on education and worth
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
I loved college. I loved the feeling college gave me, the freedom it gave me. I loved wandering through an environment entirely built for learning. I loved only having to care about several brick buildings and the people that milled between them. I loved learning and then being perpetually hungry for more learning. Man, I fucking loved college. A place where you could follow instincts. You could stumble out of a class where you heard a statement for the very first time that bleww your miiiiiiind, then into a friend, into a meal, into an event specifically built for your self exploration, into a late night galavant with brand new people. A playground for personhood. A warm security blanket of risk taking that was always exhilarating but not unsafe. I think college is one of the most valuable things about our society, and very much resent that it is only reserved for people who have the money and access to experience it.
I have applied for and gotten into a different graduate program almost every year since I left college. More than 7 years after I graduated from my two bachelor’s degrees, I was still hustling and figuring out how to pay for a basic human life, and trying to prove again and again that I have skills and knowledge and worth to do meaningful work in the world (a world not built for a young mixed-in-many-ways artist who doesn’t really operate like most humans). After so much uphill running I wanted more than anything to again be wrapped in the blanket of academia. In graduate school I envisioned myself back on a campus blissfully combing through life’s questions without a care in the world. Ivy covered walls and copious amounts of coffee and every day filled with newness in a way that was exciting instead of exhausting. My nostalgia and desire to move forward in life made me desperate for that world again.
The reality is, that’s not what graduate school is, at least not for me. If undergraduate school is a warm blanket, grad school is someone ripping off your blanket while you’re trying to read underneath it with a flashlight fixed to your forehead. It is juggling questions like “what is the praxis in pedagogy of the oppressed?” with questions like “do I want to have children?” “when I graduate with an MA in theatre with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt at 32 years old, how I will pay for a life that has a base line of comfort and security without having to take a job I hate and never having time to explore all these bougie creative concepts in real life?” The reality is I came to graduate school expecting to feel 18 again, full of wonder and ready to meet people who would immediately become family and find my next path.
I finally chose a program after several years of agonizing over which program was the right one. The people were wonderful, and the program was great, but what I found as I attended classes was question after question about why I was actually there. I realized I had a lot of knowledge and opinions about the things we were meant to be learning about, and that I wasn’t learning so much as I was lamenting. It was lonely, to look around and be wondering “Don’t we all know these things? When will I begin learning new things? Why don’t I feel full of wonder?” But I didn't feel full of wonder, I felt awkward and disengaged and like I was always wearing very uncomfortable clothes. I kept fretting about the idea that I had chosen the wrong thing for myself but had to stay because I had already invested so much. I also had a teaching apprenticeship while in school to teach elementary school students theatre (a thing, it’s worth noting, I have been doing for almost a decade now). The apprenticeship was supposed to be my ticket into financial security while being in school, it was the reason I decided to go to this school. But instead, I realized that apprenticeship was an underpaid job with a long commute that would restrict my ability to take on other employment and put me as an out-of-state student in just as much debt if not more than if I just got a job while in school. It wasn’t a scholarship, it was an entry level internship in a field I’d been in for ten years. I loved my students, but the strain of money and stress made me unable to fully serve them in the way I wanted to. I had decided to come to this program purely because I got the one and only financial aid option that was offered and it was in fact, not an aid but a hindrance to my monetary stability. I was depressed and stressed and had no capacity for learning.
I started itching with frustration over the course of the semester. I was confused, and a little fascinated, by the incongruous truth that we were all sacrificing time and money and energy to be there but that many of the people who graduated the program went on to be in jobs similar to ones I had before and that I wouldn’t be able to teach at the college level because my degree wouldn’t have an “F” in its measly two letter acronym. The elitism of the graduate track started to bother me more and more. At one point I attended a conference on racial equity hosted by my school, and went to an incredible panel of artists and academics of color in which they talked about how academia was steeped in white supremacy, and that even the requirement of a graduate degree for many jobs that could easily require the same embodied knowledge through experience was inherently inequitable because of the financial and temporal inaccessibility of graduate work. And yet, almost all of the panelists had graduate degrees, and were speaking in a conference at a university. I couldn’t make sense of all the paradoxes. The question began ringing in my ears “if we participate in systems that are unjust and inequitable, how are we then changing them?” For the first time, I was privy to a lot of academia’s problems, and I felt anxious that I couldn't answer all my own questions fast enough.
I am not an academic. I love learning, and I’m good at school because I’m good at delivering when someone expects something of me. But I have a deep (and honestly, totally warranted) problem with authority and people who decide they are authorities. I take issue with someone telling me I don’t know what I know because of the environment in which I learned it. What I am realizing about our world is it is made up of gates and gatekeepers. The way to success is to pay enough money and enough stress and enough blood, sweat, and tears so that someone standing at a gate can give you the keys to it. Now I believe in constantly learning no matter what environment you are in and I believe that certain skills do need many people’s approval before they can be practiced ethically. Therapy, medicine, law. But even those things are riddled with contradictions and structural issues that prohibit certain people from accessing them. Further than that, even some people certified by the ‘powers that be’ suck at their jobs and still do harm, whether or not they have a gold laden piece of paper with their name on it in medieval-style font.
