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Posts Tagged ‘College’

The (price of the) unconventional life

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, education, life, Money, US, women, work on July 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are in their teens and 20s, in college or university, or probably headed there. Some are thrilled at the prospect of acquiring more formal education, possibly all the way to a Phd or professional degree.

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in g...

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in graduation/presentation ceremonies of Ph.D’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others, like me, are wary of school, chafing in classrooms, weary of authority. Wondering how else — is it possible? — to acquire the credentials and skills they’ll need to make a living.

This recent blog post, by a student at Brown, one of the U.S.’s  most prestigious and costly universities, asks some serious questions about what “success” looks like:

i have a goal. it’s farfetched, extremely open-ended, and it might be fleeting. my goal is to refocus. my goal is to revisit this idea of being human and reinterpret the meaning of success. success has looked only one way for as long as i’ve known the word: a big house, lots of
money, a nice car. success has been the american dream. as a child of babyboomers, i’ve seen the american dream take hold and manifest itself in a lifestyle that is hard to say no to. it’s a lifestyle of security and certainty. but what i’ve learned is that this lifestyle, as enabling as it may be, has forgotten a lot of things that i find extremely important. it has forgotten how to be simply human and has focused on how to be monetarily prosperous. i’m down with the good life, don’t get me wrong. i’m just thinking that i might have a different path in mind for myself. know i have something else that’s ticking inside of me, and it can’t just sit at in cubicle and work for 8 hours then to go home to frozen potstickers and minute-maid lemonade. it wants to run wild, rampant, and ridiculously free.

I appreciate her passion and her questioning of what constitutes the “good life.”

By the time a student has been admitted to Brown, or any other super-competitive school costing $30-50,000 a year, they’ve likely been groomed from infancy to focus solely or primarily on the achievement of visible, conventional goals.

Everyone they’ve known — in prep school, at summer camp, in their SAT prep classes, on their sports teams — is expected to head in the same direction.

Up.

How about….sideways?

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream (Photo credit: cesarharada.com)

The problem is, if your parents/friends/family have all bought into the same dream — moremoremoremoremore — it’s lonely and weird to step off the track, let alone figure out a way to do so and not live in a box beneath a bridge.

I attend a church with some very wealthy parishioners, so I’ve seen some of their assumptions of what their children will do. One woman, whose husband and daughter were safely ensconced as corporate attorneys, had a son, 28, who had not even — facepalm! — finished college.

He was not an addict, in prison or chronically ill but unfocused, and had traveled the country doing a variety of odd jobs.

English: This is a diagram depicting the perce...

English: This is a diagram depicting the percentage in US who have no health insurance by age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But her dismay at his wandering was intense, and, to my mind, bizarre. I finally met A., assuming he was a gormless wreck. He was funny, smart, observant, charming, curious about the world. I immediately saw he’d make a terrific journalist.

When I mentioned my idea to a church friend, she gasped in horror, sniffing: “You can’t make a living as a  writer!”

I was furious — and told her how much this reaction offended me.

This, while I was coughing up $1,200 a month for my apartment and an additional $500 every month for market-rate health insurance — a yearly sum of $20,400 before car insurance, gas, groceries, dentist’s, haircuts and the rest of life.

Yes, it’s far from the $150,000 to $300,000+ that a young banker or lawyer can earn. The sort of work that young ‘uns from wealthy precincts are de facto expected to choose.

But it is a living.

It is a life.

If you want to pursue creative, non-corporate work, you will pay the price. You will earn less, far less, than many people you know or meet. You may never own a home, of any shape or size. You may never own a vehicle, or a new one. You may find yourself shopping for most things in thrift or consignment shops or on sale.

To lower your living costs, you might share space with others, or live in a rural area or work several part-time jobs.

It’s fine. It’s a choice.

But it’s a way of life you will rarely, if ever, see fetishized on television or in popular media. It is not a life filled with designer luxury goods or vacations in places your wealthier friends have ever heard of. Your social circle might be much smaller, filled with people who truly share, understand and live the same values as you.

And you may also feel very out of step with your co-hort; many people my age now own multiple homes. They drive $90,000 vehicles and run major companies or organizations.

I recently contacted a young editor about freelancing — the daughter of one of my high school friends.

If I had stayed at that newspaper, my first staff reporting job, I might be her. I might well be her boss.

Yes, that felt extremely disorienting.

But I also relish my creative freedom, deeply grateful for a husband whose union-protected, full-time office job frees me from cubicle life. I’ve had well-paid staff jobs, in offices in Manhattan buildings, working for name-brand publications.

I didn’t especially enjoy them.

