20 July, 2011

Ruminations at the true conclusion of graduate school

Reading: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman; On Writing by Eudora Welty
Slowly working through: Kelby's books on Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5
Playing with: My Yashica D
Listening to: Janelle Monae, Mavis Staples, Billy Bragg
Wondering: Are pirates passe?
I finally received my very pricey piece of paper yesterday.

Appropriately, my first diploma got lost in the mail, never to be heard from again. For what I paid for my education (Loan debt as of today: $57K and accruing interest), I damned well expect to receive something to show for it. I opened the cardboard envelope and checked that it was actually in there - albeit heavily wrinkled in two spots - and promptly stowed it in a desk drawer. Grad school is slowly fading into the dust clouds in my rear view, but the future is just as cloudy, if not darker.

Oh, a growth industry,” someone joked with me two years ago, when I began work on a master’s of social work. And that has been the expectation from all parties: me; friends; fellow students; faculty; members of the general public. It’s a time of grinding need in my country and so those choosing to enter a helping profession such as social work should be relatively immune from on-going employment woes. I have experience, education, intelligence, and compassion. What could go wrong?

I believed that right up until this week, when my one and only call back and interview in two months of searching led to naught. I am not sure if I was fooling myself during the two and a half years of my program. I am not sure if it's that nobody knows how bad things are until they are in the midst of it. Certainty is becoming an antique.

I do know that I am now a master’s level social worker with skills in communications, project management, community outreach and organizing, casework, policy advocacy, and research. I have worked internationally and have a pretty solid grasp of two languages. I have classroom teaching experience. Sure mine is a bit of an unusual background, but it’s rich with experience, at least in the right person’s eyes.

And yet, here I am, living with my mom for the foreseeable future while I hunt for jobs here, there, and everywhere. I am extremely grateful, especially when she reiterates that I am welcome to stay for as long as I need.

My horizons have narrowed significantly. I have gone from wanting to end poverty and save the world (only slightly joking there) to simply wanting to pay off my student loans and not be broke when I am my mother’s age. I am luckier than many I know: no children; no car or mortgage payments (no car at all at the moment); a bit of money in the bank in case of emergency (or to buy a few months of temporary health insurance); the ability to relocate. Having worked in the county assistance office in Austin for a year, I am extremely grateful for being housed, fed, healthy, and loved.  And, I’ve only been at this for two months, not two years. Yes, I’m lucky, for now.

Yet, “Living in a van, down by the river” is threatening to become the punchline to my life, but the joke is no longer funny.

I arrived home from Geneva and my internship with UNHCR finally feeling I wanted to settle in somewhere and give my all to an organization and a community. To be a part of something. To nurture some projects and positive change.

You’ll have a job by your birthday,” my mother said, not long after I arrived.
My birthday is in less than two weeks. Her tone and projections have shifted.
It’ll just take time,” she says now when my frustration shows.

I don’t mean to wallow. It drags me down that along with me, several really great friends that graduated with me are in the same boat. Energy, good intentions, compassion and brains going to waste. I know millions are wedged in the dinghy, with more trying to climb aboard every day, and the creaky thing is still taking on water.

Now I’m worried because the August graduates are about to be unleashed on the job market,” wrote one friend in an email, describing his job search as "soul-crushing."

Another classmate posted a comment about only receiving two almost interviews out of 45 applications. “It’s all who you know,” she wrote.

Experience + graduate degree = good job.
The jig is up. The old formulas no longer compute. Hunker down and shelter in place.

At my school, my concentration within social work is known as Community and Administrative Leadership, CAL for short, which means everything from public policy to nonprofit management to community work. What I don’t have is a Clinical background, the other side of social work, meaning mental health and counseling. Not my area of interest or expertise and it would be negligent for me to even try to fill such a position.

I interned for a year at Travis County as a social worker intern and my role was to work with clients who had seen a caseworker for direct assistance with rent and utilities. I didn’t write checks, much to many people’s dismay and confusion, but I could help them enroll in assistance programs, refer them to other community services, and just hear them out for an hour. It wasn’t at all what I had hoped to do with my experience and degree. It was frustrating enough to hand over the phone number for Section 8 to a client, knowing full well how ridiculously long the waiting list is. As with so much of our assistance network in this country, I might help them maintain, but never really recover their footing. It was a difficult year, but I did help some folks, gained new skills, and was well-reviewed by colleagues and superiors.

