Not Worth the Degree?

“There has to be more than what you see.”

This is what I say to friends that tell me that if they could do it over again they would not go to college.  A majority of them have found jobs outside of the fields they studied and made successful careers in them.  A few of them say for the work they are doing now, they only needed the on the job training offered so they are paying student loans “for nothing”.

“There has to be more you got from college.”

The majority of my friends from undergraduate and graduate school are from the Humanities and Social Science fields.  According to the National Center of Education Statistics, on average the unemployment rate for those fields have always been a steady 9.6%, the highest of any field of college study.  My friends divide between specific studies in theatre/speech communication, and the fields of psychology and criminal justice.  I look at how much these fields have grown with cultural and societal changes and clearly understand the difficulty in finding work.   I myself have had to find other fields of employment for financial support.  But would I say my degree wasn’t worth it?

I studied for my undergraduate degree at Grambling State University and chose to major in Theatre.  I had been into community theatre and the arts since I was a young child and had been writing poetry at a young age.  I remember during my senior year in high school, a friend who graduated a year ahead of me, and had the same reverence for theatre that I had, describe her displeasure she had with first year of college at a predominately white college.  She told me that the production season was booked with white productions and her confidence at being considered for any of the lead roles was dismal.  She “created” a love for costume design.  That gave me a different perspective on how to choose where I would go for college.  Being that I wanted to go into theatre, I applied to Pace University in New York and to Grambling State University (GSU) in Louisiana and was accepted to both.  I chose GSU.  “The Place Where Everybody is Somebody.”

gsu

Grambling is a small town that IS the university and full of southern traditions and expectations.  Listed as a HBCU (historical black/college university), what I learned at GSU has informed a lot of my decisions as a woman and artist.  To be honest, I memorized my way through college courses that had nothing to do with arts or communications.  Math, Chemistry… I knew back then I would NEVER be in the line at the grocery store and need to know the square root of a superset field extension!  I learned all I could on the Harlem Renaissance and the artists of that time and of course the art that was developed during the Black Arts Movement.  Creating roads for impossibilities and dreams for other people had always been my heart’s desire.  I guess that can be classified as my purpose.  Another invaluable thing I discovered while at GSU was my love for studying the antiquity of Africa.  I discovered the teachings of ancient Kemet (Egypt).  I found a new sense of self worth and value.  Prior to this, I really couldn’t identify where my source of importance to the arts came from.  I could only reference it to religion and being a Christian.  I internalized these teachings when I began the studies of the Egyptian Mystery System and the role of the ancient scribes.  Their stories and teachings are alive today on the temple walls.  Now, I never had the notion to go scraping stories into the trunks of trees or anything of the sort but like most writers, I want to create art that is timeless.  And me believing in that possibility did not come from a classroom setting.  It came from the college environment at GSU.

I consider studying for my Masters of Arts degree at Howard University (HU), another HBCU in Washington DC, a time for application of what I learned at GSU.  Or, the beginning of my informed decision making.  I decided to continue with my passion for writing and study screenplay writing at a film program.  My choices were Temple and Howard.  Even though Temple had the better reputation, I chose HU because of my supportive experience with my previous HBCU.  My interpretation of that 1 and half year experience inscribes meeting sexism at the hands of professors charged with the continued guidance of my literary education.  I clearly remember 3 of my 4 professors working relentlessly on their independent film projects.  One foot was in the classroom and the other was entering contests and festivals to make their mark in the independent film industry.  And the one foot that was in the classroom had us, the students, working on their projects for a new film production or post production work.  It was here I was taught that my dreams were too big.  It was here I was given limitations and boundaries for me as a woman and for my aspirations in the film business.  Our individual talents were not sought out, developed and supported.  We were second thoughts to their personal focus on being successful film makers and making tenure status with the university.  And from this too, I learned valuable lessons that continue to inform my decisions.

Perhaps this is the stance that allows me to say I learned a lot from my experience in college and find my degree worth it.  For me, it is more than the classroom work.  It was the environment I was provided to discover and define myself and purpose in life.  I am an artist and I focus on the perseverance of the vernacular of my community through writing and performing as a spoken word artist and speaker.  And from those HBCU foundations, I am confident to continue to discover ways to find my fulfillment in life.

4 thoughts on “Not Worth the Degree?”

  1. I tend to agree with the naysayers on this. I totally get your point about the lifestyle experience of college, but I’ve just heard so many horror stories of folks with expensive degrees working in retail because they can’t get a job in that field, and being broke because of the crippling student loan debt. It seems like unless you’ve got rich parents who can pay for college, or you get a full scholarship, it’s not worth it. I work for a very smart woman, started her own business at 22, she’s 44 now and the company is getting bigger every year. She graduated from University of Texas. I remember once we had a meeting where she was telling some new marketing plans she’d developed for the company (we sell orthopedic supplies – wheelchairs, walkers, canes, etc.), and I was very impressed. After the meeting I’d asked her if she’d studied marketing in college. And it was so funny because she got this dead-serious look on her face and just “I didn’t learn anything in college.” And she told me how she came up with these idea while visiting some stores that sell our products, and how she literally just sit there all day, for 8 hours, to see how the customers who came in reacted to our products. When they would walk past the displays, what caught their eye first? What did they stop to check on? And that’s how she figured out how to attract customers. She said she learned way more just doing stuff like that then she did sitting in a classroom.

    1. I would be interested in knowing what she studied in college. Do you know? That is usually the conversation I have with many of my friends too. I had partial scholarships in undergrad but for grad school I worked full time during the day and went to class at night. I had friends who didn’t work and would take out extra student loans to support their lifestyle (and sometimes more!) I hope younger students read this and beware!! Only borrow for school!! As usual, thanks for the comment J.R.

      1. Nah, I don’t know what she studied. And I’m sure she’s exaggerating when she said she didn’t learn “anything” in college. I assume she just means that she considering the time and money spent on it, it wasn’t worth it in the long run. And, like I said, I know she isn’t the only one. I have a Facebook friend in South Carolina that I’ve never spoken to about this, but I’ve noticed that her profile says she graduated from college studying psychology yet for the past 3 years she’s been working as a bartender. And the main consideration to me is the debt. Even President Obama said he and his wife were still paying off their debt into their 40’s. That’s insane.

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