Working hard, with steady clients, I make a decent income, enough to save 10-20 percent every year and still enjoy some of the things I love: fresh flowers, pedicures, travel. It’s still far less than I made in 2000; my industry is a mess and pay rates are lower than they were then.

But one-third of Americans are me, now — working freelance, contract, temp. Millions of Americans, certainly my age, will never have a job with a paycheck again. Here’s a searing New York Times story today; make time to read some of the heartbreaking 125 comments and take them to heart.

We have no “benefits” from an employer, no paid sick or vacation days. We have no access to unemployment insurance if our work dries up.

The choices we make affect our lives, now and later. The decisions we make have consequences.

Make them, freely.

But know their costs.

Decisions, decisions — what if I’m wrong?!

In behavior, business, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, work on April 12, 2013 at 12:04 am
Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight into Hum...

Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight into Human Decision Making (Photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases)

A dear friend recently told me she’s having headaches and stomachaches as she contemplates a huge, life-changing decision, one that’s increasingly facing people in my industry, journalism — to stay or go. Should she accept a buyout (worth a year or more’s salary), or stay working? (She’s 62, and married.)

We’ve faced the same question a few times here as well, as my husband has also worked decades for a major newspaper shedding staff. But journalism doesn’t pay well. Not to mention, there are very few employers in my industry who’ll take on someone older than 40, so taking a buyout probably means your career is over.

I’ve made a few life-changing decisions, from accepting a fellowship in Paris for eight months, (leaving behind friends, family, career, dog, boyfriend, apartment) to leaving Canada to follow a then-beau to the U.S., a man I hoped I’d marry, (he bailed after two years of marriage.)

The problem with decisions is…every one you make, (and the ones you avoid), have consequences. And we simply can’t know, in advance, what those will be.

So how to make them and not freak out?

Decision Making Chart

Decision Making Chart (Photo credit: West Virginia Blue)

Mitigate your risks

If you’re moving “for love” (risky as hell for many people), certainly leaving behind a great job, family, friends and a place you like a lot — what else is there besides your sweetie? What if it doesn’t work out romantically? Can you afford the rent? Can you easily find work? Can you re-locate again, and how soon and where to?

Consult those affected

If you have children old enough to participate in the decision intelligently, include them. But some moves are going to be stressful and disruptive, even if they’re necessary. The times I’ve felt most betrayed, and it’s happened repeatedly, was when my life has been up-ended by others with no notice or discussion of how it would affect me as well.

Do your due diligence

If you’re thinking of working for X, do your homework! Check out glassdoor.com to read others’ opinions of what it’s really like to work there. If you’re considering a college or course, ask others what they think. There is a lot of data out there and ignoring it is silly.

What’s the absolute worst that might happen if you’re wrong?

If you choose the wrong partner/job/city/university, getting out will have a cost, financial, emotional, intellectual. It’s usually better to get out quickly (or not get in) than stick to something not at all what you hoped for or expected.

Strengthen your safety net

Good friends, good health and some cash in the bank are all smart ways to give yourself back-up if something doesn’t work out as planned.

Make a list of pro’s and con’s

If one side is a lot longer than the other, that’s a clue. If you’re still stymied, put every item in order of priority. I wouldn’t ever want to live, for example, in a place with very little racial or economic diversity, or one that is relentlessly religious and/or politically conservative. Nor one with high heat/humidity, tornadoes or hurricanes. (That cuts out entire portions of the U.S.)

Have Plans B-K

Smart people always have a Plan B, just in case. I try to have Plans B-E, at least. Give yourself multiple options or escape routes and you’ll find decision-making less terrifying. How quickly or easily can you put the next plan into action? What obstacles would slow or prevent it?

No decision is perfect or risk-free!

The perfect is the enemy of the good; i.e. at some point, you simply have to get on with it! No decision is perfect and every choice means not choosing something else, whether the style of your wedding dress, your college or grad school or deciding to have children. Don’t make yourself insane asking everyone else for their opinions. You probably really know what makes you happiest, (or most miserable.) Go with that.

If a bunch of other people line up to second-guess your decision, whose life is it anyway?

Here are a few major decisions I’ve made and how they turned out:

Accept eight-month Paris fellowship, age 25.

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window (Photo credit: Dimitry B)

Upside: best year of my life, great new job when I got back.

Downside: Broke up with boyfriend (secretly relieved.)

Move to Montreal at 28 to work for the Gazette, leaving friends, family, city I know well.

Montreal Old Port

Montreal Old Port (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upside: fantastic, cheap, huge apartment; great new boyfriend who later becomes my husband; some adventures in Quebec reporting, big-ass salary and low cost of living.

