Everywhere I turn I meet someone new who has a frivolous degree. Degrees in Theater, Art, Photography…pretty much anything in the arts, sociology or literature. These are educations that were fueled by passion, intelligence, and naivety in thinking we would be the ones to succeed out of all the others in our class. We believed that we understood how the world worked and that we could maneuver our way into positions that would not only pay incredibly well but would give us a purpose to fuel our lives. Living isn’t really living without a thorough understanding of Kant and Hegel after all.
When I was at university there was no other option for me but to work. I knew that to continue living abroad with two parents who were financially frivolous, I had to earn a living while managing a loaded class schedule. Like most students, I gravitated to the service industry. I waited tables, crafted espressos, and sold skincare to pay the bills. Working for a student union, I would be harassed by my peers as customers; the ones who lived out of their overdraft who insisted on talking down to student staff. Some of the more difficult customers had never been employed, and expected their first entry level position in their chosen field once they graduated. Others couldn’t imagine negotiating the balance between class and a full-time position outside of school. I thrive on busy schedules, hectic work weeks, and obsess over crowded to-do-lists. I enjoyed the feeling that every spare moment of my time was being spent accordingly and appropriately to guarantee my success not only in school, but in my employment.
I explored other interests outside of my degree where I sought extracurricular activities that supported charitable work and engaged with diverse local communities. I started working for a company with a strong background in ethical practices who wanted to grow their outreach programs. I took on management roles supervising staff that, at times, were much older than I was. I learned along the way as I continued to be praised and promoted within a company that was prioritizing my go-getter initiative above staff who were well versed in Environmental Law, Cosmetology, or Human Rights.
The price of an education today is extortionate. Our system of student loans in America is so completely out of control it makes you wonder why anyone would want to go to college knowing they’re shackled to their government and repayment plans for decades after. They mislead you with funding that convinces you there’s no need to work a part-time job when your loans can cover living costs. Ask a new high school graduate and they’ll tell you that they’re applying for programs in medicine. Instead of becoming doctors with intricate specialties, they become instead nurses because the pay is good and they want a stronger guarantee they won’t be left empty-handed straight out of school.
For more artistic professions, there are a sea of unpaid internships and volunteer work that could have you wind up in a minimum way job relevant to your degree years after you walked across that stage in a cap and gown. It makes you wonder why we invest so much in receiving a college education with so little guarantees for us after? I could have just as easily bought the textbooks online, read them cover to cover, and disciplined myself to writing essays to demonstrate my retention skills. A research degree puts a huge amount of pressure to manage deadlines alone without any supervision to guide you on the right track. No hand holding, no teacher looking over your shoulder. Just you, a computer, and a textbook plugging along. I utilized my time in school to network and make connections with everyone I could. Lecturers, students, local entrepreneurs, galleries, scholars from around the world. I partook in many a great conversation engaging in discourse that enhanced my form in debate and enlightened my stubborn sensibilities. I used my free time to take on the internships that I coveted—unpaid roles for recent graduates to gain relevant experience. None of it made any difference though, even once I received my Master’s, in finding me a position within the arts.
I had a wealth of experience in many areas but nothing came into fruition coming back to the United States. Outside of major cities the art world just doesn’t exist in small town America. I had held previously managerial roles but the staff, who worked the same jobs for 30 years, didn’t see the point of hiring younger qualified candidate. It became a day-to-day struggle to feel good about my accomplishments while pretending that my current position was acceptable. When I made the decision to move to the city—terrified that I would wind up in the same black hole of unemployment and go broke—I was surprised to find that all of my accomplishments did not go unnoticed for long. Within three weeks, I had three jobs offers with three times the salary I was making in rural Michigan. Suddenly, I didn’t question my struggle to work while in school or to take on a heavier workload than my classmates. It had all kind-of-sort-of paid off in the end.
I honestly don’t know if I’ll want to be a manager one day, or a professor, or an art historian. I want to do it all and keeping trying to find roles that suit my interests. My degree isn’t going to be relevant to a lot of the positions I’m sure that I’ll apply for in the future, but it did teach me valuable skills that I might not have picked up just from heading into a career straight after high school. I learned how to manage my time, be held accountable, face criticism, and network within social circles. My many jobs showed me that a college education doesn’t make you any more special or a better person. It taught me that reading from a textbook doesn’t come close to the hard work that many take on in the struggle to get by. I saw that I could do and be more than just one thing. And that’s the most important lesson.
So take that job that will help you make ends meet and don’t feel ashamed that you’re not a Wall Street banker or a neurosurgeon this very moment. Don’t lose sight of your direction and continue to follow up on your goals when you feel like your falling behind. Continue to work your internships, volunteer, read, and make connections with the people who have been in your position just out of school before (I promise you there are plenty out there). It’ll all get better with time.