"So, what are you going to do with your life?"
Ten words that will make any recent college grad cringe:
I've heard that phrase plenty of times over the past few months. As a double-major in Archaeological Studies and Ancient Greek, I've also had more than enough of that question's evil twin: "So, what are you going to do with that degree?" For those of you who are curious about what a liberal arts student does after Oberlin, I have some bad news and some good news.
The bad news is, it turns out that applying for your first job after college can be a pretty miserable experience. I was aware from the start that finding a job would be harder than applying to college, but I didn't really think about how much harder it is, and why. There is no Princeton Review's Best 400 Employers, with comprehensive descriptions of each workplace and statistics about applicant success. There are no admissions offices with charming, witty tour guides1 and eager, informed staff. There is not a Common App or a universal response date that allows you to weigh the best environments and benefits packages before committing. There is much less guidance, much more uncertainty, and much more risk.2
And of course, in 2012, no one's got anything good to say about the job market. It seems like just about the only people with secure jobs are the statisticians churning out dread-inducing figures about long-term unemployment, college grads moving back home, and the futility of even a graduate degree. When I realized it was time to start planning for life after college, it was hard not to feel that I was automatically screwed simply by virtue of graduating in 2012.
The good news is, this is not another bleak story about how an overeducated, underexperienced Classics major learned to flip burgers. Instead, I bring tidings of hope: yes, it is possible to graduate from Oberlin with one of those much-maligned liberal arts degrees and have a future!
What do I want to be when I grow up?
As I mentioned in my post about honors, I came into college set on studying classical archaeology. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: go straight to grad school, get my Ph.D., and become a professor. I also knew exactly how to get there: I got good grades, found an amazing faculty mentor, spent my summers in the field, found a research project and developed it into an honors topic... Midway through my junior year I was situated pretty well for a career in academia.
I was also starting to question whether I actually wanted that career in academia. I loved doing fieldwork, tutoring students in Greek, and trawling for obscure articles on JSTOR. I also couldn't see myself doing these things every day for the rest of my life. There were issues that I felt drawn to that I wasn't able to address as a classical archaeologist: dismantling stigma around sexuality; advocating for LGBT people; fighting politicized restrictions on sexual health services; improving access to frank and compassionate health care; working to right the injustices that create and perpetuate health disparities.
Part of what had drawn me to Oberlin was the school's reputation for sex-positivity and inclusivity, thoughtful activism and commitment to social justice in all spheres. But as I spent more time memorizing verb parts and analyzing ceramic thin sections, I was less and less able to engage with the political and social issues that meant so much to me. That was troubling.
The turning point came in the spring of my junior year, when - on top of an already-absurd course load - I decided to take SExCo II, an ExCo offered by Oberlin's peer-run Sexual Information Center. For two hours every week we met to talk about everything from abortion access (constantly under threat in Ohio) to polyamory. I found myself procrastinating on my other coursework to watch documentaries about sexualized violence, memorize facts about STIs and birth control methods, and read the archives of blogs about BDSM and consent.
Most exciting and challenging by far were role-plays, in which I met weekly with another SExCo student and two SIC staffers to go over counseling skills and act out scenarios. (For example: A comes into the SIC for counseling. They just started dating B, but B's ex told A that B was recently diagnosed with herpes. A is nervous about having sex with B and upset that B did not disclose their status. Potential issues to discuss: partner communication and trust; navigating conversations about sexual history and safer sex; facts, myths, and stigma about STIs; herpes treatment, transmission, and prevention.)
I had imagined that during the fall of my senior year I'd be finishing my thesis, writing personal statements, and soliciting recommendations for grad school apps. Instead, I got distracted. Sunday and Monday afternoons I was in the SIC restocking condoms,3 providing support about everything from emergency contraception to emotional break-ups, and reworking the syllabus for SExCo II, which I was applying to teach in the spring. Wednesday and Thursday nights found me in the HIV Peer Testing office, explaining high-risk and low-risk activities and giving anxious students their test results. Starting in the spring, I would begin to volunteer weekly at an abortion clinic in Cleveland:4 escorting patients and their charts through the clinic, answering questions from caretakers, and sitting in on counseling sessions and medical procedures with amazingly compassionate and committed staff.
A year earlier, I would have been terrified at the thought of supporting someone who was convinced that they were going to test positive for HIV, or sitting down for tea with a friend who was weighing options for an unplanned pregnancy. The support of many peers and a few stellar faculty at Oberlin gave me the guts to tackle something completely new and nervewracking, and I was surprised to find that instead of totally bombing, I loved it. The Greek that I was translating was beautiful, and my archaeology thesis made my head spin (in good ways) - but I had stumbled on something that I found much more challenging and meaningful.
All of this was going on in the background as I wondered what the heck I was going to do with my life after Oberlin.
1 Disclaimer: I worked as a tour guide at Oberlin.
2 I'm told that there are industries where job recruiting actually does work something like this, but that's not where I was job-searching - nor, I suspect, were most of my classmates.
3 Most students know the SIC as the place to go for ridiculously cheap safer-sex supplies. Shameless plug: we stock more than 30 types of condoms, plus gloves, finger cots, dental dams, spermicide, sponges, lube... and notebooks where students can write reviews of products they've tried. (Last semester one of my Bio 102 classmates, who also works at the SIC, made an awesome phylogenetic tree of condom similarities.)
4 Specifically, I volunteered at Preterm through Health Careers Practicum, a course that places possibly-pre-med students with local health practitioners to better understand what we're getting ourselves into. Students in the course choose and arrange their own placements; while Preterm was an unconventional choice in some ways - most students in the practicum don't walk past protesters on their way into work, or worry that a constitutional amendment will shut down their clinic - I'm far from the first Oberlin student to volunteer there.