Downside: miserable, long, bitter winter; horrible newspaper with nutty management; taxes through the wazoo eat up most of my big raise. High crime rate, crappy public services.

Move to New York suburbs with fiance.

Upside: score a gorgeous apartment, he gets a good job fast.

Downside: don’t know a soul, people hard to meet or make friends with, cost of living is high, he bails on the marriage and finding work in New York journalism is, initially, really hard.

Marry him, despite doubts

Upside: fun wedding, honeymoon in France, decent alimony post-divorce.

Downside: humiliation and stress of brief, miserable marriage. Having to re-invent alone in a place with few friends and no job.

The greatest challenge of decision-making is forgiving yourself when things go south, as they sometimes just will. We can only use our very best intelligence and all the facts at hand. We are who we are!

Here’s a poignant post from C. at Small Dog Syndrome about many of the decisions she’s made in her early 20s.

This is an extraordinary radio interview with a 91-year-old man, Sid Rittenberg, who is the only American to join the Chinese Communist party — a decision that cost him 16 years in solitary confinement.

An amazing account, from Vanity Fair, of Malala, the rural Pakistani girl shot in the head for speaking out in favor of girls’ education there — and the journalists who later deeply regretted having pushed her into the spotlight. Their decisions clearly put her life in danger.

Here’s a sad/funny tale of a man who bought and renovated a house in L.A. — despite the dire warning not to from a tarot card reader. His house is gorgeous, but his wife left him.

English: An original card from the tarot deck ...

English: An original card from the tarot deck of Jean Dodal of Lyon, a classic “Marseilles” deck. The deck dates from 1701-1715. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do you make decisions?

Do you find it difficult?

Would you skip college for $40,000? How about $50,000?

In behavior, business, culture, education, life, Money, news, parenting, US, work on December 28, 2012 at 3:12 am
English: An image of natural gas drillers with...

English: An image of natural gas drillers with a drill near Kokomo Indiana, c. 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interesting piece in The New York Times about young men, especially, skipping college to head to the oil and gas boom in Montana:

Here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.

It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

One of the greatest beliefs in the United States is that everyone must go to college. This, despite the fact many students drop out, are graduating saddled with enormous debt and many can’t find paid work.

So, why not take $40,000 and sock away as much of it as possible? It could fund college later (or not), or travel, or a home you choose to own (or rent out for income.)

I have a lot of difficulty with this persistent insistence that college is the only viable place for people who have graduated high school to grow up, learn about the world, acquire skills, mix with people their age of very different backgrounds and work to high standards independently.

Is it?

For some, it’s joining the military. Or going overseas on a student visa, to work as a nanny or au pair or volunteer. Or staying home and working a variety of less-prestigious jobs until you actually know what truly interests you, and what you are good at and who is hiring and what they pay, entry-level or beyond. Then, if you choose higher education, you know exactly what you’re getting into!

For all its benefits and pleasures, college very rarely teaches the skills you really need in the “real world”, whether running your own business, freelancing or working most effectively within a team or office. (Invoicing 101? Sucking Up 302? Backstabbing 205?)

I wrote a piece for The New York Times recently about a group of smart young people under 20 who are being paid $50,000 a year for two years to skip school. (It was the paper’s third most emailed story that day.)

Here’s a thoughtful blog post on this issue by a professor of political science at Georgetown, a respected American 223-year-old university:

A student at any college will often sense a conflict between prestige and truth, the prestige of the teacher, the school, or the culture. He will soon learn that everything contains some truth worth knowing about, and that the best way to deal with error is to see the truth in which it is embedded.

Or, again to change the metaphor, college life is a minefield, studded with all different kinds of devices, waiting to be crossed. Wise young people will read independently in reliable books, to locate and identify hidden explosives rather than step on them. But the venturesome student will in fact want to know what such mines really are, and how they came to be constructed and buried. They will follow the example of Aquinas, who insisted that the accurate understanding of error is quite a necessary and legitimate side of our learning and living. Thus, we want to know how they function, how the mines are hidden. Yes, we want to know how to avoid stepping on them and indeed how to eliminate them, the first step of which effort is to know what they are and why they were made.

I graduated from the University of Toronto, Canada’s top school, then as now. People I studied with now run think tanks and museums and private schools and have accomplished some great things. I liked having tough professors and smart people around me.

As an English major, my courses were very narrowly restricted, even as an undergrad, to 75 percent English literature. The only other things I studied were political science and philosophy (freshman year), French (three years) and Spanish (four years). I knew I wanted to become a foreign correspondent, so I needed to be able to work in other languages, write well and quickly and have the intellectual confidence to make my arguments persuasively.

