Words of Wisdom from a High School Valedictorian

As I mentioned in my last post, this week I’m spending time in good ole San Antonio, Texas to celebrate my sister’s astonishingly successful graduation from high school. By that I’m referring, of course, to her reign as valedictorian. Well, it so happens that in addition to being intelligent in the conventional sense, my sister is a realist as well. I absolutely loved her graduation speech, and was proud that she had the bravery to deliver it. It was so good, in fact, that I asked her if I could post it here on my blog. She graciously agreed.

Empty seats

“Good afternoon students, parents, teachers, and members of the school board. Honestly, I don’t know what I should say to all of you. My friends have pulled for biting sarcasm, my parents stressed the importance of saying something profound, and school officials have warned me that I need to be inclusive (whatever that means), professional, and yet still maintain a “sense of self” while not boring you all to tears. So, basically a simple enough task. My plans for this speech have corresponded to moments of incredible happiness, when all I wanted to do was get up here and tearfully shout that I loved you all, to periods of biting disappointment when I questioned if it was worth it and if it really would have just been better for me to jump on a cruise ship and casually miss my own graduation. In the end, though, all that I really know is that I’m not qualified to be doling out advice because I don’t even know what my plans are. So instead, I thought I’d just make a promise to all of you – all 743 of you – that everything is going to be ok.

We’re sitting here celebrating an end. What most of you see is the end of four years of occasional classwork, forced socialization, great friends, and parents who still do our laundry. But I think we should be celebrating something else entirely, something that, if we can recognize it, will actually guarantee that we’ll all be ok. For me, that means to stop measuring my self-worth through the grades I receive. It was grades for me. It might be something else for you. Whatever the case, we have a chance to stop trying to be perfect, to be cool, to fit in, because those standards of self-worth will fall away—if we let them.

I am standing here and I am telling you that I do not believe I am the smartest person here. In fact, I almost believe that the fact that I get to talk to you is proof enough of that statement because no one should want to go through what I’ve been through these past four years. We have been taught that “if you don’t work hard enough, you won’t get into college.” Guess what? College isn’t that great. College means that we’ll graduate with an average of over $30, 000 in debt and no guarantee of a job because we won’t be qualified for anything. College means that unless you major in engineering or computer science, your next step is not the Peace Corps, or self-exploration, or a cross-country motorcycle journey but rather a graduate program with a hefty price tag or under- or flat-out unemployment. And I’m asking you what I asked myself last summer when I considered leaving it all behind and going to Europe for a year: is it worth it?

I’ll confess something to you. I’m not excited about college. The carrot that has been dangled in front of me my whole life isn’t nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be once I finally got it. Some of you may disagree; you may feel like college will make all the difference. Some of you might just be excited about 4 years of frat parties. More power to you. To others of you, college might seem terrifying. Some of you might think that high school has been nothing but miserable, so why should college be any different? Or, maybe these past four years have been the best years of your life. All I can say to either group – and I myself fall somewhere in-between, depending on the day – is that we still have so much in front of us. I’m not saying it’ll all be good, and I’m not saying that adulthood will immediately imbue us with the necessary skills and opinions to face the rest of our lives with impunity and wisdom, I’m just saying that we don’t have to know everything to know that we’re all going to be able to make our own kind of happiness.

I hate that I’m standing up here addressing you when I know that right now half of you are probably bored to tears and the other half of you are just waiting for me to finish so you can finally get your diploma. What can I say; there’s too much pressure for me to pull off funny and get away with it. When I look back on high school, I see myself as a freshmen bent on nothing but academic success, studying for hours every night to get perfect grades and prove that I was worth something. Then I see myself this year, when sometimes I’d be too busy to study appropriately, or having too much fun with my friends to care about getting a low A on a test instead of a 100. I don’t know if you could properly label this an evolution, but it’s the start of something. If I could do it again, I’d do it differently. And recognizing that makes me prouder than these honor chords or this medal.

You aren’t given many opportunities in life to undergo a priority re-alignment, to start anew. But the end of high school is one of those pivotal moments—if you use it wisely, that is. If you have allowed others to define happiness for you, if you have allowed institutions to create meaning in your life, then this is a rare instance in which you can let those boundaries fall gracefully away. I know that I’m looking forward to the opportunity to change my priorities. I suspect that the same is true for all of you. Class of 2014, there is no secret to happiness. Just know that if you want it, you have the capacity to define and make it for yourself.”

Published on Huffington Post College!

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I got some very exciting news yesterday afternoon: An article I wrote about my job at the library, and some of the issues recent college graduates face, was published on the Huffington Post college blog! You can read the original article here. 

Which brings me to another point… Originally, my plan was to keep this blog completely anonymous, but I decided that if the HuffPost accepted my article, then I would, in turn, accept that blogging and anonymity don’t really go together very well.

But more on that later, perhaps. If you don’t want to click over to the Huffington Post website, you can read the text of the article below.


It happened again the other day — I bumped into someone I knew from school, someone who’s now a senior, someone who reacted like he’d seen a ghost when he noticed me walking around the library.

I’ve learned it’s best to just smile and say a huge “Hello!” in order to assure them that yes, it really is me. Once they’ve wiped the veneer of shock from their face, the questions start. “I had no idea you were still here!” “I thought you graduated!” “What are you doing at the library?” “Is this temporary?” “So when will you get a real job?”

