It is finally that time of year when everyone asks seniors like me that one very daunting question: “What are you doing after Vassar?”
I used to have a response crafted up and ready, straightforward so to avoid follow up questions. Something along the lines of, “It’s fine,” with a smile afterwards, encouraging people to smile back in response.
Basically, “It’s fine” is a much easier answer to repeat instead of acknowledging that there is a real fear behind my answer. We are all focusing on where we are headed next, and with good reason. Access to higher education used to be a privilege accessible only to America’s wealthy white men. Vassar opened its doors in 1861, at first a school intended for mostly wealthy white women. We know when Vassar went co-ed (in 1969), and we know the first student of color recognized as an enrolled student was in 1878—an international student from Japan. In 1897, Anita Hemmings would become the college’s first black graduate after spending her undergraduate years passing as white. (Her roommate ended up outing her, revealing her suspicions of Hemmings to her father, who later hired a private firm to investigate.)
Since then, more students from underrepresented groups in the United States are entering four-year colleges. However, barriers that have limited their entrance and performance in higher education before still exist within the job market, despite candidates being just as qualified as graduates from more privileged backgrounds.
There are different concerns fueling our nervous quests to find a job or do something meaningful after Vassar. The prospect of finding a job after graduation may feel increasingly urgent for first generation and low-income students who quite frequently also happen to be students of color, too. Many of us will be wading through the job market, hoping that our degree or the skills we’ve acquired here will be enough to save us from drowning in unemployment. However, it’s important to note how structural oppression has been normalized even outside of Vassar.
Prior to entering college, I was wholeheartedly confident that college was and is the key to the “American Dream.” Growing up in an immigrant household only enforced those beliefs. However, in the four years that have passed, I’ve grown a tad bit more cynical. Articles are frequently churned out that go into length about the bleakness of the job market. We choose majors based on what career (and financial security) they will quickly funnel us into. We prep ourselves constantly to build up our resumes, even going as far as doubting ourselves when our resumes reach beyond a page.
For some, there are financial obligations to families that cannot be avoided. I know personally a question that follows my pursuit of a job is whether it will help me support my family. While that statement may seem a bit extravagant, for many low-income and first generation students, familial ties are a major propellant to excel in college regardless of whether they get along with their families.
Although we are taught to be career-driven, in practice that looks very different from trying to find a job that will hold you over for an extended period of time. There doesn’t seem to be time to worry about doing something you love—it seems selfish, especially if you are not the only mouth you are helping to feed. I’m fortunate that my mother warmed up to my love affair in the multidisciplinary programs, which may not immediately result in an well-paying job, but not everyone has that luxury. Even then, money is still a concern, especially in a large, expensive city like New York.
Some of my friends and I avoid asking or answering questions about post-grad plans. We usually find ourselves instead chatting about the work we are avoiding, sharing cost-effective tips on how to deal with our latest bout of the cold, reminiscing about home, and so on. Whenever one of us manages to be brave enough to ask each other about post-graduate plans, there is a heavy pause. How do we acknowledge that life after Vassar is something that we may have imagined at one point but right now feels as distant as our hometowns, hundreds, if not thousands of miles away? The answers don’t really seem like guarantees of anything.
Are we selling ourselves well enough? What can we sell? We have seen the ways in which structural oppression plays a role in people’s success in the job market. It was only a few months ago that José Zamora’s story garnered attention all over social media after he dropped one letter off his name. After transforming from José Zamora into Joe Zamora on his resume, he received more responses from potential employers. (The Huffington Post, “He Dropped One Letter In His Name While Applying For Jobs, And The Responses Rolled In,” 09.02.14)
So, then, who can sell? His story is just one example of the various thinkpieces produced annually that cover how income disparity is linked to race, class and gender. The job market is hard, sure, but that looks very different for some based on identity.
Nationwide programs similar to Vassar’s own Transitions program have not quite addressed the obstacles first-generation and low-income students face after graduation. Keeping students in college and ensuring a high retention rate all throughout their four years has been the first step. The next step is making sure that students, once away from Vassar’s support networks, remain afloat and swimming in the world.
This is not to negate individual successes of marginalized folks. In fact, it is these individual stories that continue to restore faith in our system as it currently stands. However, these stories are then used to demoralize others who don’t quite make it out here and re-affirm a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. There is something to be said about the doors that open when given access to institutions of higher education and their networks—not to mention the fear that once you graduate, those same doors might just be closed shut right in your face.
I’m not sure yet where I am going, which is probably one of the more uncomfortable truths I’ve had to swallow in recent weeks. I know my obligations are tied to my relationship with my family and my position as the first person in my family to graduate from a highly selective college in the United States—a country my parents fled to in search of economic prosperity. Just as my identity has shaped my circumstances leading up to college and served as a motivator to continue all throughout the last four years, it still plays a crucial part in what I do after Vassar.
—Susie Martinez ’15 is an urban studies major.