Those are the skills I’ve used ever since. My ability to read Chaucer in Middle English or parse Volpone or Victorian poetry? Nope. Never.

If you’re in college, or heading there, why? What do you expect to get out of it?

If you’ve long since graduated, do you regret your choice of school or major?

Coming full circle

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life on September 26, 2012 at 12:20 am

And the seasons, they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came

And go round and round and round in the circle game
— Joni Mitchell

Do you ever circle back to the places of your past?

Sometimes I do it on purpose. Sometimes it happens by accident.

The first major magazine story I sold, to a Buffalo newspaper when I was a college sophomore, was about radon gas leaks in a town near Toronto, from the decayed radium left over from watchmaking and its luminous dials.

Now my Dad lives there and it’s where I come to visit for a respite from writing for a living; that first story, insanely complicated and one for which I missed a lot of classes, created a career still sustaining me, one now allows me — thanks to laptop and wi-fi — to work from anywhere.

Like, back where I started.

I go back to my old Toronto high school sometimes to lecture about journalism and book-writing. I arrived there halfway through Grade 10, pimply and completely ill at ease around boys after years of all-girl schools and summer camps. It was a very rough few years of being daily bullied by a small group of boys before, finally, I was accepted and welcome — and even chosen as prom queen at our senior prom.

So when I go back now, as a published writer, it’s with relief and pride. I spoke there on Monday. The list in the photo is of Ontario Scholars the year I graduated; you needed an 80 average.

As I was climbing the stairs to give my lecture, I passed a man I couldn’t believe still roamed those halls. “Nick! You cannot still be alive!” I said. (He’s British, devilish and always let us call him Nick.) “I’m 68,” he said proudly. (He was then an English teacher, now a part-time athletic coach.) What a hoot to run into him!

On the weekend I went for drinks to the rooftop bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking the University of Toronto campus, still one of the city’s most elegant and intimate spots for a cocktail. I’ve been savoring it since I skipped my U of T classes 30 years ago to have a drink there. I went to meet an old summer camp friend, a woman I hadn’t seen since we were 16 and who found me (of course!) on Facebook.

I took the ferry across Toronto harbor to Centre Island to attend service at the tiny church where I was married last fall. I love the ferry and its feeling of freedom, the very best way to spend $7 I can imagine. The island, lush and green in late fall sunshine, is so lovely, its gardens carefully manicured, swans and ducks and geese flapping by. I’ve been going to the Islands since I was little. They’re sometimes what I miss most about the city — wild, beautiful, unchanged.

It was odd but very pleasant to walk the paths alone where I last walked as a newlywed. (The husband is home working.)

Our wedding church, St. Andrew by The Lake.

On this visit north, I’m enjoying sitting in my father’s house, surrounded by the art and objects I’ve known since early childhood. They’re images I’ve known and loved for a long time; in a life with plenty of upheaval, (a life lived in five countries, divorce, job losses), things and places that remain fixed and lovely are securisant. They soothe me.

It also feels good to finally have an open home to return to. There were many long, painful decades when I wasn’t very welcome. His second family took precedence and didn’t like me much.

As I drove around Toronto the past few days I’ve passed so much of my past — the white brick house I lived in as a teenager, the pool where I first worked when I was 15, my first apartment building, the Victorian red brick house where my writing career began at the college newspaper.

I like revisiting my past, the good bits anyway. It comforts me.

How about you?

College? Who needs college?

In behavior, education, life on September 16, 2012 at 3:01 am
English: Cropped image of Soldiers' Tower of H...

English: Cropped image of Soldiers’ Tower of Hart House (University of Toronto). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s becoming a serious question, at least here in the United States where student debt is totally out of control, with graduates carrying $30,000 or $60,000 or even $100,000 in debt they’ll be re-paying (or not) for decades.

And that’s not even the bill for medical, law, dental, vet or MBA degrees, or computer science or engineering, each of which can probably net you $100,000 a year or much more, which is at least a decent ROI.

But digging into $85K worth of debt, as this young woman has for an English degree?

Nope.

I was very lucky. My entire year’s tuition — no, that’s not missing a zero — was $660 in 1975. Today it’s not much more than $5,000 for most undergrad classes at my alma mater, University of Toronto, consistently ranked as one of Canada’s top three. I studied English and read Chaucer aloud in Middle English, learned about 16th century drama and 19th century poetry. Did it help me be(c0me) a better journalist?

Not really.

