An open letter to graduating students

This is a scary time and I am scared for you.

You have worked so hard, for so many years, to pursue an education that would allow you to live the life of your dreams. Maybe you dreamed of a professional career: to be a lawyer, a nurse, a professor, a city planner, a scientist, a writer. Maybe you dreamed of secure employment: to have the financial security to provide for your loved ones, pursue your passions, spend time with your family and your friends, be an activist.

The costs you paid in pursuit of these dreams may have been high. Many of you took on debt to pursue your educations. Many of you left your families and friends behind. For many of you, the conditions you lived in during your education triggered depression, anxiety, addiction, or any number of physical and mental ailments.

Some of you did this while raising children. While managing disabilities. While caring for family members. While providing financial support for loved ones. Many of you have other people who are counting on you to succeed.

Three years ago, I graduated from my PhD and I started looking for jobs in my chosen field. I did not know that I would be pursuing a career in a job market that had completely crashed. Some jobs I applied for had four hundred other applicants. I was extremely qualified. So were they.

We still don’t know what the consequences of this pandemic will be, but it looks like at least for the next few years, most professions are going to be like my profession. It looks like there are going to be a lot of qualified people looking for jobs and very few jobs to be had. It looks like those jobs will be unevenly distributed, and the people with the most privilege will get through this with the fewest costs.

Many of you will have to scramble, and sacrifice, and make do. Many of you will have to let go of the plans you had for yourself and your future. Many of you will be unable to fulfill the expectations of your families. Many of you will fear for yourselves and for the people who are depending on you. Many of you will face this while dealing with illness, and tragedy, and loss.

It is wildly unfair and you should feel angry and betrayed. I do.

It is hard to keep writing beyond anger and betrayal. I want to stop there and sit with your fury. Who am I to offer comfort in the face of all that?

But I also know that we often keep silent in the face of big disappointments and big fears. And I know that, as we say on twitter, sometimes there are things that you need to hear. So here are some things that have mattered to me.

First, I want to say that it’s okay if you decide that you cannot do this work anymore. It’s okay if you stop working on your dissertation or your coursework, for now or forever. It’s ok if you abandon your research. If you spend your time delivering food to people in quarantine. Making phone calls to strangers in isolation. Volunteering with organizations that are raising resources for vulnerable populations. Arranging video calls with your loved ones. Educating your children. You have the power to choose, even now, even during a pandemic, where your values lie.

[Here’s a link to a group coordinating volunteer opportunities for DC]

The second thing I want to say is that even in this time of crisis, your voice matters. Your work matters. You may be feeling like the things you are doing are pointless right now. Imagine writing about literature, or art history, or archaeology while the world is ending! I get that. Look at me, abandoning my research to write this letter to you.

But you know what? Your work does matter because you matter. I know this sounds like a cliche but I want you to sit with it. What if you believed that your life, your story, your passions, and your labor were as vital to our community as any other? What if you believed that we needed you?

If there is hope for a future on the far side of this pandemic, it lies in our ability to move forward collectively through tragedy and travesty and betrayal. For those of us raised to believe in our own exceptionalism, it can be hard to accept that most of us are little more than cogs in the great social machine.

Do you know what a cog is? One of my first jobs was working in a factory, making cogs on a hobbing machine. The thing about cogs is that they require incredible care and precision to make. Because a well-made cog ensures that machines run smoothly.

And a mislaid cog can take the whole thing down.

What I’m trying to say is: through your work, as small as it may feel, you have the ability to participate in the process of tearing down the systems that are broken. And through your work, you have the potential to help build something new.

Do not let disaster take that away from you.

A close-up of a hobbing machine making gears
A hobbing machine making gears.

digital | humanist

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