Six years out of college and I finally paid monetary homage to my alma mater a couple weeks ago. Not a significant amount – a token really – because they were collecting contributions for a scholarship fund to be named after a dean who had approved a rather special scholarship for me and is now battling cancer.
My school asks for money all the time; the percentage of alumni who donate actually helps a school in its U.S. News and World Report ranking. Or at least that was the case when I was on the other side – still in school and working at the Alumni Relations House for $7.5o/hour and free Papa John’s pizza. At the start of each three-hour phone shift, we were told that if we could convince someone to contribute even just a dollar to the Annual Fund, that was a win. Getting someone with no donating history to give a buck was in some ways a greater triumph than happening upon the $100 from the alum who had donated that figure annually, reliably, for the past quarter century. Either way – the reward for a pledge (a relative rarity) was a candy bar. As for the job, some alums were curt, others apologetic, few were generous and most were simply not at home.
I have never contributed to the Annual Fund. Not even the courtesy dollar, which ultimately contributes as much to me as to the school. You’d think that having worked the phones at the alum house, calling people a year out who were still repaying student loans as well as those already living on their pensions, I would have saved them the hassle and sent in something. It’s one of the strategies behind employing student callers: the 25% of the student body that at one point or another during four years gets an easy on-campus job with decent pay and dinner thrown into the mix will give at least that dollar.
I didn’t. Why? At first because of post-college poverty. But even then, I could have spared a buck. Perhaps afterward because of the incessant solicitation. Not just by phone but by mail as well. How can they possibly raise more than they spend this way?
Underlying my hesitance to be generous, however, is a certain dismay with how my education panned out. By all apparent standards, I have nothing to bemoan. I was the recipient of scholarship money, I was active on campus, I took really interesting classes and had – once I got savvy about choosing them – great professors. The year I graduated, my school ranked top ten in the country, and I have no doubt its caliber helped me get my first real job.
A career center session on ‘choosing your major’ first semester sophomore year. We had to declare by second semester, and I was at a loss. The loosey goosey liberal U.S. education is all well and good if you’ve got your heart set on being a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, but what if you just don’t know? You’ve got a sense of what you enjoy but no clear picture of how that translates into the job market, or how to go about preparing educationally for the jobs that may be related to what you enjoy.
At this particular major-choosing session, we were told, “Don’t overthink choosing your major. Nine times out of ten it has no bearing on what you’ll end up doing after your graduate, so just pick something you enjoy.”
Call me naive, but I did. As did many others, both at my school and schools across the country. And we – privileged to have had liberal, renaissance educations with lots of wiggle room for electives – graduated sans the marketable skills and pre-professional grooming/counseling to [a] get the right job and [b] know what that job was.
The ‘just study what you like’ approach is great for academics. You go on to do a masters, and a PhD and then – unless you’re one of the most brilliant – proceed to teach and do research at whatever university will hire you, wherever it may be. But if you’re not on that track, where does it leave you?
There are plenty companies hiring bright young graduates with good grades for entry level roles in a slew of industries. It’s good to be able to prove prior interest in a given industry through a battery of related internships, though it’s not always necessary. But what if you do one of those jobs, maybe even a couple jobs in that industry, and decide it’s not the place for you?
Then you’re a career-changer, or — in this economy — simply screwed.
There has to be a better balance to ‘studying what you like’ and figuring out how that’s going to translate into a job you like after you graduate (that pays decently). We spend heaps on our tertiary schooling in the U.S. – surely part of that should go to practical application? Expand my mind these four years, but prepare me to continue doing so while making a living thereafter.
Of course, some would have things remain just the way they are. Education for the sake of itself, only. You can figure out the rest later, with the critical thinking skills you gained analyzing Lars Von Trier’s films and the epic works of James Joyce.
Anyhow, having gotten to the bottom of my reluctance to give, I realize this little bone I have to pick with my university is really just an issue with liberal education at large. And at the end of the day, is just as much my fault as that of the system. I didn’t, couldn’t figure out what (if anything) I wanted to do professionally. I was thankful for the ‘study what you like’ advice, happy to be shielded from life-altering decisions for a little longer. I didn’t ‘think critically’ about the implications of being a comparative literature major, I didn’t demand to know what I would pay later for the instant gratification of simply studying what I liked.