My whole life I have not believed I was good enough for anything unless someone told me I was. Sometimes that was a family member, or teacher, or friend, or institution. My sense of self has been comprised of standing in front of someone or something and them saying “yes, pretty” or “yes, smart” or “yes, talented” or “yes, good enough to come in here” or, more often than not “no, not pretty” “no, not talented” “no, not good enough to come in here.” These are never things I knew I could give myself. I never knew I could make up my own mind about my worth based on my own idea about what a good, talented, attractive, valuable person is. We are somehow slipped the memo that these are not things we get to decide about ourselves. This is what it is to be human, but more specifically, to be a woman (and I imagine other experiences too, but I associate these things most with my gender).
At the end of my first semester of graduate school, I was sick of listening to the world. The world is broken in many ways and in its many messages.
Very few times in my life have I truly trusted myself. Very few times have I had a gut feeling I couldn’t explain deep in my belly, and made a decision based on that feeling without justifying it. Deciding on Western for school. Studying theatre instead of political science. Moving to India after graduating. Moving to Seattle. Producing the storytelling event I co-started. And most recently, choosing to continue loving and waiting for someone who was in a relationship, because I had this deep gnawing whisper of a feeling that he might be the love of my life (turns out I was right, as of a few weeks ago we’ve decided to get married.)
I had a feeling in my gut. It told me that this graduate program was not the right place for me. It told me that I could learn the things I wanted to learn in different ways, unconventional ways. It told me that student debt is purposely crippling and is part of a system of professionalism and gate keeping built on foundations of whiteness and capitalism. It told me it’s okay to not sacrifice all financial security for a degree. It told me that academia is an environment, while wonderful and important in so many ways, that is born of systems in which there is a tension between radical change and reinforcement of the status quo. And as much as I wish it came at a reasonable price, it doesn’t. For whatever reason, I can’t reconcile that unless it is absolutely necessary to, unless I need to be certified in some way to do the work I want to. And I’m not sure if I do. Do I really need to get my information and skills this way? Or is it just what everyone else does and what society tells me I should do? I’m still answering that for myself. And want to emphasize that I think people who do seek a post academic track are badasses who I greatly respect and wish I was more like. I envy them constantly, and even now have a pang of jealousy when I think about my friends who have positive graduate school experiences and went on to live their lives more clearly. It is the path for some, but possibly not for me. I don’t know yet. Only time will tell. My gut has gently reminded me that I am more capable than I’ve ever thought I was, and that I have a wealth of experience and knowledge that I know how to grow. I know how to make opportunities for myself and connect with people doing work I believe in. I know how to turn knowledge into practice. I know how to begin when I don't know where to begin. The world isn’t built for self makers and self starters, nor is it made for people who deny systems that keep the marginalized marginalized. That doesn’t mean we don’t need those people though. We maybe need them now more than ever. To carve new paths.
Going to graduate school was a decision I thought was based on trusting myself, but really it was a decision I made because I didn’t. I felt like I needed to seek an accolade to prove I know things and that I belong in the world, that I have worth and legitimacy. A friend of mine said one day when I was voicing my unhappiness to her: “it sounds like you are going to school to cure your imposter syndrome, but only you can do that, and I guarantee a diploma won’t.” She was absolutely right. I know this because I have been making choices my whole adult life that I thought would rid me of the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing (when in fact, none of us do). None of those choices have accomplished that, but only made the feeling worse. Trying to prove you’re not an imposter - when you never were - is not a good enough reason to do anything.
I came to this decision with the help of many people, especially my professors, cohort, and counselor at my university who were willing to sit in my struggle with me and offer compassion and advice to me, even though it meant I may leave the program. I am incredibly grateful for that semester, I think the program itself is brilliant and right for many people, even if not for me. It was because of the questions posed by the program and my work in it that I learned so intensely about myself and the world that it propelled me in a totally new direction. I met amazing people who are all bound to do amazing things, and who gave me community in a new place, in a city I felt very alone in and hated living in. For that, I am so overwhelmingly grateful.
I feel like this post is coming off like I think I am too good for higher education and already know everything, but I don’t and I am not. I’m not too good for anything, except abuse and meaninglessness. I have so much more to learn, an infinite amount, but we all do. I’m a baby in the dark just like everyone else. But I’ve always sought things in my own way, and the information I am seeking is no exception. I’ve always carved my own meaning and course. And I have a feeling that I am not the only person that struggles with measuring their lived education against their documented and formal education. I haven’t found all the logic yet, or where to put these questions about how we measure knowledge, or the words to describe why I knew leaving school was the right choice. But every decision I’ve made in service of my gut has brought me the best things that have ever happened to me.
So she is to be trusted.