But — perhaps most essentially — I had to work really hard, independently and consistently, for four years on new-to-me and challenging material. None of my profs knew or would have cared that I’d been attacked in my crummy little apartment or that umpteen boyfriends had dumped me or that my growing freelance career was making attending class almost impossible some weeks.

I had to figure all of this out for myself, plus living alone.

All of which, while sometimes horribly stressful, was excellent training for journalism, and for life.

So why go to college?

Can you learn what you need elsewhere — through an apprenticeship, internships, community college or vocational training?

Here’s my latest New York Times business story, about a select group of very bright, insanely ambitious men and women — all younger than 20 when they started — who’ve skipped school, given $50,000 a year to work on their own projects instead, thanks to the Thiel fellowship.

I interviewed seven fellows, (three female, two from Canada, one of them a U of T dropout!), three parents, two administrators and two observers. The gorgeous photos were taken by Peter DaSilva, who is based in San Francisco, and who also shot the images for my Times Google story. The photo editor on this piece was my husband.

Unlike Americans, who often choose to attend college far from home, most Canadians attend their local university. U of T is Canada’s Harvard, tough to get into and tough to get through. It’s also enormous — 50,000+ students — so it’s not a great fit for someone who needs or wants a lot of hand-holding. Its downtown campus, is right in the heart of Toronto, blocks from the provincial Parliament buildings and gleaming office towers.

In some ways, U of T was perfect for me. My fellow students were really smart and, being a competitive person, I liked that. The professors were passionate world-class scholars who took their work seriously. I loved the downtown campus, so gorgeous it’s been featured in many films and commercials.

I started my journalism career there, writing as often as possible for the weekly Varsity. By the end of sophomore year I had enough clips from there to start writing professionally, my dream, for national magazines and newspapers.

My first serious boyfriend was — natch! — the paper’s editor. University gave me everything I so craved in high school: lots of cute boys who liked me, tremendous intellectual stimulation and growth, terrific athletic facilities, new friends.

But in other ways, it was a really rough ride.

My parents were both far away and out of touch, traveling the world, so navigating it all meant living alone in small apartments on very little money while freelancing and attending class. I got a D in French. When I cried with frustration and bewilderment, the prof merely sniffed; “It’s clear you arrived here very poorly prepared.”

A life-changing experience was participating in the Tarheel Exchange, which carried a busload of U of T’ers south to UNC Chapel Hill, in North Carolina in November and returned the Tarheels north to us for a week in January.

In Chapel Hill, we encountered many novelties: attending church service at a black Baptist church and a pig-picking (barbecue) and we heard an administrator struggle to retain his composure discussing race relations. The Tarheels, on their visit, had never seen snow!

I fell hard for a tall handsome redhead named Seth.  I went back the next year as an organizer of the group and met Rip and Beau, men whose monosyllabic names stretched to three syllables with their charming southern drawl.

Canada offered nothing so exotic!

College, for me as it is/was for many of us, was a place to grow up quickly, to learn to meet high standards, to deal with demanding strangers, to make new friends, to think deeply and write thoughtfully.  Ironically, I was the first in my family to graduate university — my Dad, a film-maker, had dropped out of UBC, my step-mom never attended and neither did my mother. Everyone did just fine without a degree.

Did you enjoy — or are you now enjoying — college?

Do you feel the investment of time and money is worth it?

Twelve tips for fresh grads– includes a job offer!

In aging, behavior, business, culture, education, life, parenting, travel, urban life, US on July 6, 2012 at 12:24 am
stay cool

stay cool (Photo credit: yewenyi)

So, unless you majored in computer science or engineering (congrats if you did), you may have just entered one of the worst job markets in history. Awesome!

Not.

I’ve been seeing a lot of hand-wringing, despairing blog posts lately from frustrated fresh grads wondering if or when they’ll ever find a job, let alone a job that matters to them, let alone relevant to anything they studied. Plus all the other grads, two or three years out, who still can’t find a job that makes them feel that all the costs of college were worth it.

Here’s a great article with a lot of common sense suggestions, once you do land a job, no matter how menial. It’s from the U.S. edition of Glamour, a women’s magazine, but the savvy therein is unisex...

And here’s a funny, smart blog post by a young British female journalist about the need to “fake it until you make it.”

Here are my 12 tips to help you cope:

Don’t panic

By all accounts, your generation has been cooed at/over since birth, almost without interruption, with a chorus of “Good job!” The second you’re not accomplishing something or winning an award or polishing your resume, (and getting lots of attention for it all), you feel ill at ease, possibly useless. Praise is so sweet…and yet, often, so meaningless.

Take an hour every day unplugged from all forms of technology

Savor it. Your best ideas will come to you alone, in silence and probably while in the natural world. Do not tether yourself to Facebook or Tumblr clutching for some sort of emotional blankie.

