David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
I Find This Scenario Quite Disturbing

January 22, 2014: "I Find This Scenario Quite Disturbing"

How do you find yourself these days?

The answer is not, “look in the mirror."

Apparently, it is also not “go to college.”

With student debt increasing so much and dominating national headlines and legislative agendas, with 8th grade teachers asking students to research their career goals, and with the “undecided” major the scarlet letter of higher education (just think how doubly meaningful the “U” would be on a student’s shirt, triply meaningful if the scarlet “U” is found at Indiana, Ohio State, Nebraska, St. John’s, Ball State or any other of a kabillion colleges where red is one of the school colors), we live now in a culture that demands straight career pathways from age 13 to death.

When I first went to college, I wanted to be a marine biologist.  I had gone to summer camps my last two summers in high school and was fascinated by the field (or maybe the marsh).  It took me about 3 college semesters to realize that I didn’t have the capacity (I refuse to clarify if I mean intellectual ability or work ethic) to succeed in the biology and, especially, the chemistry courses required for that career path.  Give me another semester to wander the halls as an "undecided major" at West Virginia University, picking up general education credits, and eventually by my junior year I realized that an English major would be a pathway for me.  I hesitate to say “career” pathway, because even then I am not sure I saw how I would make it my career.

Luckily, education at West Virginia University was very reasonable for in-state students in the 1980’s and between my parents and my part-time job at Lowe’s, I was able to afford the Master’s program in English at WVU, where suddenly I found myself (apparently where I always stood, at the intersection of literature, history, popular culture and sociology). 

(By the way, in answer to the initial question of this blog: one way to find yourself is to stare at a disgusting commode in a Lowe’s as your manager yells, “Give that bathroom 5 minutes of your good time, Fleming.”  You'll find career aspirations very quickly.)

I say all this because I am not sure my career arc (and this assumes it all worked out o.k. in the I will let others be the judge of that) is that attainable anymore.  Let’s retrace what my steps would be if I were my son, Lincoln, aged 14, right now.

In eighth grade, well before I would have had the marine biology camp experiences on the beautiful Chesapeake Bay, I would have been asked to explore my career interest.  I have no idea what I would have listed at that time.  Writing is unlikely, although I was on the Suncrest Junior High School newspaper, so maybe I would have chosen journalism.  I am sure I wouldn’t have chosen Marine Biologist or English Faculty member or College Vice President.  When asked to survey my father about my career interests, as Lincoln had to do, I am sure my dad would have responded exactly as I did for Lincoln:  “it’s too early to worry about that yet.  Try everything, find what you like. “  (I can only imagine Lincoln's school administrators were not too happy to hear the Vice President of Instruction at their local college responding to his son like that.)

The cost of college, even for in-state students at state universities, has risen so much that my career change in the middle of my sophomore year may have forced me to re-consider changing my major.

I went online to review the current curricula at WVU. Let’s say I did start as a Biology major in 2014.  As far as I can tell, if I decided to switch majors after the fall of my Sophomore year, I would only be able to carry 21 credits from my Biology suggested plan of study to my English suggested plan of study.  Perhaps up to 30 credits would have been heavily in the sciences and math and not applicable to the English. In my case, I am choosing between two degrees in the same school; god forbid, a kid change from an English major to a nursing major.

Meanwhile, if, like Ohio Northern University now does, and which SMC is considering, I was required to meet with a financial aid representative, I would have been confronted with a sad reality: the additional financial aid burden/debt of 30 more credit hours.  And this supposes that I have enough financial aid eligibility to cover those additional 30 credits.  Otherwise I might need to take off a year from college and give those toilets a lot more than 5 minutes of my good time to afford my education. 

Even beyond the cost, I probably would have been discouraged from declaring myself undecided for another semester while I came to a decision.  If I had the foresight to see English as my true love, any number of people would have tried to stop me from declaring English as a major.  Certainly when I tell folks in education that Lincoln might become a history teacher, the gasp is audible.  And there is certainly validity:  the jobs are scarce, the pay is not great, and the respect is often non-existent.  Sure, no one is going to hold a gun to our heads and say, "you can’t declare that major," but the pressure will be intense.

We have cut off true intellectual and career exploration in education.  Simply put, most universities and colleges can’t afford to let students explore in the way that I did.  At SMC, we are leaning toward financial aid consultations for major changers, because ethically it is the right thing to do, since students are so clueless about financial aid and their long-term debt; but also because the government is going to withhold funding to institutions who have a large number of loan defaults, the result, frequently, of students not completing a degree and running up a large amount of debt that they can’t even pay back.  I hate that we have to take these measures, but this is the new reality.

So, how do I find myself these days?

Two answers:

following my arm to my finger scratching my greying head; or,

looking in the bottom of my glass.