I recently wrote a blog for Class Action called What Happens When Degrees Aren’t Enough? In it, I talked about the struggle of being a first-generation college student and the uncertainty around transitioning from school to full-time work. Having just completed graduate school a couple months before my blog was posted, I found myself worried for the future. My rent needed to be paid, bills were piling up and humans have this pesky need to feed ourselves. Not having a job was terrifying, and I was beginning to wonder if any of my interviews were ever going to pan out.
When my blog was posted to the Class Action Facebook page, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the comment left on the post. The commenter wrote that “…encouraging students to pursue a masters [sic] degree (not a Ph.D.) in Women and Gender Studies [sic] as a solid path to employment is more disingenuous than the law schools that have been sued for doing the same.”
Now, I could spend this post talking about how disingenuous it is to leave a comment like this on a post where someone is talking about how poverty turns our basic needs into luxuries, or how it is ultimately unhelpful to say “well, you should have taken a different path” after a six-year investment into getting an education. But I won’t.
Because I’ve heard this argument time and time again – from people with master’s degrees and people without. From people who are wealthy and from people who are poor. From people who think they’re being helpful and from people who know they aren’t and don’t care.
While attitudes like this one fail to understand that many students (primarily low-wealth students) are failing to find jobs after college, they fall perfectly in line with many of the classist and sexist assumptions I’ve dealt with since pursuing my master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies. These assumptions are largely informed by two myths:
- “Good jobs” pay large salaries but are not emotionally or politically fulfilling.
- Education around race, class, gender and other marginalized identities is idealistic, lacks any real-world application and ultimately lacks value. Hoo-boy, if that doesn’t sound like Capitalism in a nutshell.
How Systems Affect Choices
These assumptions are harmful, because they are often informed by willful ignorance and a refusal to imagine a more equitable world. Likewise, they ignore the specific contexts in which people are trying to survive, and how those contexts influence the opportunities we are able to access. As a result, the responsibility of making it out alive is placed onto individual poor people, rather than acknowledging how unjust systems have been built around us.
...we are told that the solution to poverty is to find ways to pick a high-paying job off the job tree growing in our backyards, to forget about personal fulfillment or changing the contexts we labor under and to, ultimately, “make smarter decisions.”
Ultimately, these assumptions disingenuously encourage poor people to buy into capitalism as a solution to our problems – problems which have been engineered by capitalism. In other words, we are told that the solution to poverty is to find ways to pick a high-paying job off the job tree growing in our backyards, to forget about personal fulfillment or changing the contexts we labor under and to, ultimately, “make smarter decisions.” (e.g., think like someone who has money, because we all know that wealthy people spend money responsibly.)
While it took hard work and dedication for me to get to this point, I know that my success has also been born out of luck and circumstance. College is not for everyone, and that’s not a bad thing. Intelligence is not synonymous with book-smarts. While I am proud of (and will fiercely defend) my degree, I still don’t think it’s fair that most people without them struggle to survive.
It is completely by chance that I am someone who enjoys academic learning – and that academic learning is seen by mainstream society as more valuable than physical labor or food service. An equitable world wouldn’t disproportionately reward and punish people based on personality differences or the kinds of jobs that have been made available to them.
Despite knowing intimately the terror of poverty, I am unwilling to sacrifice myself and my beliefs for a bigger paycheck. I pursued a degree that I could be proud of – one that has given me the tools to reimagine what is possible for the world around me. My degree has also helped me to understand what my role in changing unjust systems might be.
Soon after my blog was posted, I began working part-time for the nation’s leading organization in reproductive justice and health care. After that, I also accepted a full-time job with one of the most progressive foundations in the South, focusing on systems-change around poverty. Two jobs may sound like a lot to handle – but women and poor people are used to hard work.