Read challenging, smart material. Every day

It’s easy to think “Thank God. I’m done!” No more papers, tests, exams, finals. Just because you’ve snagged your diploma doesn’t mean it’s time to turn your brain off. Veg for a while, but make a point of reaching for some smart, tough work. If you’re an art history major, are you up on the (latest) banking scandal ? Do you know what Libor is? Read the business section of the Wall Street Journal and/or New York Times, the Financial Times if you’re really ambitious. If you’re an economics or political science major, take the time to read history, arts and literature. Throughout your life, and not just to get or keep a job, you need to keep broadening your horizons and stay sharp!

People tend to hire and promote people with insatiable curiosity and the ability to quickly analyze and sift through complex data.

Stay healthy

Find an activity or hobby you love so much you can’t wait to do it every day

Make it something physical, tactile, sensual, practical. If at all possible, make it outdoors, social and an activity that produces something visible, useful and/or beautiful. It’s deeply satisfying and will keep your confidence up.

Spend time around people much older and/or much younger than you are

Visit your grandparents or a nearby nursing home. Do it face to face. Read to someone whose eyesight is failing. Anyone over 40 has already survived three recessions since they graduated — so they get it. And they’re OK. Anyone who lived through the Depression really gets it; perspective is useful. Hang out with your younger siblings or cousins, if you have any. Play is good. Get far away from your peers on a regular basis — they’re probably either equally whiny and miserable or happily employed which will make you even more miserable.

A dream deferred is not a dream necessarily permanently denied

The economy is somewhat on the mend. I see it in my own freelance business, which was in the tank 18 months ago. So you can’t, right now, have the job/income/life you want and think you have earned and are so certain you deserve. Take a number! Stay cool and focus on things that can make you happy in the meantime. Keep taking baby steps toward your goal, even if it means working without pay for a while. If nothing is making you happy, get a grip. Or get help.

Whenever someone gives you a chance to work for/with them, be amazing

It’s “only” retail or dog-walking or baby-sitting or waitressing or whatever…Rock it! I’ve spent the past month working with a fresh grad from the Midwest who is smart, brave, organized and follows up and through on everything I ask her to do as my assistant. (She’s getting busier with her internship — if you want to help me out, paid, email me. I’d prefer someone in Canada or the U.S. who understands how American business works. You must be ethical, a very quick learner and 200% reliable.) 

Find a community and show up regularly

It might be a faith-based community or a softball team or your local yarn-bombers. You need to be around fun, funny, happy people face to face who’ll keep your spirits up and remind you that work is not the only thing in the world. One of the toughest parts of graduating is leaving the home you created for yourself at school — friends, frats/sororities, clubs, dorms, campus groups, maybe even a few favorite professors. The comforting routines are gone. An unstructured life is fairly terrifying, especially if you’re not terribly self-disciplined.

No whining!

Many of the people you hope will hire, mentor, network with, refer or promote you are people who have likely already weathered a whole lot more than you have yet. They may have survived serious illness, the loss of loved ones, being fired from one or several jobs with all the financial and emotional stress that entails. Professionals do not vent at work and certainly never to their bosses. We don’t want to hear how tough things are. We know.

Travel, as far, often and cheaply as possible

Even if it’s only within a 10 or 20 mile radius of your home, you’ll learn something new if you’re open to it. Take a notebook and camera and be observant. If you can possibly find a way to flee the borders of the United States, preferably alone and cheaply, do so. Get a passport, and use it! You’ll quickly learn a great deal about how other people think and behave, and why. We all live and work in a global economy. You need to get that on a fundamental level to thrive in the 21st century.

Bonus tips:

Make a good-looking business card for yourself

“But I don’t have a job!” Yes, you do — job-hunter. Your card, which is simple, clean and elegant, will have your full name, your home and cell numbers (if you have both), your email address and your website(s) that show your work. Every time you leave home, carry your cards with you so you can use them whenever you meet a potential job lead. This alone will make you stand out from the sweaty, desperate pack.

Informational interviewing

I’m amazed more grads don’t know what this is, but it’s the best way to find out if you even really want to work in a particular kind of job or industry. I decided, in my mid-30s, to leave journalism and become an interior designer, but before I even enrolled in school, (which cost plenty), I went out and interviewed three women who had worked in the field for many years. I learned a great deal, and a few things that surprised me.

