My first semester of college was endlessly strange but also had a few shining moments which altered my outlook on school as well as what I wanted to do afterwards. I was enrolled at a state university and split my course schedule in a way which let me explore education, the humanities, and computer science.
After that semester, I didn’t return to the state school. Instead, I enrolled in classes at my local community college. While I had become disillusioned with the idea of completing a degree at a large university, I left knowing that I still wanted to earn a degree and knowing that I was passionate about teaching, in one form or another.
The education course I took that semester proved to me that while I wasn’t as naturally gifted as some of my peers, I found the work of educating very rewarding and that it gave me a lot of energy. Over the course of my schooling since, I have tried to sift my capabilities, along with my aspirations, in a way that allows me to keep learning and eventually teach others that which I have learned.
As I have worked this sifting process, I have often returned to the idea of attending graduate school. The appeal is immediate and oftentimes seems to be the next logical step in my trajectory. Attending the Graduate Center and working towards a degree in urban geography or history would be a dream come true. These hopes, however, are thoroughly couched in a skepticism about higher education and where it would eventually lead me. A large part of this skepticism is rooted in my own experiences with an education system that proved itself capable of providing excellent resources to schools which are technically public yet egregiously expensive and selective in their accepting of students. As well as experiences with a system that simultaneously provides insufficient resources to schools which are home to some of the most creative people I have met but are more often defined by their parents’ income.
This scepticism also manifests itself in a few personal fears which keep thoughts about becoming too involved in higher education at bay. There is, of course, the obvious unlikelihood of landing a tenure track position upon graduating. There is also a job market, entirely removed from academia, that can look exceedingly bleak for people with graduate degrees.
I have received a lot of advice from professors and friends over the course of trying to make sense of the situation. One professor offered to me the knowledge that earning a masters or doctorates can be an experience worth having on its own, untethered from the immediate employment prospects. Other advice leads towards an encouraging to get in the trenches and attempt to reform the institution to better both yourself and the people who are just entering it, ie. students. This latter piece of advice is fairly easy to rally behind and get excited about.
The event held by the Graduate Center on September 30th did a lot for recentering a conversation that I have had variations of for the past few years. On the topic of making education more equitable, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Carla Shedd spoke for a length of time with Cathy Davidson that I couldn’t help but wish had lasted longer.
The recentering primarily involved a brief look at how institutions for education have continually benefitted certain groups while restricting quality access to others. This, of course, wasn’t new information. But the eloquence and pointedness of the conversation provided new ways of talking about the issue as well as a few different sources and examples to check out in order to better educate myself about a topic that I have a vested interest in.
The conversation closed on an especially salient piece of advice from Dr. Cottom. While given as a response to a woman of color asking for advice in navigating higher education, I couldn’t help but find it equally resonate with my own circumstances. “Your job is not to change that institution, your job is to not let the institution change you,” assured Dr. Cottom. So while I still think it would be responsible to continue trying to reface higher education considering my own privileges and agency, I take comfort in knowing that sometimes just staying true is a victory in itself.