5.23.2010

Pipe dreams of the American college student

From our first day of kindergarten, we are sold a dream. We are all told that we can be anything we want to be when we grow up. As we get older, we are taught, whether intentionally or not, that some professions are better, more dignified than others. And eventually we're given a golden ticket, convinced that if try hard in high school, get into that top 10%, go to college and get a degree that we will land a great job and be happy forever. But that dream is an illusion.

I've seen this story repeated over and over. So many of my peers leave college empty-handed and ill-prepared for the real world. Growing up, no one ever tells the truth about the downfalls of a free market economy, where sometimes there just aren't enough jobs to go around, and certainly not enough for everyone to chase their dream.

As a college freshman, no university advisor admits getting a Bachelors in English will make you a glorified secretary or that you might have to wait tables at Applebee's after paying $60,000 for a business management degree. Because that would crush the dreams of eager optimists across America who believe the key fulfilling the dream is a piece of paper handed to you as you walk across the stage, draped in black, family applauding.

Colleges are turning out naive white-collar workers in masses, many of whom have starting salaries at less than half of what a plumber or mechanic makes. But that's supply and demand and we are all urged to go to college and "make something" of ourselves. The aspirations of my generation flooded the job market with hundreds of graduates lined up, all expecting that dream to come true in a matter of months.

So now our dreams have turned against us and we fight one another for whatever we can get: bank teller, substitute teacher, Census worker. After a while these college graduates start thinking they've done something wrong. They wonder why their dreams aren't coming true as promised. Even those who had internships, studied hard and worked full-time can't seem to move up the ladder. Meanwhile, our non-collegiate counterparts were long ago convinced that going back to school would advance their future and make everything better. Little do they know...

The dream we were sold was only a facade of a greater life and purpose. With foresight most people can answer the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with one simple word: happy. And somehow higher education became the only stepping stone to happiness. But a traditional education does not lead to wealth or happiness, knowledge does. And knowledge can be acquired through an array of mediums not reserved to frat parties and textbooks priced upwards of $250. If I've been taught anything in my short life it's to learn what you love and make a living doing it. And if someone drives trucks because it's quiet and scenic, I would say that person has a better grasp on life than college graduates who wait for job offers to come pouring in.

With this understanding maybe we can ask ourselves what the price tag attached to our happiness reads. Is it worth the distorted understanding of success? Is it worth feeling inadequate because despite four years of dedication, no one wants to hire you? I don't think so. My happiness is worth more to me than the pipe dreams spoon-fed to my generation and more than a piece of paper that says I'm worthy of employment.

I've recently abandoned my concept of a "dream job" because I just want to love my profession. I know I love the art of journalism; I love learning constantly and getting along with my co-workers. Beyond my need to maintain a livable wage I just want to be happy. I want to find a job that highlights my unmatched perseverance, enthusiasm and flexibility. I'm not sure where this paradigm shift will take me but I believe my destination and the journey there will be guided by an auspicious knowledge and not the outdated illusions of my childhood.

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