People are generally happy to help if: 1) you do your homework first so you have intelligent questions to ask them; 2) you take no more than 20 minutes; 3) you send a hand-written thank you note on good quality paper through the mail the next day; 4) you do not ask them for a job! The point is simply to learn, but very often, if you leave a fantastic impression, you’ve opened a door for future contact. Things to ask might include: Why did you choose this field? What do you enjoy most/least? What’s a typical day/week/month? What are the three most essential skills to succeed in your field/industry? What’s the worst deal-breaker you typically see when you meet a job applicant? What has surprised you the most about working in this field? If you were to start again tomorrow, would you still choose it?

Here’s a good recent piece on the power of optimism from the Times’ health writer Jane Brody, with more good advice for tough times.

Fresh grads — and recent ones — how’s it going for you?

Is a college degree worth it? Define “worth”

In business, education, news, parenting, work on May 17, 2012 at 12:40 am
Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toron...

Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest issues in American public discourse right now is the ballooning cost of attending university — or “college” as it’s generally referred to here. The price is rising more than 5 percent annually and students are graduating with enormous debt into a marketplace with very few jobs open to an eager 22-year-old with, usually, almost no work experience.

The New York Times addressed this in a recent front-page story:

“I’ll be paying this forever,” said Chelsea Grove, 24, who dropped out of Bowling Green State University and owes $70,000 in student loans. She is working three jobs to pay her $510 monthly obligation and has no intention of going back.

“For me to finish it would mean borrowing more money,” she said. “It makes me puke to think about borrowing more money.”

‘Nothing Is Free’

Christina Hagan is an Ohio lawmaker who says students need to understand that attending college is not an entitlement. Last year, she was appointed to fill a seat once occupied by her father in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Ms. Hagan, 23, is also a college student.

She will graduate shortly from Malone University, an evangelical college in Canton, Ohio, with more than $65,000 in student debt (among her loans is one from a farm lender; she had to plant a garden to become eligible). Though she makes $60,000 a year as a state representative, she plans to begin waiting tables in the next few weeks at Don Pancho’s, a Mexican restaurant in Alliance, Ohio, to help pay down her student loans and credit cards. She pays about $1,000 a month.

“I placed a priority on a Christian education and I didn’t think about the debt,” said Ms. Hagan, who says she takes responsibility for her debt and others should do the same. “I need my generation to understand that nothing is free.”

For those of you who live beyond the U.S., this must seem an odd situation. In some nations, higher education is free or much more heavily subsidized by the government. Or only the intellectually elite get to attend university at all while others — wisely — move into study for work they’d enjoy and for jobs that actually need filling.

In the mid-1970s I paid — yes, seriously — $660 a year for my education at the best school in Canada, then and now, at Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto. I had a tiny stipend from my family ($250 to 350 a month) and paid the rest of my bills by freelancing as a writer and photographer, beginning the summer of my sophomore year.It’s now about $5,000 a year to attend the equal of a Harvard in Canadian terms; Harvard and its ilk are about $50,000 a year.

That’s a brand-new luxury car every year for four years.

To afford my life and schooling, I lived alone in a very small apartment in a bad neighborhood, then moved to a small apartment in a better one. (My parents had wandered off to live on a boat in Europe for a few years.)

By the time I graduated, I had no debt and many national magazine and newspaper editors who had already been working with me. I didn’t even look for a staff job until I was 26.

So what was the value of my college degree?

Hard to say. I loved the beauty of our campus, the many clubs and sports and activities, the diversity and intelligence of my classmates and the brilliance of my professors, who were scary as hell and expected a great deal from us. I did get some very good grades in my first year and was told that writing should be my career by one professor, whose praise meant a great deal to me.

I started writing for the weekly college newspaper before I even attended my very first class. Yes, I was that driven. I knew I wanted to become a journalist — let’s get started! I didn’t ever attend a journalism school but preferred a super-demanding English lit. program that taught me to think critically, write long, argue hard for my ideas and work independently.

All of which are exactly the skills I needed and still use today, 30+ years after graduation.

No employer has ever asked my opinion of Chaucer or 16th. century theater or Victorian poetry, that’s for sure. But the underlying skills and strengths that got me in and through are what mattered.

So that’s part of the challenge. You can get high marks and love your professors but come out clueless and awaiting direction rather than being a resourceful self-starter. The people who thrive in times of economic chaos.

Like now!

I don’t envy any student trying to choose a form of higher education they hope will lead to paid employment, sooner rather than later. Some Americans have chosen to study in Scotland at St. Andrews or in my native Canada, where they get a great education at a much lower price than even some state schools in the U.S. — plus the invaluable experience of living and working in another country and its culture.

If I were the parent of an independent teen heading for college, I’d ship them off to Canada or Europe in a heartbeat; they’ll be working and competing in a global economy anyway, so they might as well start to really understand how the rest of the world thinks and behaves!

