What I Wish I Knew As a College Freshman

This past Tuesday I graduated from Ohio University with my bachelor’s degree in psychology. People asked me how it felt, and since “graduating” was marked only by turning in a final homework assignment really all I could say was anti-climatic. Four years gone and my closing thoughts are that the experience was… anti-climatic.

Graduating during the coronavirus pandemic is of course a bizarre time to be entering the workforce or doing anything of significance in your life. But the strangeness of this time isn’t really what I want to focus on, I want to get away from all the pomp and circumstance associated with college graduation and give my honest thoughts on the experience. 

So, incoming college freshmen and graduating high school seniors who are on the fence this post is for you. My real honest opinion about college. Not from people who went to college decades ago when it cost less and wages were higher. But from someone who actually knows what it’s like out there right now, here’s what I wish someone told me when I was in your shoes.

  1. You Don’t Actually Need a Degree

There’s an old statistic floating around that college graduates make a million more dollars in their career than people who don’t get a college degree. Well, that figure is decades old and the value of the dollar is less than it used to be. If you’re from an area where going to college is strongly encouraged you ought to be skeptical about the hype. Yes, a college degree is generally a good investment but like all things in life it depends on what you do with it. If you get a four year art history degree and end up working as a barista you’re probably going to fall financially behind everyone who went to trade school. In short, yes a degree is a good investment most of the time, but that doesn’t mean you can get whatever degree you want and it will just “work itself out” and you absolutely don’t “need” a degree.

  1. Beware the Liberal Arts Degree

Be extremely cautious of majoring in something like psychology, English, history, chemistry, or anything else that doesn’t teach you practical skills without having a strong plan. If you’re going to get a liberal arts degree, make sure to get good  internships and jobs throughout college or are planning to go to graduate school. Because if you’re not going to grad school and you don’t have good internships I guarantee you’re not going to have any marketable skills or anything to talk about in interviews. 

  1. Understand Most Degrees Are Based on an Outdated System

When the majority of current bachelor’s degrees were being designed over a hundred years ago the job market was extremely different. Your degree wasn’t meant to teach you anything practical since it was expected that you’d go through a long training period with your company upon graduation, so the degree was meant to give you broad generalized knowledge. Nowadays, employees tend to change jobs more frequently so company’s aren’t as willing to invest in training. Additionally, work is becoming increasingly specialized so a broad base of knowledge is not as valuable as it once was. You need to actually have some job skills when you sit down for an interview, and the vast majority of those skills are not taught in college classrooms. Only a handful of degrees such as accounting or nursing teach technical job skills, as a result everyone else should be mindful to develop their skills outside of class. 

  1. Your Degree May Not Pay Off Immediately

To illustrate this point I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been applying for dozens of entry level jobs and the majority don’t require my college degree. However, the next level up positions I’d like to be promoted to in the next five years or so often do require degrees, or at least a degree is considered an acceptable substitute for experience in the field. When I entered my degree program I thought it would pay off in four years, but be mindful when planning that you may need to be even more patient with your investment than that.

  1. Be Engaged on Campus

This point is a broader form of the common piece of advice to get involved in clubs. However, I don’t  think it’s necessary for people to join formal clubs or anything like that. I personally  love being in student orgs but what is actually far more important is to make connections with other people. How you accomplish that doesn’t really matter. I made all my friends freshman year at a one off event, I didn’t need to join clubs to meet people (though they certainly are a good way to do so). Additionally, connect with and appreciate the broader community and campus culture. Explore the local businesses, go to open mics, visit museums, or attend community events. Especially if you’ve gone away for college it’s really helpful to learn about the local area and it will help you understand, appreciate, and feel more at home in your surroundings.

  1. Make Sure You Have Your Own Definition of Success

My freshman year of college I thought I knew exactly what I wanted and I carried my overachieving tendencies from high school right to university. So I set a bunch of goals that I swiftly proceeded to accomplish one by one. I had a 3.8 GPA, got the exact job placement I wanted, was accepted into a leadership development scholarship program, completed two leadership certificates, and had two leadership positions in student orgs all by the end of my freshman year. You know what happened next? I realized none of it made me happy or satisfied and the only way I knew how to judge my own success was by conventional external measures that didn’t do anything for me internally. You’ll learn a lot about yourself over the next four years and it’s important to make sure you lean into that, you need to find out what really will make you happy and satisfied. Don’t let the collective influence of parents, teachers, friends, and network cable run your life like I did.

