“Sophomore year is a time for decisions!” read the subject line of the email from the School of Foreign Service Dean’s Office sent to the Class of 2018 this summer. Welp. How am I supposed to make big decisions about the rest of my life in the confusing whirlwind of hormones and stress that is my late teens and early 20s? Most of the time, I can’t even decide whether I want a Pygmalion or a chai tea latte to get me through my late-night study session, never mind my entire future.
This email certainly wouldn’t help with the stressful life decisions and intense conversations with parents that students all over the country are experiencing right now.
“It’s your life, but it’s your parents’ money,” begins the inner monologue of anxiety running through my head as I approach the deadline to declaring a major.
It goes on: “Don’t be a brat, be practical. They’ve kept you housed, clothed, well-fed, loved and sent you to a wonderful college. And you reward them by picking a major that doesn’t guarantee you a great job in the name of following your dreams?”
When I was in high school, I did well in most courses, but I wanted to go to a school that would teach me the cross-cultural communication and policy that would enable me to leave a large impact on the world. I know that sounds naive, but doing something great for other people is what I want to do.
It’s not quite the same as having a passion for a particular school subject. I’m somewhat good at math and science, so my family was hoping I would be interested in engineering, ensuring me a solid career. But I don’t particularly care to tinker with computers or test tubes — I want to know how the dynamics of technology are changing people’s lives. But where are the national employment statistics on a major like that?
Our peers 10 years older than us were told to study whatever they were “passionate” about. Their guidance counselors said that it didn’t matter what their college major was, simply the fact that they went to college would get them a solid job. “Express yourself and follow your dreams!” they said, “It will all work out.”
Today, we have the horror story of the Ivy League graduate with a liberal arts degree who is condemned to a life of eternal barista-ing at Starbucks — with a whopping six-figure student debt dragging them down like a ball and chain.
In the past, you could major in whatever you wanted, get hired and trained by a company, work eight hours a day in a solid job with a few weeks of vacation, leave your work at the office, go home and enjoy your own family, hobbies and passions. But workers today are increasingly “on call,” expected to always be accessible by cell phone and email, as well as given less vacation time and expected to retire older. It feels like our jobs are becoming larger and larger portions of our lives. Hopefully, your passion happens to align with a lucrative career plan, so you can at least enjoy it as you pay off your debt.
Unless you’re going to college for a bona fide preprofessional career like finance, engineering or medicine, people tell you that you’ll never find a good job. Even law school offers no guarantees anymore. And if you get a liberal arts degree, you may as well have majored in underwater basket weaving. “Follow your dreams,” they continue telling us, but the unspoken truth appears to be that you’re only allowed to follow them if your passion happens to be petroleum engineering.
A parent’s worst nightmare is taking out a $100,000 loan to help a beloved child make it through school to follow his dreams, only to have him crushed by the cruel reality of post-recession unemployment. A popular joke I’ve heard is “If you get a job in what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life … because nobody will hire you for a job.”
As every generation before us has experienced, the transition from adolescence to independent adulthood is rarely graceful. We pull all-nighters, take offbeat classes, learn hard lessons, fall in love and have our hearts broken and have tearful arguments with our parents over the phone. In the past, picking the wrong major might have cost a few thousand dollars in tuition for graduate school and a couple years of opportunity cost off your salary. This is still true in many European nations with cheap or free higher education. Part of growing up and becoming your own person is to make mistakes along the way and learn from them. But today, the media’s reports on the American job market tell us our mistakes could cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars.
How are we supposed to be independent adults if college is so expensive that we need our parents to help us pay for it? The daily pressure of succeeding in college is difficult enough, but the pressure to succeed later in life to justify the cost can be paralyzing, making it nearly impossible to enjoy the college experience as it’s happening.
College is supposed to be a time to take risks and stretch our personal limits, isn’t it? Then why is it that for some of us, the conversation about college has swung dramatically from the traditional “reach for the stars” attitude to the complete opposite: “avoid crushing debt and destitution at all costs.”
If your parents love you, of course they don’t want to you struggle to pay your bills once you’ve grown up. It’s entirely logical. No one likes to be the one to burst his child’s bubble and make him face the painful reality of employability either. And no one wants follow his dreams as a young adult just to see them fizzle when he tries to pay the bills.
So where’s the line between trying to follow your passion and being practical? Although I have yet to officially choose my major, I suppose it’s best to simply do what you know you’re good at and plan as best as possible for the short term. The distant future is unpredictable, but I trust that a great college education will give us the tools to cross that bridge when we come to it.
Lydia Bubniak is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.
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