Do you think college is worth it anymore?

Is College (As We Now Know It) Dead?

In behavior, education, journalism, work on June 27, 2011 at 11:25 am
Victoria College in the University Toronto tak...

Victoria College at the University of Toronto; my alma mater, Image via Wikipedia

What’s the future of post-secondary education?

I think about this, although many decades out of university, perhaps because college classes in the U.S., where I live, are so expensive for many students, with no — of course! — jobs guaranteed at the end of it all. I never continued on to any form of graduate study for a variety of reasons:

I loathe debt and could not imagine how I would pay for it

I saw no need for it in journalism

I attended a school with 53,000 students and, while I am very happy with its high standards, did not enjoy feeling largely ignored and anonymous. That put me right off any more formal education

I attended the University of Toronto, for years deemed Canada’s most competitive and demanding school. I loved having super-smart, terrifyingly erudite world-class experts in their fields as my professors. I still remember their names and their tremendous passion for Victorian poetry or Chaucer or history and the excitement they were able to convey to us about it all.

I enjoyed having super-smart fellow students, knowing some of them — as they have — would go on to lead some of my country’s financial, intellectual and cultural institutions.

In the 1990s, determined to leave journalism (and then having an MD husband’s income, certain this was possible), I studied interior design at The New York School of Interior Design. Loved it!

What a totally different educational experience:

Small classes. Nurturing teachers fully engaged in making sure we were succeeding. The inspiration of talented classmates but no cut-throat sharks.

It also showed me something really important about my learning style. I need it to be hands-on: drawing, painting, drafting….all were challenging but also engaged my brain in wholly new ways. I liked learning!

Like many people, I’m more of a visual and tactile learner and sitting in a lecture hall for hours  — what most college classes still consist of — was deadening.(Which is also why journalism has always felt like such a terrific fit. It’s life-as-classroom.)

I have very mixed feelings about learning away from a school and classroom and campus. Yes, online learning is democratic.

But I think we also need to learn how to defend your ideas in public, that little knot of fear in your belly before you speak out in front of a room full of smart fellow students. You need to work face to face. You need to see how ideas play out in person.

And I loved the campus and its beauty and history and the clubs and activities I took part in at U of T, and my equally demanding and passionate profs at NYSID at their charming Upper East Side building. I was terrified there when, as we all had to in our Color class, I presented my designs to a room full of fellow students (just as we would have to with clients in the real world.)

But I managed to score an “A” (yay!) from the very tough professor. It still remains one of my proudest moments.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran this piece arguing in favor of getting a college degree, although I completely disagree — with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back me — that cashiers and clerks with a college degree earn more. In my time at The North Face, (the subject of my new memoir of working retail, “Malled“), I didn’t see this among our college-educated staff, nor have the many emails I’ve received since then from fellow associates, current and former, suggested higher earnings elsewhere.

Here’s an interesting essay from an Australian university.

Theoretically, tertiary study could become an opportunity to choose your own adventure. Innovative universities might form select international consortiums that would allow students to tailor degrees; with on-campus stints in Sydney, London and Beijing, for example, and a huge array of subjects offered on-campus or online from the entire list of combined course resources.

Yet universities jealously guard their individual reputations and their place on the competitive, global-rankings ladder. Everyone knows all degrees are not equal; their value depends on the reputation, history and standing of the university that confers them.

For individual institutions, with their campuses physically anchored in one place and their budgets built around the face-to-face delivery of core programs, its likely to be a very complex way forward.

At the same time, the internet is facilitating the entry of private players into the local and international education market, some of which will compete with universities for paying students.

Postgraduates, in particular, want access to experts from the professions and industries they aspire to join.

So when a group of globally renowned, private-sector achievers offers user-pay courses online, for example, which way will future students go?

Did you enjoy college?

What did you study and why?

Would you do it differently today?

Penn State's Student Drinking: Depressing, Dubious Distinction

In education on December 20, 2009 at 8:03 pm
Pennsylvania State University

Image via Wikipedia

Think drinking yourself into a stupor is cool? Students at Penn State do.

Listen to this utterly depressing episode of This American Life, broadcast this weekend; their reporters spent a weekend on-campus to see firsthand what life is like at the nation’s top “party school.” Students say they buy and drink alcohol they don’t even enjoy the taste of just as long as it gets them plastered cheaply and fast.

Women students who drink themselves senseless also endanger their health and their bodies. Rape gets a lot easier — and easier to deny — when you’re so wasted you can barely talk or recall where you were or what you did with whom how many times.

The point is…..?

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