Academia is a strong brew, taken without milk or sugar, steeped in tradition, and drunk from ceremonial cups. Its roots extend at least as far back as Plato’s Academy and perhaps as long ago as 2257 BC in China.
We don’t often think of the tradition associated with higher education these days, especially as the institution of academia comes under heavy fire from all quarters, accused of not preparing graduates adequately for the job market, inflicting undue and irreparable amounts of student debt, and just plain not being worth the investment. With that kind of ammunition being levelled at you, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in simply trying to defend your current existence, let alone inspiring an appreciation for something you’ve been upholding for thousands of years.
In other words, tradition doesn’t mean squat to an unemployed graduate with the weight of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt on their shoulders.
I recognize elements of both sides of the great “is university worth it?” debate within myself. I’ve experienced the full spectrum: the initial joy of that initial acceptance letter; the long nights of toil and torment writing papers (that seemed like total BS at the time, but I’ve since learned better) about abstract literary concepts; the crippling self-doubt regarding future prospects upon graduation; the illusion of clarity and satisfaction from discovering something I actually wanted to do with my life; and everything in between.
I invested a lot in my education. Financially, I had two very different experiences. On the one hand, I paid for my undergraduate degree by working throughout the year and especially during the summer. This included taking a semester off near the end of my degree to save money for my final, fifth year. I was quite proud of the fact that I avoided accruing any formal debt throughout my undergraduate degree. Once I was accepted to graduate school, however, I decided to take out government loans to cover the high tuition costs of the private institution I attended (while also working up to four days a week to cover living costs). Now that I’m repaying those loans, I know full well the feeling of suffocation and occasional panic that can occur leading up to the mass exodus of dollars from my bank account at the end of every month, and I’m gainfully employed.
Although money is often the first thing people think of, there are other serious investments students make for higher education. Technically, I’ve been a post-secondary student for eight years. Even if the last one’s been spent mostly working while my uncompleted thesis hangs shamefully over my head, that’s a long time to have to call yourself a student. I’ve made sacrifices in romantic relationships, friendships, and just plain having a social life. I’ve watched people around me make seemingly significant progress in life – marriages, kids, mortgages, starting businesses, great sounding vacations, and all the rest while sitting back and saying to myself, “one day.”
That takes a mental toll, after a while.
Still, I don’t have any regrets. Mistakes, of course, but ones that I’m glad I made. The thing is, I believe that everything I’ve invested in my education has been more than worthwhile – it’s been the best, and most significant, investment I’ve made in my life. I can say that confidently because I am ruthlessly optimistic about my future, and even if I don’t end up with a sky-high salary (I won’t) and a great pension (ha!), I know that without the experiences I had during school, I would be a very different person (and I sort of like who I am).
There are some, including friends of mine, who balk at the traditions of higher education, notably evident in academic ceremonies – the most obvious being convocation. I can understand where they’re coming from – after all, were I more cynical I would probably think the same way. But I’m one of those crazy “glass half full” types, and I went to my convocation and enjoyed it. I liked the regalia. I liked the fact that I was experiencing a rite of passage. I liked the fact that I was doing something that’s been done for longer than I can appropriately quantify. I liked the feeling that an institution that had treated me as a number for so long was, even if only fleetingly, recognizing that I had invested much.
Academia is an old boys’ club. There is much about it that needs to change. But amidst this debate about whether it’s worth it, let’s not forget that there are some things that are worth keeping the same, too.
*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.