  1. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously or Sweat the Small Stuff

As you’re graduating high school you’re sure to be realizing how little so many of the things you obsessed over actually mattered. Don’t lose sight of that once you get to college. It may sound strange but the specific degree you get or jobs you have aren’t that important as long as you’re learning something. I’ve watched students completely lose their minds over details like what residence hall they’re going to live in. Newsflash, no matter where you wake up in the morning you are still gonna be the same person inside and that applies to pretty much all of the weird details freshmen obsess over. If you’re gonna obsess over anything, don’t make it your room theme, the hall you’re living in, or the sorority you’re rushing. Instead obsess over improving yourself and growing as much as possible instead.

  1. Grades Still Matter

On the flip side of not taking things too seriously, your grades do still matter in college! I remember in high school I was so looking forward to college and not caring about my grades anymore because everyone said it didn’t matter. Well unless you’re completely made of money you should still care about your grades. You won’t be eligible for most scholarships or internships without at least a 3.0 GPA and it isn’t too uncommon for a good opportunity to request a 3.5. While when you graduate your grades won’t be too important in the job search, the internship your good grades got you will be instrumental. Plus, accruing as little debt as possible will give you more financial freedom, flexibility, and possibly allow you to choose job opportunities that pay less but align more with your desires.

Conclusion

I’ve been a bit critical of college in this post and it’s not because I hate it or think people shouldn’t go. It’s just because I feel that people aren’t honest about the realities of what college is actually like and what a degree actually does for you. I absolutely love my school and I can’t wait to be able to visit it again and give it a proper goodbye, but I realized halfway through getting my degree that I had let the dominant culture convince me I “needed” a degree I never actually wanted. Now that being said, I wouldn’t say I completely regret it either, but you’ll probably have to ask me and see where I am in ten years before I’m completely sure. 

Realize that a degree is a great thing to have in most cases. But on the other hand plenty of people live happy, fulfilling lives, without being completely destitute who don’t get four year degrees. There are a lot of other ways to make something of yourself.

What’s truly most important isn’t whether or not you get a degree. What really matters most is that you’re living life according to your own definition of success. Don’t get a degree just because you think you have to, get a degree because it will move you closer to achieving something that you actually want.

Sustainability and Privilege: an Image Problem

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Is a sustainable lifestyle only the pursuit of the privileged?

Let’s talk about it.

First of all, let’s define what we’re talking about when we say a “sustainable lifestyle.” To me, a person living a sustainable lifestyle is anyone putting forth significant effort and thought to do good by the environment.

However, often times I see people online saying they can’t “afford” to be sustainable, usually in the comments of a post in which some sustainability creator is showing all the expensive zero waste swaps they own. That commenter is seeing a small aspect of that creator’s life and making broad assumptions about the sustainable living movement.

I’ve also had similar experiences in person, I’ll tell someone I’m vegetarian for environmental reasons and they’ll make an oddly aggressive comment saying “Well y’know sustainability is a privilege.” To which I usually respond with the fact that meat costs 5-6X more per pound than tofu and other vegetarian protein sources. The other person will then say something about veganism being expensive which is equally confusing to me because I’m not vegan and don’t promote that lifestyle. (No shade to vegans though, really just do what works for you.)

Yet, zero waste swap content and veganism really don’t represent a full picture what sustainable living is.

Let’s analyze what it means to live a sustainable life from the broader perspective of the five tenets of zero waste.

Refuse – Not accepting things you do not need.

Reduce – Not acquiring new items you do not have purpose for. 

Reuse – Turning items you already have into items you need, but do not have. Preference buying second hand.

Recycle – Recycle as much material as possible and preference items that come in recyclable packaging.

Rot – Compost

Nothing in these five tenets encourages you to go out and buy a bunch of new, fancy, expensive zero waste swaps or vegan yogurt substitutes. In fact it’s quite the opposite. When we view the tenets of zero waste away from social media and minimalist, polished aesthetics we are encouraged not to buy anything at all if we can help it. If we need something we’re encouraged to be resourceful and creative and use what we have or buy something second hand.

