meant to keep in touch with, but time and space and separate worlds make it impossible. Niceties were exchanged. Phone numbers were updated. Families were asked about. Tidbits of gossip were shared. But when the reminiscing ran its course, she diverted back to the question I was hoping to avoid: "So, what are you doing these days?"
"Well . . ."
Where to start? How deep do I want to go? Shoot, how much time does she have? Can this even be sufficiently summed up in a well-packed two-sentence answer? I could tell her I just had a bad break-up with my boyfriend and am still trying to make sense of it. Is that too much information? No one likes a Denny Downer. I could tell her about the coffee company I work for making lattes. Maybe as a side note, but no. I'll talk about school and make a little positive deflection on what's to come in the future. Aha!
"I went back to school recently and just have two more classes at the JC, and I'll be at San Francisco State in the spring," I say confidently. "After taking time away and figuring out what I want, things are taking off. I'm currently interning at the Bohemian, and I can't wait to be in San Francisco again."
"That's great," she said. "I love the city."
"Yeah, especially as a journalism major. There's so much to write about and so much at your fingertips."
She looked thoughtful and paused before asking, "Aren't the CSUs not accepting spring semester admissions?"
"Oh. I hadn't heard," I say feeling equal parts confused, pissed and embarrassed.
"Yeah. Another cut for the California budget deficit."
Isn't that just great? Now that I'm finally able to transfer from SRJC to a CSU, it happens to be the semester they don't allow transfers. How does that happen? Some force must be conspiring against me. Maybe college just isn't for me. Maybe I am meant to lead a different life.
While angry and frustrated, I find consolation knowing that in no way is my situation unique. Students everywhere are dealing with obstacles provided by the recession. Scholarships and grants are being eliminated. At SRJC, the trusty Doyle scholarship, virtually available to everyone, has been eliminated. Now transfers are not allowed to transfer. Even if college students are able to graduate in a timely manner, where are they going to get a job?—D.L.
No More Christmas Presents
I always knew that going to an out-of-state university would mean that my family would be spending more cash. I was prepared for that. What I wasn't prepared for was the unique guilt that comes with bettering one's mind.
Landing myself at Boston University, one of the pricier beacons of knowledge in the country, also landed my parents on the holy-shit-we-have-a-kid-in-college-now-we're-broke list. Having two parents in the medical profession means that I didn't qualify for many scholarships or money from the university, so a big, fat bill with an embarrassingly large sum at the bottom unleashed a very subtle two-sided ping-pong game in my head. Was I cheapening my family's quality of life by studying pointless things like the philosophical meanings of life and French verb conjugations? Once it became clear that I would be majoring in journalism ("But it's a dying field!") and entering a profession in which I would probably never pay off my education, the guilt turned tangible.
One thing I have excelled in, as a direct result of this recession-tainted shame, is the art of justification. Want to know all the ways in which I'm making the most of my dining plan? Have a seat, because I've got a list. Am I benefiting from my classes? Hell yes, I am. Of course that book was worth $57; I read it four times I loved it so much!
Proving that an education is really worth 50 grand a year is hard to do, especially when considering the oft-quoted adage that college is "as good as you make it," no matter which college it is. There are good and bad professors everywhere, so why on earth did I find it necessary to pick the most expensive place to find them?
This is a fair question that I can't really answer. But it's important for me to mention that I am not attending my school to drain my parent's bank accounts while laughing maliciously and that, of course, I'm extremely grateful that I even have the chance to blow 600 bucks on books I'll just resell out of desperation for one-hundredth of the cost. But on the other hand, a little recognition that I fully understand the burden and feel the guilt like a sack of bricks wouldn't hurt. Recession-style college is infinitely more humbling than the average, run-of-the-mill diploma dash, and I'm not about to forget it.—C.L.
A 'Useless' Degree
I am sitting in class early. The stout, proper, business professor is erasing his scribbles from the board. I watch him. "I like coming in early because everything on the board is so mysterious to me," I say. "It is like another language." He turns around. "What is it that you are studying?" he asks keenly. I straighten up and respond earnestly. "Literature." He pauses. "What are you going to do with that? You know there are barely any jobs out there for that kind of thing."
After four years of befriending Fitzgerald, Dreiser, James, Austen, Joyce, Dickenson, Stein and Proust, it is time to bring that knowledge into the real world and make some dough. "I bet everyone appreciates literature as much as I do," I think to myself. "This won't be difficult at all."
I am at a party sitting next to someone I have never met. Proximity and the pressure of silence prompts us to talk. "Are you a student?" he asks. "Yes," I answer proudly. "I am starting a master's program in depth psychology."
"What is that?" he asks.
"It is Jungian psychology, it is a way for me to deepen my connection with text and with the human experience by working with the unconscious, archetypes, mythology," I say.
"So, are you going to be a therapist?" he asks.
"No, it is not a clinical program. It will open doors, help my writing. I am, as Joseph Campbell says, 'following my bliss' and will see what happens." He looks at me dubiously. "So it is a useless degree?"
I puff up. "No, not at all, in my opinion."
He looks around. "The weather is nice today."
Later, while sitting at the kitchen table, with a book in hand and my cross-eyed kitten Finnegan on my lap, I think about how I am happy living this life. I could work in a bank, be part of a company or trade stocks. I could make sure that money is never a problem. However, I would rather live humbly, have the time to dip a Madeleine into lime blossom tea and let the taste of it urge my own version of Combray to bubble up from the depths of my being.—J.J.
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