By Amie Miller
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can speak for myself. I find myself frustrated at any large family gathering–mostly around the holidays–about the same thing. There is always a comparison to the cousins and to each other. It is no one’s fault, but it isn’t like I have a choice.
I have degree in English. I have debt. I have the skills. I have no job. I am educated and poor.
In comparison to my cousins, I had a rougher start in school. I didn’t go to the best district and was pretty stressed out all the time from keeping up with organizations that would look great on scholarship applications and working at the Methodist summer camp. Did I mention we had a farm? That was a whole other load of stress and time management. Insomnia and anxiety were two people I knew quite well before I had a clue what Adderall was.
I got some scholarships and my FAFSA was processed correctly, but I knew I was going to have loans no matter what school I went to and no matter the degree I pursued. It wasn’t like my family didn’t work hard to save up for four kids to go to college, but crap hits the fan and money is needed to clean up that crap. Even with the grants, non-renewable scholarships, and Stafford loans, I was six grand short freshmen and sophomore year. Thanks to AP credits in high school my class standing was almost a year ahead, so I got more aid that way. My parents couldn’t help me pay for school; I had to figure out how to pay for books, supplies, living expenses, food, gas, insurances, and internet on my own. I got roommates and lived the in cheapest places possible.
I did what I was told to do: I worked my way through college. I worked at Wal-Mart at night (and during the day depending on the class schedule). After a year of dealing with that shit, I worked next door at a smaller chain grocery store. It barely kept me alive. I started each semester with two grand and hoped I’d be able to make it with the very little income I made during the week. After watching every penny, I somehow managed to keep $25 to my name at the end of the semester. I graduated with $32 in my checking account, no savings, and $28k in debt.
So why don’t I have a job? I got decent grades considering I was working my ass off and made a lot of sacrifices to those collegiate milestones that everyone remembers (if they were sober). I couldn’t sacrifice work. I worked to live on minimum wage.
Here is why I think internships should never be unpaid: unless you are earning college credit, no one can possibly work full-time and go to school for nothing. I envied my fellow students, some of them my friends, who had financial backing from their families and could work for free. They already had jobs out of college or their graduate school taken care of. When I graduated, I was working two part-time retail jobs; I couldn’t afford to work an internship even if I wanted to. I needed to pay rent. I needed to have gas in my car to go to work and school. I couldn’t get experience to get an entry-level job. I was being trolled.
So I went to apply for welfare, like someone told me to. I hated being in that office. There is something so demoralizing about having to admit you are so desperate you need help even though you have a college degree. I tried to rationalize it by saying after I got the internship and finished, I could get a job and get out of the system. That is what the system was designed to do.
I was a little angry when I was told I wasn’t eligible. I didn’t bother to contest the state, though. That meant time, and time meant money.
I networked what I could, like I was told, though there wasn’t much to network. I applied through career services. I had experience, they told me, but it wasn’t “professional experience.” What. The. Hell. The troll returned to kick me while I was down.
I had a six month grace period after graduation before I had to pay my student loans. Interest accrues, but I accepted it and tried to work as much as I could at both my jobs, hating myself and sinking into a mindset that resented politics, religion, and most of all my successful relatives. When I found out my monthly payment for the ten-year repayment plan, I felt claustrophobic, so I did what was suggested and applied for the income-based repayment plan. I like to think of it as the welfare of repayment plans.
Here is the thing about welfare: it is there to help. I always understood that the system was in place to help those on it get back on their feet. It was a temporary fix for a temporary situation. I am still determined to find that big job, but until then I have to be realistic. For once, I qualified for something.
So here I am now. I am still working two jobs and I still have that piece of paper framed on my wall. I have three resume templates highlighting the grit of my work and skills experience. I am at least having interviews, which is enough for me to celebrate. I pay my bills on time and save what little I can, but the help I get paying my loans back, a whopping $125/month, is allowing me to afford the job hunt. Job hunting is expensive. I lucked out on finding various parts of a business suit for less than fifty bucks. I found secondhand portfolio folders at a garage sale for fifty cents! It’s the gas, parking, and time that gets you. Temp jobs are like Russian roulette, and I am too scared to play that game. Grad school is something for which I can’t invest in more debt. For now, I am safe. Tired, but safe.
This is where I get angry, though: my extended family members resented me for even applying for welfare. My parents felt bad, but they knew how desperate I was. I couldn’t move back home–that was a matter of pride for me. So I did what I had to. The second they found out my method of student loan repayment, the conversation turned to how their taxes will have to pay for my education, how they are paying for all these people doing what I am doing now, and have nothing left to show for it. I was patronized and demoralized every holiday. I have so many things to say to them about it.
First of all, how dare you? You told me that I should go to college and get a job. You told me to get a job and work through school. You told me to work hard, to make some sacrifices. I did everything you told me to, and now you are angry about your tax dollars. Hey, I pay taxes too. I know what it is like, and I will be just fine paying them until I die. Yes, there are people who abuse the systems, but their reasons, I am sure, are more complicated than mine.
Second, I don’t care that my cousin works for some big company and has her life together. I don’t care about how much college was for you back in the stone age. I don’t care that you think I should be doing A instead of B. I don’t care if you think I shouldn’t be so bitter and that I should just look on the bright side. Life for me wasn’t always easy, and it never will be.
Third, I think you need to realize, you debt free unicorns, that you had it easy. I am allowed to be resentful of the rich and not to trust any politicians on the issues of poverty. I have seen some pretty awful things working in the land of minimum wage. There are some sick lessons about feminism, financial responsibility, race, and human rights.
If there is one consistent thing between the poor and the college-educated poor, it is that both groups have dealt with some serious crap. I have seen the rich frat boy kick a girl when she is down, working at Wal-Mart. We see people with superiority complexes treat us like dirt equally. It changes how you view the world. It’s a crappy place, to be honest. You see the discrimination too, and you deal with it because it means the difference between money and no money. I know my own behavior right now is something my parents frown upon, but when you have been stripped to nothing, it doesn’t matter. I am allowed to be bitter, to be crass, to have no shame. I can’t afford anything else.5