Here’s the ugly truth about the university system: it loves to pat you on the back for being a first-gen co-ed, but the support stops there.
“You gotta get out there and hit the pavement. No one’s going to give it to you.”
These are the words I heard come out of my dad’s mouth when I told him I was taking a break from looking for a writing job. It was 2009, a year that rendered my brand-new bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism nearly useless on two fronts. The first was the confirmed death of print media. The second was the peak of the post-Bush recession. I was almost a year out of school, and the best I could do to try and support myself was continue to tutor elementary-school kids nearly full time with no health benefits. It felt incredibly silly to chase my dreams when I could barely afford a doctor’s visit.
While that hurt, my dad’s words hurt more, since they made absolutely no fucking sense. After all, this was the guy who had been telling me college was a cure-all since I was 10 years old. My dad’s context for entering adulthood was the army, vocational schools and apprenticeships. Even though these tools were valuable enough to enable him to own a home and feed his family, still he pushed. Still he insisted that college was the place for me. When my degree didn’t turn out to be the magic doorbuster my dad envisioned, it was amazing how fast he fell back into touting the hustle game as the way to make it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little betrayed.
Related: I’m A Bad Latina — And That’s OK
My dad, like all Latino parents, wanted better for his kids. It’s not at all surprising that Latinx high school student dropout rates are at a record low, and college attendance at a record high. If these kids got the hard sell on college like I did, it’s no wonder. Our parents do a fantastic job at romanticizing the experience, even if they know little about it. Yet there is another side to the Latinx college kids statistic: we are still the racial group least likely to obtain a degree. As a first-generation college student, I can give you at least one reason why. I simply had no idea how to do this, and neither did anyone in my support system.
Here’s the ugly truth about the university system: it loves to pat you on the back for being a first-gen co-ed, but the support stops there. The day-long college orientation gave us a sneak peak of campus life, but no advice on the steps to graduation. I lost count of how many times I had been given conflicting advice from counselors or flat-out misdirection. My professors didn’t fully understand the system and the administrators were clearly burnt out and apathetic. It became pretty clear to me that I was expected to know a lot of things I didn’t. There was no accounting for students who couldn’t go home and ask mom and dad how they did it.
It took me six years to finish school. Of course, it wasn’t my dad’s fault that, by the time I was out, the industry and economy were in flux. But I had very little to fall back on and every expectation on my shoulders to succeed at my “dream.” And now I’m not entirely convinced that anything I learned in college serves me at all today. Not even my first full-time writing job required a degree. How cruel is that? The truth is that four-year college is not the only path to a thriving future. There were other ways I could have molded myself into who I am today.
It’s ironic now that, having barely survived the gauntlet that is the university system, I now dream of what my father had for my own son — a straightforward shot from education to earning. Not an expensive major that translates into zero jobs, not four years of ever-inflating tuition in order for him to “find himself,” and certainly none of it without a plan directly addressing how he will feed and shelter himself.
I refuse to perpetuate the myth that everyone can make a living by feeding their passions and doing what they love. The university system preys on that myth for our dollars. At some point, I am going to stop asking my son what he wants to “be” when he grows up — and start asking him what he wants his life to look like. Having a job that doesn’t make him miserable but affords him the life he wants, complete with fed passions, is my dream for him. College may or may not be a part of that.