Here I am, five months post-graduation from one of the most elite universities in the world, having just secured a full-time position at my dream job. If you would have told me three months ago that my financial future looks bright, I probably would have called you a liar. Although my economic anxieties have lessened with each day in my new position, for 4 months post-graduation (and the months leading up to graduation), the uncertainty of making it through the day with a negative bank statement, collectors calling me, and no food to eat was a debilitating daily reality.
What inspired me to share my anecdotal experience with my post-graduation struggles is the overall lack of conversations around this specific college (or post-college) experience. Many recent studies have focused on college completion amongst low-income students, and fail to address what happens when those vulnerable students are able to make it to graduation day. In general, as a low-income and first-generation college student, I noticed a serious lack of substantive conversations about the realities of post-graduation for us folks who are liquid asset poor with no familial resources to support you during this difficult transition. This blog post is meant to address that gap.
Before you go to college, the conversation is all about how to get into college as a low-income student. While you’re in college, it’s all about how to complete it. In the months leading up to and immediately following college it’s all about landing a job. What we fail to talk about to this growing cohort of college students is how to deal with the post-graduate anxieties of needing to get a job, while also tending to the pressures of survival on a day to day. Where are you going to live? How are you going to eat? How are you going to get to that interview? How are you supposed to even apply when you don’t have ready access to Internet? What about your bills? Loans?
These are the things I needed help with. What I got instead was the general advice of how it takes an average of 3-6 months to find a job. Cautionary tales about not choosing a job you didn’t love. And other generalities that didn’t help to address the Maslow Hierarchy of needs one (physiological) and two (safety) I was struggling with. Without these needs being met, it felt near impossible to think about what jobs I “wanted.” My post-grad job search became more of a desperate scramble to find anyone that would hire me because the financial pressures where only getting worse.
To add a layer of complexity to this situation, being a first-generation college student made me feel incredibly alone throughout this process. The fact was my family expected financial help from me, and couldn’t really understand what it was like to be in this position and how I was completely ill-equipped to help them in any way. They imagined graduating UC Berkeley would be this magic ticket to financial security. They weren’t really able to understand that I was actually more impoverished than before I started school. This led to extreme guilt and regret about having even made the sacrifice of seeking post-secondary education.
In writing this, I don’t really have any silver bullet solutions to mitigate this experience. I hope that by sharing my experience, others who are in a similar boat can feel less alone. These last few months had me feeling like I was some sort of failure. Even though I graduated top 4% of my class, I felt somehow inadequate. I saw my friends taking trips to Europe, taking their time in crafting their resumes and applications, catching up with old friends, and just generally having an easier time than I was.
I think the first step in helping to deal with this very real reality of low-income and first-generation folks would be to talk about it. Sure, learning about how to spruce up your LinkedIn and learning the average time it takes to land a job post-grad are useful pieces of information, but students who are financially insecure need so much more. They need to know that they aren’t alone in this. They need to learn how to prepare for the post-grad fiscal and emotional abyss that is sure to follow the graduation high. Just as there are supports for low-income and first-generation students who are starting college and throughout the college process, there needs to be equal if not stronger supports for the post-graduation of these students. A piece of paper isn’t going to pay the bills or feed you.
However grim I’ve made my experience out to be, my piece of paper did eventually help me get a job that does pay the bills and feeds me. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m an exception or the norm in terms of the aggregate experience of low-income and first-generation folks post-graduation (need more research on this, which starts with recognizing there is a problem!). I think I was “lucky” in the sense that my job was a result of an unpaid internship I suffered 3-months through with literally no income at all. I was lucky to have a pregnant sister who needed help with her newborn, living and working in the city I grew up in and was well known (hence me getting a job that was created specifically for me). I found my light at the end of the tunnel, but I fear this isn’t true for many of my peers.
As I mentioned before, my current status in life was not guaranteed or even expected mere weeks ago. I’m still dealing with the emotional trauma suffered over 4 months of not knowing where my next meal would come from. From suffering, there is almost surely growth. All of this has shown me how inadequate our current education system is at helping low-income and first-generation students succeed in post-secondary education, in nearly every aspect.
Hopefully, this story can help shed light on the issue of post-graduation for low-income and first-generation students. Here are some resources that helped me survive this transition: