Come May, beneath the caps and gowns one will find a group of graduates endowed with diplomas, life lessons and a profound responsibility, which is the task of divvying up the payback to everyone who has brought them this far.
Once the confetti falls, college graduates are automatically indebted to financial institutions, to parents who have sacrificed for them and to a few exceptional professors who have managed to awaken their social consciousness.
But these interests can conflict with one another, creating a collegiate catch-22. After graduation many students – including me – will have to figure out how to pay back our parents and our loans, all while being socially responsible.
In college, one learns that the world is not fair and that the system we all hope to work for one day is not as idealistic as some of our textbooks profess. These lessons are emphasized by the inner-city neighborhood we study in. But, as a child of immigrant parents, I was always taught that the American way of life was the easiest and the best compared to all other options. So I was told that I “just gotta make it work.”
My parents pushed me to work for Fortune 500 companies, as some parents do, while my political consciousness pushed for the Fair Trade Federation, hence the social-conscious-schizophrenia I am enduring right now.
The truth is that graduates who have come to school with the heavy expectations of people who want them to succeed financially are taught to measure success in awards and promotions and not by the political wars they wage.
Consequently, students are taught to dismiss many ideas of good for society above good for self. Not that being callous is the main objective of working or that we should be overtly self-serving, it’s just that people have sacrificed so much for us to get where we are that they say we should acknowledge that before we start becoming martyrs for, heaven forbid, a cause.
Mike Szekely, coordinator for the Center for Internships and Career Development of the College of Liberal Arts, deals with students who are coming to grips with this dichotomy as they face the real world.
Working with students in the humanities and social sciences probably gives him a bulk of students who are dealing with their upcoming social and financial debt.
“Pursue something that will fulfill you somehow and make it work because it’s presumably harder to go corporate and decide to switch directions and change the world,” Szekely tells students.
Some have the illusion that they will leave this institution to work within the system and try to change it from the inside out. A noble sentiment, but by working within a corrupt system, isn’t a person further legitimatizing it by accepting the status quo? If so, then that means there may be no allowances for financial success and true social change. No room for empathy in a cutthroat job makes a well-paying and socially-just job become an oxymoron.
Arguably there are leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson or Mother Theresa who did not seem to do too poorly in life.
And I am sure that people will object to musings of the PeaceCorps or Teach for America that pay your loans while you better society. But for a Jesse Jackson there is a Raphael Lemkin, a noted crusader against genocide, who can be found under the Google search Lemkin AND “died penniless.”
Either way, it all comes back to the set-up of the classroom and its conflicting messages: Are colleges preparing us for positions in corporate America or to fight corporate America? The government has put in measures to ensure that we all live up to our financial responsibility, even if we declare bankruptcy.
But there seems to be no government mandates for decency or human dignity so I guess we are left to make sure we live up to those obligations by holding ourselves accountable.
Beti Gathegi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.