The tassels hang from a tall shelf under a sign indicating which majors the different colors represent. It’s no surprise that business and science majors get the gold tassel, while the ugliest color (what can only be described as “vomit green”) is set aside for the art students. But no matter the major—elementary teaching, chemical engineering, American Indian studies—everyone has to pay $6 for a few symbolic strings to hang on their $10 caps. Plus $36 for the black polyester smock.
After years of racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and maxing out credit cards, we, the University of Minnesota class of 2017, have to pay some $56 for the privilege of graduating. Maybe we’re being given our last lesson before we transition into the workforce: Even fond memories will cost money. Plan accordingly.
And yet college administrators at orientations across the country won’t be breaking this news to their incoming freshman staring wide-eyed down an endless list of majors. Instead, they will urge students to follow their passion. With glowing, benevolent wisdom, they’ll explain to the 18-year-olds that it’s important they do what they love.
Being able to reflect on who you are, what you love, and how that can turn into a paying job takes time. And many students don’t have that luxury. For those who are the first in their family to go to school, whose parents live in poverty, there is a lot to lose—and not a lot of time to spare.
In my first women’s studies class freshman year, I remember the professor asked how many of us worked in addition to going to school. I raised my hand, expecting to be joined by a majority of my classmates. But only about a third of the class did. My college experience, I came to realize, would be very different from many of my peers. Instead of parties, I’d be working part-time jobs. Rather than nursing a hangover on Sunday morning, I’d be anxiously waiting for the library doors to open so I could finally study. I wouldn’t be walking with friends to class because I couldn’t afford to live that close to campus. I’d take the bus with other students like me, the ones who had to get up at 6 am to catch the first one and who would take the last back at night.
I was able to land on-campus jobs that gave me experience in journalism—my passion and dream career—that also paid the bills, but many low-income, first-generation students aren’t so lucky. The jobs you take to afford college don’t always reflect the career you want—but your priority is to pay for tuition, so you do what you can. And because the fastest jobs to land are often in the service sector, they don’t frequently get your résumé to the top of the pile.
The closest many college students get to a job that is relevant to their career is through internships, which are frequently unpaid. Being able to afford an unpaid internship is difficult even for some financially stable students—it’s nearly impossible for their low-income peers. And it’s through these internships that students learn the nuances of office politics and the etiquette of the career world—skills low-income students must learn later, faster, and with higher stakes. Few of their parents likely have corporate jobs, so they are forced to confront an entirely new culture and set of rules without much counsel. We got into college, yes, but instead of being the great equalizer we were told it would be, we watch as the disparity widens.
Nearly 20 percent of America’s 7.3 million undergraduates are first-generation students, according to an annual survey released by UCLA. And students, no matter their socioeconomic status, are taking on massive amounts of debt with no apparent end in sight. In early April, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos signed an order that would halt reform to our inconsistent, waterlogged student-loan services.
Due to the lack of resources and communication around this issue, many first-generation and low-income students carry a lot of shame through their college years. Some students even refer to revealing their first-generation status as a way of “coming out,” taking the phrase from the LGBTQ community. (Many even try to “pass” as middle class by scouring thrift stores for name brands like North Face and Lily Pulitzer, likely ending up with their peers’ post-college cast-offs.) And they may not receive support at home. Some families see going to college as a betrayal, that their son or daughter will turn their back on what was once their home and way of life for a “better” social class. To be fair, they aren’t exactly wrong.
Meanwhile, my women’s studies professors demonized capitalist careers while simultaneously decrying the plight of people in poverty—the very people who would do anything to score one of those “capitalist” jobs. My philosophy professors applauded my honors thesis but told me that pursuing a career in higher education was a serious financial risk. My journalism professors told me to take every opportunity to become a well-rounded multimedia journalist while also bemoaning the severe dearth of jobs in the industry. I had been socialized to believe that hard work would get me where I wanted to go—and I had followed through. I worked full time, I graduated with honors, I had an extensive portfolio. But I was turned down from all the jobs I applied for, sometimes for being overqualified. Then, when I turned to impartial counselors to help me make a decision, I was asked, “Well, what do you want to do?”
As though there were a way to find my true desire in this mess of professorial caution, empirical evidence on unemployment rates, and more debt than my dad made in two years. I couldn’t help but think about how he, a custodian at an elementary school who had to provide for three children, would respond to such a question. Or my mom, who grew up in severe poverty and hasn’t been able to maintain a steady job. Or the adults I grew up with in tiny apartments that six people had to squeeze into, the adults who celebrated securing a job at Target, who went to Buffalo Wild Wings once a year to enjoy a fancy meal. For them, it wasn’t about doing what they wanted. It could only ever be about what they needed. It was a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, temporary homelessness, rampant unemployment. It was about surviving.
But why should their labor be seen as something less worthwhile? Growing up, all I knew was that work put food on the table—food you could choose for yourself at the grocery store instead of taking whatever canned beans and days-old cake the food shelf gave you. When we’re told to follow our passion and “do what we love,” we make work something that needs to have a purpose greater than ourselves. “According to this way of thinking,” Miya Tokumitsu wrote in Jacobin, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.” It was a definition of work that I—and many of my low-income peers—had never learned.
I found this to be true nearly two weeks ago—eight months into a stable, though not necessarily passion-stoking, office job—when I was offered what could have been my dream job: a full-time reporting gig at a local newspaper. I spent countless days agonizing over it, doing the math to calculate my financials for any and every possible outcome: This place has a lower cost of living, but I’d have to get a gym membership to have access to a shower; that place has a longer commute but higher pay. What it really came down to, though, was accepting that it was OK not to take the risk of following a passion just because that’s what a 25-year-old “should” or even “can” do. That I wasn’t crazy to accept a better-paying job that wasn’t what I had planned on doing—because, when I really got down to it, the only plan I ever had was getting to college and escaping the destiny that had plagued the rest of my family for generations. That it was OK—even necessary—to choose the job I enjoyed but maybe didn’t love for a chance at security. But that didn’t make the decision easy—much less fair.
Our education system needs a better way to prepare first-generation students for the reality the “Do What You Love” mantra cushions us from. For one, we need to stop focusing on college as the end-all-be-all path to success. Many students would fare much better getting a certification in a technical field like auto repair, rather than taking on a decade’s worth of student loans for a degree that we’ve decided imparts legitimacy to a worker. It’s a classist notion that such work isn’t meaningful.
But what if a low-income student thrives in a university setting? What if, like me, they dream of being a writer? What if they love being in the thick of a classroom debate? What if as tough and sleep-stealing as studying is, the knowledge accumulated provides sincere pleasure? This experience should not only be the privilege of people who have the money to pay for it. We need to do a better job of helping these students while they’re in school, rather than watching them flounder when they’re jettisoned into the workforce. Many students from poverty-stricken homes grew up with parents more worried about paying that month’s heating bill than building their 401(k)s. So where are the resources to teach students about the technicalities of debt repayment?
But most of all, these students need to be recognized. Their stories and struggles need to be acknowledged. “What I see and hear is a lot more pain and a lot more discontent than you see in television or you read in the papers,” said Bernie Sanders in an April interview with Chris Hayes. He told the story of a woman who could hardly afford food while going to college because of the debt she had to accumulate. “Her story you can multiply millions of times throughout this country.”
But it was what he said after that stuck with me.
“The Democratic Party has got to hear that pain, and it has got to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to stand up to those people who have the power—both economically and politically—and we are gonna take them on.’”