I remember suffering the idea of college throughout high school. While most of my classmates were off applying to universities far and wide, I was not, and I recall a formative alienation from them. Similar to many my age, I had no idea what my degree would read at college graduation, not even an inkling. Unlike many though, I didn’t see the reward in jumping onto one path when I could envision so many different trails ahead.
I’ve never been able to take college and the idea of student debt lightly. Something about the education system never sat well with me then and I still haven’t been able to fully digest it. I wonder about how administrators, teachers and families expect adolescents to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and then to invest thousands of dollars into it, like it’s as simple as picking a career in a game of LIFE. And more, after spending ample amounts of time with said individuals, can they really expect these generations, including my own, to do just that one thing, forever? Or are we just expected to become career students?
Education is not as it once was years ago. College used to be somewhat of a prophetic raven guiding us on to a richer life. If you were educated fifty years ago you were almost guaranteed to get a decent paying job post graduation. There was a sort of locomotion to the economy then that held the American dream tightly as it’s passenger. We were able to afford mortgages that provided a roof over the heads of our children and that also supplied us with a garage to bed our new vehicle. But it’s clear that the education industry has long since lost it’s way and in the meantime broken it’s vows. Universities are no longer the community’s resource nor trustworthy, yet their financing continues to gain momentum as one of the largest products in the United States: the student loan. We are factory farming degrees, ones that cannot even feed us.
Today, more dollars than ever before are spent on buying into administration, politics and advertising rather than on cultivating a quality education. John Kavanaugh (representative in Arizona legislature) explains in the documentary, Scholarslip, that when looking at tuition rates between 1979 and 2010 we see a 175% increase in tuition for private colleges and 220% increase for public universities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) confirms this, quoting average tuition, room and board in 1982 at $9,138 and rising to $20,234 in 2012.
What’s more, as Kavanaugh goes on to explain, is that the ratio of professors to students has stagnated while the number of administrators has doubled in this time. The by-product of this is that as more students are recruited, our classrooms swell, forcing our education to become more diluted with each new enrollment. Professors are pressed to work harder but are expected to produce the same level of quality and attention to each student without burnout.
Yet, upon this we still reach graduation and every day it seems another of us begins burying the hatchet that is our college degree. Speaking as part of that population, I can understand that we cast it off because we’ve realized that either we never truly needed the tool or that we’ve changed our direction since the time we began and our degree no longer applies. The latter being the case for myself.
Before all of this, choosing a major was a giant undertaking for me. Well aware of my interests I also knew that none of them were practical. Artist, writer, graphic designer, photographer, musician, psychologist (and at my most dreamy: marine biologist) were all titles that either required a handsome debt or relentless waves of confidence and commitment in order to actualize. Considering the expense of tuition, I couldn’t afford to make a mistake in any direction. So I sought out ways to obtain a degree without footing the bill.
I became employed at a local factory that had a decent program which funded most of my general studies, provided I seek a degree that would ensure a career with them. When I could get away with it I took creative classes under the guise of pursuing a degree in business. But that ended when I was laid off during the recession in 2009. Still desiring to finish a degree, I barely qualified for a program called No Worker Left Behind in Michigan; a state grant that would totally fund the remainder of my degree so long as I studied toward an in-demand field. I graduated with an Associates Degree in Applied Science in 2011, and by the skin of my teeth had actually escaped student debt.
The short form version of my career development includes approximately four years spent furnishing that career in healthcare (for which my degree was of little matter). By the time I reached Oregon I was working as a project coordinator for the facilities department of a major hospital and raking in more than enough money to purchase my very own American Dream.
I couldn’t have expected to learn what many of us do when we uproot from the familiar. When we open our hearts, we allow ourselves to become saturated in a new mentality; we become less concerned with the former construction of our lives and more focused on seeking out the foundation that allows us to grow as creative beings.
At the peak of such a pivotal year for me, beginning in the summer of 2014 when I moved to Oregon, I was fortunate to meet artist, Grace McMicken. It was obvious within seconds of listening to her that when something she desires is within sight, she pursues it full force, unafraid and with seemingly little hesitation. This is how she chooses to live and naturally this translated into her formal studies as an artist and evolving educator.
As we spent more time together I realized that we had a common goal: to create a greater understanding of new thought paths and to learn and develop these within our communities. Like myself, Grace knew she wouldn’t arrive at a new destination by trailing worn avenues. She was close to graduating from Oregon College of Art & Craft when she decided to move on from the traditional, to carve her own abstract path; strapped with debt, fueled by a desire for change.
I’m not sure when she began volunteering with an alternative high school in Portland but her impact is of greater significance. She began working with one student in particular, Sara, to create a tangible concept based on the influences of gender in fashion; a mermaid tail. This was to be purely of Sara’s design supported by Grace’s personal experience in creating and collaborating on pieces in the past. Grace’s guidance proved fruitful in many ways. She could stop talking about the time they spent together. I remember her beaming, so impressed by Sara and her own unique ability to create a piece that will undoubtedly stir up important conversations in the future.
Aside from that venture she also began working with Community Supported Everything, a grassroots organization with a mission to ‘make solutions visible and translate ideas into action through direct participation’. With the help of CSE, Grace was easily able to find connections with like-minded individuals in Portland. She created and led an open-ended class titled Activism Object Making whose members’ first project is the installation of purposeful community altars intended for meditation, inspiration, gathering and endless other means.
This is only a small picture of what I would like to imagine is going on in communities throughout Portland. It’s on us to educate one another. College isn’t a wrong answer. However, the system that cradles it continues to grow more flawed each year. It’s crucial that we begin to open ourselves up to the toolbox that is our communities and harvest the education that lies within the individual. It’s also important that we utilize what good is left in our traditional classrooms.
We are at the edge of a jagged bluff of past remedies, our sights set intently at a crisp, new horizon. We have to wade, then swim until we reach the clarity that lies ahead. Not everyone can yet; not everyone is that brave. It is our duty as kin to one another to bestow that trust, to inspire that courage. If Portland is anything, it is a progressive city, blooming with the means for collaboration, creativity and insight. We’ve built our communities, we simply need to keep connecting and utilizing them as the muscle to propel change. There is much to be done.