This is a guest post by Winson Law, a Junior at Middlebury College. As a first-generation college student, Winson participated in college access programming with Rainier Scholars, enrichment with the School for Ethics in Global Leadership and One World Now, and a gap year with Global Citizen Year. Winson created opportunities with MiddCORE and Thinking Beyond Borders to research why and how to make gap years accessible to first-generation college students.
As a first generation college student from an immigrant, single-parent, and multi-generational household, I believe that the value of an education goes beyond how wealthy it can make me. An education is a way to explore important questions, increase access to career opportunities, and pursue a meaningful life. However, we live in a society that creates separate definitions and pathways to the “good life” based on privilege and class. Privileged students are encouraged to earn money through fulfilling lives, while non-materially privileged students are told to get an education in order to make a living. This message prevents many first-generation students from leading meaningful lives due to pressures to earn a high salary.
What is the value of education?
A common encouragement I hear from my grandparents and their elderly friends is, “study hard and do well.” The goal of this implies that an education is a means to prosperity and, in turn, happiness. I believe a similar narrative is playing out in many underserved and immigrant communities. There’s a pressure to “make it” in the United States and to bring your own family to riches. In order to do that, a college education is touted as the pathway to a better life for the student and family. Going to college and getting a degree is preparation and credentialization for a well-paying career. While there’s no doubt that an education can help people lead better lives, the problem with these assumptions is that a high salary does not necessarily lead to this life. What, then, does a better life mean and how might we support students in getting there? In particular, what does it mean that privileged students are told they can earn money and lead a fulfilling life while non-materially privileged students are just encouraged to graduate from college and make a living?
These assumptions and questions are made real to me in the experiences of my cousin Kevin. A couple summers ago, as my cousin entered his last year of college, I asked him (also a first-generation college student) what he wanted to do after graduating.
“Well, I’m going to pharm school,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s pragmatic. I’ll go to school for another four years, work for eight hours, and not have to worry about bills or anything.”
This sounded like a defeat rather than excitement for the next part of his life.
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Well, it’s good money,” he said, not answering my question.
When he was in high school, my cousin excelled in chemistry and considered becoming a science teacher. So, what led Kevin to approach his career without any hope of fulfillment other than the money it afforded him? While I understand the necessity for money and a comfortable living, dismissing our true interests makes it difficult or impossible to lead fulfilling lives. Furthermore, it’s unfair and inefficient when people are told to dismiss their own interests in order to command a higher salary.
Kevin’s thinking around the pragmatism of a pharmaceutical career reflects the limiting values of our family. Pragmatism to him means being able to work eight hours a day, go home, and not have to worry about money. This attitude about life is probably grounded in watching his father work long hours at his decoration store and his mother work at the post office early each morning. Being a pharmacist is a way that he can avoid the struggles of his parents. The path, while arduous, is clear: study hard for several years and then be rewarded with a higher salary at the end. What my cousin values, understandably, is a life free of the struggles that our family faced since they’ve arrived in the United States. Who wouldn’t want that?
But what if there’s more to life than money?
Wouldn’t it be great if he could live his pragmatic life and be able to spend eight hours a day doing something he loves? While I, too, strive to lead a comfortable life in which I don’t have to worry about basic necessities and am able to afford some luxuries, I want my career to be fulfilling. I recognize that since a third of my life will be spent at work, then it should also be purposeful and enjoyable.
Education is a pathway to a type of fulfillment and happiness that money cannot buy. In learning about ourselves and the world, people can discover an intrinsic interest or direction. Through this knowledge, education becomes a way to develop the skills necessary to chart one’s direction in life. Some family members and peers in my college success program scoff at me for believing in lofty ideals about the purpose of college and career. I believe that leading a fulfilling life based on my own interests and values is a representation of the freedom that brought my family to the United States.
Education, Lifework, and Freedom
When society tells low income people they can only find fulfillment in a higher salary, it seems contrary to the meaning of the freedom that immigrants arrived on these shores to pursue. If my family came here for freedom, it is counterproductive to limit our own choices in life. I understand that there are limits to this freedom, but it’s not about defined pathways.
Perhaps, in the minds of my family members, freedom means escaping the worry and stress caused by money. I share this belief, but I don’t buy that we need to abandon hope of a fulfilling career in order to be free from worry. While there’s evidence to suggest that while money can buy happiness, wealth doesn’t buy a meaningful, fulfilling life. I don’t envision myself working just to live. I see my work as an integral and important part of my life. This is all easier said than done. I am, afterall, my mother’s retirement plan. At what point do I need to sacrifice my own values and lofty career aspirations in order to make ends meet and support my family? Is that what my cousin is actually trying to do? Is it possible to both attain fulfillment in one’s lifework while also supporting others? Instead of narrowly encouraging students to pursue wealth, our communities should at least encourage students to strive to find the balance between financial responsibilities and the pursuit of professional fulfillment.