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Ugh, Mom, you just don’t understand me
You know how, sometimes, when you’re talking to your parents, it feels like you aren’t even talking about the same thing? Well, chalk some of that up to teenage angst or the generational gap or millennial lingo (ugh, did I just say “millennial lingo”?), but in certain cases, you might be onto something.
Take a conversation about college majors. My mom was the first person to tell me that what you major in in college really doesn’t matter, that no one really works in the field they majored in. This refrain has filled my head for years, and it always sort of made sense to me. I never questioned it.
I mean, how many people could be lucky enough to land a job in their chosen field? I kept regurgitating other people’s words in my own head, loose-leaf phrases like “the job market” and “work experience” that seemed like enough evidence to support the idea that college isn’t about following your dreams.
My mom is the perfect example. She was a French major in college with a biology minor. Never mind that the biological sciences have advanced a lot since she was in school — I don’t think she’s even touched the subject since then, in labor or leisure.
She was a stay-at-home mom for the first eighteen years of my life. The stay-at-home mom who told me everything I knew about college for most of those years. The stay-at-home mom who’d considered two colleges — one in her home state, and one a state over — and picked the tiny, conservative liberal arts one in mid-Michigan.
Then around the time I graduated high school, she became a real estate agent. She was really passionate about it for a while, but she still had six kids in school behind me, and after a while she thought that her calling might be something else. Right now she’s training to be a life coach.
Talking to my mom about her college experience, though, really brought to light all the changes — at least the ones immediately apparent to me — that the experience has gone through over the years.
College meant something completely different to my mom when she was in college than it does to me now. Now it’s a stepping-stone to a career, it’s a stop on the road to success; to my mother it seems to have been a pit stop on a much less urgent journey.
Values and motivations
I think one of the biggest differences between then and now is the value that both culture and individual students place on the college experience, and what students are expected to get out of it.
Now,students travel from all over the country and the world to get great educations in America and the opportunity to work toward their own success and bring pride, and more importantly, money, to their families. College isn’t the achievement — it’s the challenge.
I don’t even know where the achievement is. It isn’t graduating, and it isn’t the entry-level job you’ll get after you go to college. At this point, for a lot of people, “achievement” lies in hindsight, from a point far in the future. People want to be able to say they “have had” a “career”. Everything has to add up just right.
But the way my parents talked about college, it wasn’t part of a stack of achievements whose height would eventually be measured. College was one of many scattered experiences, some building off of each other and others standing alone. It wasn’t an important link in a chain — not as a rule, anyway.
Now, though, college is a big deal not because of what it is, but because of what comes after it. How you use your time and resources in college can determine a lot about your life, and the pressure to go to college at all, and then to become employed, is much higher now.
I’d feel silly if I majored in a foreign language just because I was passionate about it and not as a launchpad into some kind of international relations career. But my mom never felt silly for her degree.
The physical process
Let’s not forget that when our parents were applying to school, they didn’t have the online Common App. The Common App still existed, but it was nowhere near its present form. For one thing, there was no internet when most of our parents were applying to college.
At first, I thought, “Oh, that must have sucked — they had to write their applications by hand.” But then I stopped to think about just how much I used the internet during the college application process.
The spreadsheet I used to determine my college choices? Google Docs. The data I filled that spreadsheet with? Procured in seconds with a few quick keystrokes. How far away is this school? What’s their average ACT score? What’s their acceptance rate? How many students do they have?
I honestly have no idea how my parents would have gotten that information — I certainly am not patient enough now to wait for however long it would have taken. It’s mind-blowing to me how different not only presenting yourself to colleges was from the way it is now, but how different gathering information on colleges was as well.
I touched on this earlier when I was talking about values and motivations, because those are forms of good pressure. Good pressure drives you to do what you want to do, what you’re best at, and sometimes, what you can make a living doing.
The concept of a living was much different back then, though. Even as recently as the previous generation, my mom talks about how many women didn’t need or expect to have “careers” — they might work, but they probably wouldn’t be climbing any corporate ladders if they didn’t have to.
Of course, this wasn’t the case for everyone, but compared to today — when women are pushing to carve a niche in STEM fields and are less likely to just stay home and raise children — the dynamic was much different. The wider your options, the heavier your pressures.
And there is pressure on everyone, not just those in certain historically stringent social roles. We’re retiring later and later, and as technology advances, our job prospects change. The world is a fast-moving place, and now, college is the only way to keep up.
It wasn’t always this way. You could keep up with the winds of change if you were smart and worked hard. But the pace is quickening, and nowhere is that more evident than on college campuses, between the jostling shoulders of blazer-clad career fairgoers and the early morning hours of an all-nighter.
Or maybe there’s a place where it’s more evident still: the sanded-to-perfection applications of college student hopefuls who are ready to take on the world, if only they can get out into it.
If you’re feeling stressed, as a college student or a college applicant — don’t worry. There’s space out there for you. There is a niche waiting for you, and at school you’ll be given tools your parents couldn’t have dreamed of.
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