To my Students: On that annoying year after you graduate college . . .
This post is a bit different from what I normally write on. Its in response to a post on a blog from one of my former students, Harry Cheadle, who graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from Pratt, where I teach. Its about what its like graduating and not knowing what to do in this jobless economy. Its called “Essays on Sucking: Why Taking a Forced Gap Year Sucks.” Its a good post. When Harry was at Pratt, he was one of the really motivated students who helped run the school newspaper, etc. He made sure that he wasn’t just any other short story writer, but that he could work as a journalist on the side. Good luck doing that, however, when the whole profession is shutting down, nevermind a major economic downturn.
Anyway, what’s below started off as a comment on his blog. Its just thoughts/advice for students in that position right now. Many of my students and former students are in a similar situation. Here’s some thoughts on all that . . .
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For what its worth, even when I graduated college (’96), the year after college SUCKED. Its all the things you describe. Most of my friends were back at home, living in their parent’s basement, away from the cool college environment, back working the same shitty job they did during summer’s home from school and during HS (the irony!), and wondering where their friends and parties and sometimes even classes went.
Of course, none of my friends had business degrees, we were all humanities or science majors, and most of us were too burnt out from end of undergrad to want to apply directly to grad school, so figured we’d work a year or two first. Well, THAT didn’t work out too well for just about anyone I knew.
But that year of suckery I think was necessary time to reflect – what did we really want in life, now that we’d left fantasy land (or ‘HS where everyone gets laid?). Many of us worked those shitty jobs for a while to save up for some backpacking trips abroad or driving cross country or stuff like that, to make the reflecting period more fun.
After a year or two, many of us were in grad school, having found a path of some sort. But face it, a liberal arts degree isn’t worth ANYTHING if a job is what you’re looking for. Unless you find a cool niche for something you didn’t expect, like working for NPR (several of my friends do this), some sort of non-profit (many others), etc.
But I really don’t think the liberal arts degree is in any way linked to what the ‘job market’ really wants from people. Its kinda just a blank certificate to be an intelligent adult.
But we all knew one thing graduating college. We didn’t want to be our parents. We didn’t want to work our asses off, and for what? My dad hated his job for 30 years, worked himself to the ground to have that suburban dream. It nearly killed him. If I knew anything coming out of college, it was that I didn’t want that. Most of my friends felt, in one way or another, the same. We certainly knew at least what we didn’t want, even if we weren’t sure that much what to put in its place. A lot of us floundered for a while.
After a year of such floundering, I worked a set of crappy jobs, lived in my parent’s basement, got really depressed about the situation, but knew one thing: this crappy job was my ticket out of that basement. I saved up enough money to take my first backpacking trip to Europe, and then moved across country to Berkeley to start taking classes there, non-matriculated, to help me switch fields to get into the grad school programs I wanted. I was back in a college environment, living with undergrad students in these cooperative, hippy-commune type houses (called the ‘coops’), and was once again having the time of my life. Within a year of that, I was in grad school, and things were moving again.
I don’t want to give the impression that grad school was great. In fact, doing a Ph.D. was a pretty brutal experience, and I don’t think I realized how stressful it was until after it was done and on the other side with a cool job teaching at Pratt. But I don’t think grad school HAS to be that stressfull, I think it was just a mixture of odd circumstances (like NYU not paying its TA’s enough at that point to make affordable housing in nyc a reality, though they pay them better now and even have some subsidized housing, doh!).
But back to the point. You’ll likely never get this cool, odd, uncomfortable time again in your life, a time in which you have no strings. This is the time to leave your parent’s basement, and teach English in another country. Think about it, English is your one marketable skill just about anywhere in the world! There’s lots of countries that will pay you real bank to teach English. If you go abroad, your fluency can get you that or many other types of job. And now is the time in your life in which you can do it. No kids, no strings.
Ok, loan payments starting to come due. But if you teach English abroad, you can even make some of those payments! Places like Korea, Japan, the UAE, and other wealthy but non-European places are particularly known to pay well for this, which is key if you’ve got loans to worry about. But there’s also backwoods parts of Europe (rural parts of Italy, Spain, France, or places like Poland, Russia) where folks will at least give you basic room and board to teach English. It’ll get you out of your parent’s basement, and you’ll likely meet people from all over the world doing the same, and who knows, you might pick up part of the local language while you’re there. It’s what I would do if I were to do it again today. (And yes, of course, it really is unfair that our language can make you money, but people born elsewhere in the world don’t get that privilege . . .)
Or wait-tables/bartend in NYC, or some other similar cool city. I know its not a dream-job. But EVERY actor, creative person, and other person who has a dream that doesn’t involve making lots of money does this to survive in NYC, and uses it to support their passion. Its hard work, but it really DOES pay enough in this city to pay the rent and live a decent life. You won’t have a flat screen TV, but you’ll have a room with people like you and enough money for some PBR’s on the side.
Yeah, its likely that no matter WHAT you do this gap period is going to partially suck. Its a period of massive adjustment. Most people think that going to college is that last one of those they have to do, but I think this one is much harder. I remember it clearly! But if you KNOW its partially gonna suck, and that EVERYONE goes through it that way, and that EVERYONE thinks its kinda only them because their parents start harping on them and they don’t hear everyone else’s parents, well, it makes it MUCH easier to know this is all very, very normal. A bit more intense cause there’s no economy right now, but still, kinda normal.
So, if you’re gonna be figuring out what to do with life anyway, try to make the most of it. Make sure you travel, and if possible, fund some of it by teaching English. Or teach HS for a bit while you figure things out (though I hear that’s not as easy to get these days with the bad economy). It’ll wear you to the bone, but you DO have paid summer’s off to travel, and it buys you time to figure out if you wanna stay doing that, or go to grad school.
But it gets better, really. Just generally it puts you through the ringer a bit first. But that’s even important, because in the process, you figure out what you’re really gonna do with that liberal arts degree, figure out a way to make it pay the bills, or go back to school. Most of my friends were back in school within a year or two, cause face it, a liberal arts degree without a grad degree these days is kinda like HS was to our parent’s generation. These days, you need at least an MA for just about anything.
But be glad of one thing: you didn’t go to business school. Cause if you did, you’d be employed now. But you’ll likely burn out by 40, and wonder where the hell your twenties went. You got that liberal arts degree, and chose a different path. Its a much harder one, but I think its generally worth it.
Would you really wanna scrub the Lacan from your brain, in exchange for a 60-hr a week job that makes bank, but you live in a fancy apartment you never really get to see, cause you live at the office? Living a life in which you’re so busy, you barely have time to read books, and as Harry says, you ‘end up going to sleep before the Daily Show’ each nite? Wearing a suit each day, which starts off being fun, but starts to really grind you after the first year, and you start to feel your connection to reading and film and culture start to ebb slowly from you, and you find network sitcoms more entertaining as time goes on because they’re all your brain can take when you need to watch something after you get home from work but are too exhausted to want to deal with anything that requires you to use your brain any more?
I didn’t think so.
Hang in there. Yeah, some of what’s coming will suck. But its also a major opportunity. Because one day you’ll be in a cool but settled place again, and you won’t be able to just pick up and leave and do shit, because you’ve got a job you’re really happy with, maybe even a serious relationship and maybe even kids. You’ll be feeling like an adult, and the type you want to be, not the picture I just painted above. But you won’t be able to just pick up and go wherever. The time to do that is now . . .