This difference between how sustainable living is portrayed in social media and what the core values of it really are frustrates me for two main reasons.

First, it discourages people from becoming a part of the movement. As a member of the American middle class, I’m financially privileged from a global perspective. Yet even I felt like there was no possible way for me to “afford” a sustainable lifestyle at first. This was the direct result of learning about how to be more sustainable from influencers online. However, there’s not really any other information source I’ve found that is as easy to get to and goes in as much depth as these influencers do as far as the minutiae of how to live more sustainably. So for better or worse these influencers are the face of the movement to a lot of folks.

Second, this idea that you need “a lot” of money to live a sustainable life gives people an excuse not to try. This may be an issue somewhat unique to the US, but there’s a lot of research that shows Americans are very unlikely to identify themselves as upper class and are reluctant to admit to financial privilege. Even people in the top tenth percentile of wealth are likely to consider themselves middle class, despite obviously being upper class.  Because over 90% of Americans don’t see themselves as upper-class, when sustainability gets the image of being only for the financially privileged over 90% of people just aren’t going to try.

And, as we’ve already discussed, the principles of sustainability aren’t about spending money. It’s about buying as little as possible and saving money.

Now, all this is not to say that there isn’t privilege involved in pursuing a sustainable lifestyle.

When we talk about saving money and cutting back on consumption there’s an inherent implication that there is some excess to cut back on. If you live in poverty and already cannot afford the things you need there’s no way to cut back. Additionally, if you are relying only on the foods you can get for free you don’t have the privilege of being choosey about your diet.

There are also issues that hinge not on socioeconomic privileges, but access more broadly. You may be wealthy but that doesn’t mean you have access to public transit or bulk bins. Maybe you do have access to bulk bins but have allergies and therefore cannot use them without cross contamination concerns. Maybe you’re a teen who lives at home with your parents and they just won’t accommodate the changes you’re interested in making. There is all variety of life situations such as illness, family structure, work, and geographic location that affect each individual’s ability to do, or not to do certain sustainable practices.

However, the conversation is often simplified down to just socioeconomic privilege and sort of implies that it is only the absolute wealthiest people who are privileged enough to live sustainably. Yet that just isn’t the case.

Making the feasibility of a sustainable lifestyle solely about financial privilege is pretty reductive. There are plenty of sustainable changes that can be made for free or for the same cost as their alternatives as well.

It’s also important to expand our ideal of what living a sustainable lifestyle really means. Yes, pursuing the perfect social media airbrushed picture of sustainability full of expensive swaps and farmer’s markets would be costly. But that isn’t all that sustainable living is and we can’t define sustainable living through unattainable zero waste perfection.

To me, it’s more about putting the effort in.

Don’t have access to bulk bins or public transit? Don’t worry, there are still other things you can do to lower your footprint and you don’t need to beat yourself up about things outside your control. And, if for whatever reason your situation really doesn’t allow you to make lifestyle changes you can always engage in activism which has equal and potentially greater value than individual changes.

Even just talking about climate change in everyday conversation is powerful. There’s a lot of misinformation about climate change here in the US where moneyed conservative interests have spent exorbitant amounts over the years to create confusion about it.

I just don’t want this skewed idea that you need tons of money to even try to be sustainable to discourage people. Even if you lack money, access, or time to take part in certain sustainable practices there is always value in doing whatever bit you can and talking about the issues.

So, is there privilege in leading a sustainable lifestyle? Yes, of course. But at least by the standards of a developed nation you by no means need to be rich to do so and there is so much more that goes into it than money alone.

The expensive version of sustainability we are so used to seeing online isn’t reality, it’s a narrow image that’s become the face of a movement that is so much more than that and we have got to expand our view of sustainable living to be more inclusive to all kinds of life situations and get new people on board.

This is a complex topic and I could write about it forever, I of course can’t cover every example and nuanced situation in my post but I’ve done my best to offer a balanced perspective. 

Now I would love to hear from you all in the comments. What are your thoughts on this topic? Is sustainable living only achievable for the wealthy? Do you think social media has distorted the true values of the movement? Let me know below!