Friday, September 18, 2015

Being "independent"

In the course of meeting with my students this semester, I'm also learning a lot about their lives outside of the classroom. This isn't because I ask--I chat about their classes, their academic interests, their career ambitions--but it tends to come up: a student's job, a student's second job, how their finances affected their choice of college.

And I'm reminded of one of the students from my Italian class two years ago; we were often partnered, and became friendsly. She was twenty years old and working thirty hours a week while also a full-time student. She had a scholarship that covered about half of her tuition, but she paid everything else herself, from registration fees to textbooks to car insurance.

She lived at home, though, and only contributed toward groceries and utilities. She kept talking about how embarrassing this was, and how she had to move out and start being more independent.

"I don't know," I said, thinking about all the twenty-year-olds who go to private colleges and live on campus while their parents pay tuition, room and board (and sometimes other expenses, long past college). "You sound pretty independent to me!"

She shook her head. "Until last month I was still on their cell-phone plan. At twenty years old! GOD."

I don't know what her relationship with her parents was like, and she may indeed have needed more psychological separation than she had. But it strikes me that while the economic and educational elite may talk about raising independent children, they don't mean it quite so literally.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I think students often think of independence as living outside the home. That's obviously a part of it, but it's not the only part. She sounds like she is very independent compared to most of my students (and even to me at that age...).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This sounds like my story (well, except the cell phone plan -- I'm too old for that). And my family was *very* supportive. It's just a totally different set of expectations, and one that an unseen but large portion of college students take for granted.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I, too, see this contrast as I move between church (highly-educated community in expensive inner suburb; I'm still a member, though I now live c. 1/2 hour away, because I grew up there) and work (2nd-tier state school in a slightly-farther-out suburb, drawing mostly from even farther-out suburbs, plus a couple of nearby urban areas with significant minority populations). There are some ways in which the college-aged members of the church are very privileged (significant financial support from parents, the ability to take unpaid internships, foreign trips, etc.), but there are other ways in which they don't measure up so well against the many first-generation (college and/or American) students in my classes: they're less likely to have extensive workplace experience (including supervisory experience, even if we're talking mostly retail/service sector); they have less experience juggling multiple responsibilities/demands on their time (though my students generally have too many demands on their time; many would get more out of school if they had more time to spend on it); they've never really had to budget, etc., etc. Sometimes even the professors at my institution don't recognize the gap between their own kids and the similar-age students they teach; I heard a faculty member say yesterday, "everyone on this campus at least has a smartphone." In fact, I've taught students who don't, because they realize that they can't commit themselves to the monthly cost (actually there are ways around that, as I realized when I finally made the smartphone switch myself, but some of my students probably can't afford even the relatively-cheap-for-me approach I'm using). And people at church (understandably) fret about their kids' inability to find that first job out of college, not realizing that part of the issue is that their kids are trying to compete, on the basis of a series of unpaid internships, with recent graduates with much firmer footholds in the work world (in part because my institution is pretty good at identifying paid internships, and because most of our students, for better or for worse, have to work during the school year anyway, many of our students are holding down some version of an entry-level job in their field *before* they graduate. Or they just keep the retail/service job they've been doing for a while, perhaps upping the hours still more, while they hunt for something in their field. It's not easy, but it does give them a foothold in the work world that more privileged students with more compartmentalized work experiences don't have).

Part of the issue, I think, is that the concern for independence comes later in the more privileged families; although I'm sure it's there earlier, I rarely hear it spoken aloud until somewhere near senior year in college, at which point it quite rapidly becomes an urgent concern. If it comes up earlier, it's usually in connection to the choice of a major (which is, of course, a whole 'nother conversation; though I think this conversation might be one thing more- and less-privileged families have in common, with less-privileged students feeling more pressure to choose a major that they perceive as leading to a good job. Oddly, given what I've written above, those students might actually be in a better position to parlay skills they've developed in various venues into a rewarding but not obvious career. That would be more feasible, however, if they had fewer student loans to pay off.)

Flavia said...

Yes (to all)--there are different kinds of independence, and it's possible for students who are still (fully or partly) financially dependent on their parents to be pretty emotionally and psychologically independent; part of the argument for sending kids away to college (or having them live on campus even if their parents live in the next town over) is their "independence."

But I'm interested in how slippery that word is, and how it's more frequently used by economic/educational elites for psychological independence, rather than financial. I'm not criticizing that, exactly, because up to a point it is easier to cultivate an independent intellectual, emotional, and professional identity when you're not worried about making rent (or caring for a young child, or getting a job the second you graduate, or whatever other burdens those without a familial financial cushion may have).

But as Cassandra says, there are disadvantages, too, and students who have always worked know they can get jobs, and may be less put off by the prospect of working an unimpressive one than those who haven't had to deal much with hard financial realities. And there's also a lot of embarrassment among twentysomethings whose lives are subsidized by their parents, or at least that was my experience--I didn't realize until much, much later in life just how many of the people I knew from ages 22-30 were getting money from their parents, because almost no one admitted to it. Maybe some didn't care or felt entitled to it. But occasionally I would hear people admit to a lot of shame, and a real sense of failure.

That's certainly not as bad as literally not being able to pay rent--but it's not a recipe for happiness, or a sense of independence, either.

Nicoleandmaggie said...

I think also the definition of a child may be different. 20 is still a dependent child in my book unless said kid has started a full time career (or possibly married someone with a full time career, but that is pretty squicky to think about with regards to my kids. Not so much DH's extended family.)