Books, Brilliance, or Burgers

Books, Brilliance, or Burgers

Finding out that higher education and burger production have a disturbing amount in common.


We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive
Nation subscriptions. Many thanks to The Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. The Editors

While in high school, I worked at Burger King. Considering that my shift started twenty minutes after the bell rang, the only way I could make it on time was to ride a bus for a couple miles and then sprint across a cow pasture that led directly to the back door of the restaurant. What most fascinated me about this passage was that, in a sense, I got to time-travel through the food industrial complex while simultaneously witnessing many stages of its process. Four days a week I rushed towards the time clock dodging hay bails, unsuspecting cattle, and disgruntled workers slinging frozen corrugated pieces of cow flesh onto a conveyer belt grill—all while adorned with a backpack full of textbooks. Some days my stride was more precise than others. As I clocked in I vowed to escape this life of poverty evermore distorted by the wills of mass production and an industry that sacrifices quality for profit. Years later, to my chagrined astonishment, I found that behind the walls of higher education I wasn’t too different from the cattle being turned into Whoppers.

I was born to a single teenage mother in a low-income household often plagued by instability. College was discussed, deferentially, although given that no one in our family had attended, the possibility of myself getting there was grim. I had decent grades, though little guidance or financial support. Upon high school graduation I took to a bohemian life, mistaking disillusionment for art. I toured the country playing guitar in mediocre rock bands. I took to waiting tables, working retail jobs and attempting to fall in love. Several years passed. Appropriated by my love affair with books, I enrolled in the local community college. As of this last semester I had completed twenty units over the transfer requirement while far succeeding the GPA prerequisite, and was accepted to the Humboldt State University. Aptly following every step the university prescribed, I finally had a meeting with an adviser to pick classes for the fall semester. Upon pulling up my info, she informed me that my application had been denied. I was baffled. Following the suggestion of my JC academic adviser I had taken classes during the last semester that pertained to my history minor, leaving one class for my program, statistics, in which I was enrolled over the summer because, as I was informed, it was common to do so. This posed no problems when I applied to HSU, thus I was given a student ID and registered with the university. However, as I sat with my HSU advisor, I was informed that it had been policy to allow JC students to finish a required class over the summer semester; unfortunately, due to budget cuts and the fact that the college had over-enrolled, my entry had been denied; oh, and because the university was no longer accepting students in the spring, I would have to wait until fall of 2011 to attend. Another factor worth noting was that my major, philosophy, was on the chopping blocks waiting for the academic senate to determine whether it was even worth keeping at the university.

Although examples of individuals who have gone from rages to riches flourish in the mass media, statistics on class mobility show these leaps to be extremely rare. In actuality, dramatic advances in class standing are comparatively uncommon. One study showed that fewer than one in five men surpass the economic status of their fathers*. In accordance with a national report released by the California Faculty Association at Cal State Los Angeles in 2000, the state ranked thirty-fifth in education. Less than a decade later, California is barely clinging to forty-ninth, signifying that despite the current economic crisis, education is simply continuing the decline it’s been on for years and that those from impoverished beginnings are even less likely to succeed. It seems throwing individuals overboard is the easiest means to keep the ship from sinking. Perhaps the darkest part of this dilemma is that in the modern world we know, factually, that education is the best means to eradicate the largest problem facing humankind—poverty.

My GPA warrants attending a UC, though considering the 32 percent tuition increase this last year that may not be a possibility. Although my being currently employed by an independent bookstore amplifies concerned feelings regarding the changing future and the instability of the educational system, I can at least surround myself with the inspiring words of young Vidal, Hitchens and other contrarians.

College has left me not only feeling like a burger composed from a thousand cattle but like the one that slipped to the side of the conveyer belt and got tossed into the flames after being split in half by the gears. I suppose that doesn’t mean that I won’t strive to make it through the system or that I will lose my voice. Perhaps I may only grow leaner.

*Richard De Lone, Small Futures (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)

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