After receiving no word back on my initial applications for non-profits, I branched out to vacancy announcements for social worker positions, assuming I had the education and experience necessary. Unfortunately, announcements for every Social Worker position I have so far seen emphasize the need for clinical experience and include counseling or mental health treatment as part of the job responsibilities. I'm a bit confused as to how a social worker can't get a social worker job, but there you have it.

Social work seemed a good choice for someone wanting to advance as a do-gooder. I wanted to work for positive change in communities and throw my activist mentality and skills at meaningful work. The social work profession supposedly keeps person at the heart of all efforts. I had seen too many projects and programs that have lost sight of people or never even bothered with them in the first place. Social justice is also supposed to be a cornerstone of the profession, which certainly suited me. A degree in social work was touted as something I could use in a multitude of ways.

Thing is, I ended up with an awful lot of questions: What happened to meso- and macro-? Why was poverty never mentioned in my program, save one class, in a substantive manner? Why are we dealing with symptoms and not solutions? Systemic change, anyone?

“Sometimes, you know, you get busy with work and life and you have to just put that social justice thing down,” said one girl during an open discussion on the first day of our practice seminar, a course that would run concurrently with our year-long first internship.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but then I call bullshit and you are not a social worker.”
Well, I did say it gently.

My experience, so far, has left me feeling that whatever it is we define as social work, at least in this country, is not about change, but maintenance of the status quo. I better understand why Alinsky, bless him, couldn't stand social workers. It’s a shame, really, because I have friends in the program, both Clinical and CAL, who want to do so much more and who are just as sharp and rebellious-minded as Saul. We just chose to invest in a system that I believe no longer values such spirit. What would Jane Adams do, indeed?

I tried to describe the feeling once by saying I'd never felt more a part of The System or The Man (or however you want to phrase it) as I did during my graduate education. It wasn’t an education rich with critical thinking, it was a training regiment, and I’m not sure at the moment what it prepared me for. Yes, I could have left when my doubts reared up after a year, but then I would have been stuck with too many credits to transfer to another degree, the prospect of starting from scratch carrying a significant existing loan debt. And calling for change was like shouting into the wind.

It's a lousy time to have a degree that you have to explain to people. I saw an article recently that asked the question, “Should you be able to sue for an inadequate education?” Basically, should you be able to recoup your money if you’re not happy with the product. Interesting question. At the least, how do you define ‘inadequate’?

But that’s all passed and no going back. So, what now? Well, I’ll keep looking, sending my CV to the farthest reaches and every friend and family member I can. Finding a job is, indeed, a full-time job. I’m applying to work as a substitute teacher for the coming school year. I’m gauging where to begin volunteering my time in the community. Reconnecting with a few old friends. Trying to stay fit and healthy. Thankfully, as Billy Bragg notes, the beach is still free and I'm soaking in the sea most evenings to try to quiet my mind.

Just as important, if not more so, I am finally back to personal practices of writing and photography, working on projects I’ve neglected for far too long. I am extraordinarily thankful to find a haven in both. I'll start sharing more of that as I go, whether you want it or not.

I'm not just worried about me though. As a country, we have forgotten that things like roads, firemen, libraries, schools and sidewalks cost money. We've forgotten where the money for those things comes from. We've forgotten that nobody in their right mind goes into teaching to get rich. True, it's not a calling for everyone, but when teachers become public enemy #1, when science and knowledge are vilified like witchcraft, when compassion and calls for equality (or even simple tolerance) are shouted down, we've really gone round the bend as a society and I'm not sure how we get back because, most importantly, we've totally jettisoned the idea of working together and compromise in favor of a scorched Earth approach. The truth is that nobody ever wins those scenarios. Civility is passe. We could all use a refresher run through of Kindergarten: share, work together, inside voice, compromise, don’t eat paste. Do not try to tell me some people out there don’t act like their dipping into the Elmer’s a bit too often. If we don’t climb out of our trenches soon, I’m not sure what’ll be left and that’s heartbreaking here in the 21st century. This was the future once, the glorious, shining chrome future. The shine is certainly off though.

I haven't given up on the world yet. I can't. When I've tried it never lasts long. I am willing to throw in and work with anyone who wants to make things better for the majority for who the world just doesn't work.Anyone. Well, provided their idea of debate isn't shouting into somebody's face from a distance of a half-inch. I’m not sure what you’ll see from me here moving forward. I’ll keep writing, maybe you’ll keep reading, and hopefully you’ll speak up.

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