In fact, I did graduate: on June 21, 2013 to be precise. I stumbled out of bed after a dissatisfying night of sleep in a hot apartment with no air conditioner and made it to the stadium 45 minutes after call time. The graduation ceremony was uneventful, unremarkable, and contained absolutely no indications of where my life was heading.

It became clear a few weeks prior to graduation that a “real” job offer wasn’t going to appear out of thin air. I was relieved when I learned that I could expand my job at the library from 10 hours a week to a semi-permanent, part-time position through the summer. But for the next 3 months or so, I was in a strange place. I moved a few miles north of campus, upgraded to a full-size mattress, and biked to work at the same library where I’d spent too many late nights frantically finishing papers and too many early mornings trying to print them out.

I didn’t quite know how to classify myself — could I call myself a graduate if I hadn’t, well, graduated and moved on from the campus? Once New Student Week arrived in September, I did everything I could to avoid being seen. I took the back hallway so that I didn’t have to walk past the computer lab on the first floor, where dozens of students would gather in the middle of the day. I ate lunch at my desk rather than venturing to the student center to pick up a sandwich. I remembered a friend who graduated a year before me in 2012 ended up working in the Admissions Office at the school. It took me months to figure it out — he made himself as invisible as possible.

After a year, I’m still at the library. I earn enough money to pay rent, buy the groceries I want, make my student loan payments, and still have some left over. More importantly, I have independence. I somehow snatched up one of those elusive treasures: a source of income that would allow me to retain my dignity after graduating with a deflated bachelor’s degree in anthropology. (While I don’t think my major’s worthless, employers don’t seem to be as keen on it as I am.)

Yet, my classmates still don’t seem to think I have a “real” job.

Part of this has to do with distance. The farther you go to take a job after graduation, the bigger your journey and therefore the more legitimate the job. Or is it the more you suffer, the fewer benefits you have — these are rites of passage for 20-somethings, correct? Or what matters is exclusivity — how many rounds of interviews did you have to go through to get your prestigious job? Are you inching your way up the socioeconomic ladder, or just cementing your already-established status? How much money do you earn? Is your job at a trendy start-up, or are you the golden employee at a Fortune 500 company?

Here are some facts about working in the library. First, it is peaceful. For the first time since high school, I get enough sleep every night. I don’t have to work overtime to meet deadlines, and more importantly, I know that the institution I support is capable of understanding that “value” isn’t always defined monetarily. I’m not beholden to the bottom line, but instead support a research library that benefits scholars, students and the wider community.

Second, I have the respect of my boss. Instead of working for an organization I’ve never heard of, I have the privilege of working with an established mentor. It also means that I’m treated with respect; I never had to battle the detrimental “last hired, first fired” mentality.

Third, the library is gorgeous. And I have a huge desk. (Relatively speaking). My colleagues are eager to see me do well, and are constantly encouraging me to further my education and develop professional skills.

Granted, some of the stereotypes you hear about libraries are true. Sometimes, especially over the holidays when all the students are away, it can get slow. And the day-to-day activities of an administrative assistant are not necessarily thrilling. When I entered college, this is not what I imagined I would be doing after graduation. But waking nightmares surrounding unemployment started to plague me about a year before that fateful day. I imagined my parents showing up with my sister’s truck, hauling all my shoddy furniture back to Texas. I imagined not being able to make my student loan payments, and going into dreaded default. Unemployment, for most college graduates, is synonymous with defeat.

So, to answer your question: No, I don’t know when I’m going to get a real job. But it’s the perception, not the job, that needs to change.

Merry Christmas from the Department of Education

My first student loan payment was due yesterday, Saturday, December 13, 2013.

What surprises me the most is that I’m not completely freaking out. And, based on many things I’ve read, I probably should be.

Six months ago, right before I graduated, I was required to attend what my university dubbed an “exit interview” to make sure I, along with a sizeable chunk* of the class of 2013 that was “awarded” (yes, that is really the verb they use in the financial aid notification letter) student loans, didn’t default and make the school look bad or completely f*** up my first year out of college by pretending that I don’t owe thousands of dollars to the university and the U.S. government. You’re given a 6-month “grace period” before payments are due & you start getting charged interest.  This is extremely generous (not) considering that it takes the average college graduate 6-7 months to find a job, depending on which source you cite.  So, if in 6 months you’ve managed not to blow through what little money you have in savings, and you miraculously find a full-time job that pays above minimum wage AND comes with health insurance, congratulations! You probably won’t default on your first payment. Probably.

Sometimes I like to play a little game with myself. It’s called, what are some creative ways to describe how much debt I’m in?

  • I owe approximately 8 times the amount that I sold my Toyota Camry for in 2009 after I graduated from high school. That car paid for my books my freshman year.
  • My debt totals less than 1/3 of the national average, which is now $35,200 (up from $26,600 just two years ago!!)
  • Assuming I continue to make the same amount of money for the foreseeable future, I will turn over 7% of my income for the next 10 years in order to pay off my student loans.
  • I could buy 46 brand-new iPhones, OR make a down payment on a $260,000 house, OR buy a 2009 Honda Civic for the amount of money I owe. Instead, I’m sharing a one-bedroom apartment , take public transportation, and continue to use my taped-together Dell laptop.
  • My minimum monthly payment amounts to 8 times what I pay each month for basic health insurance.

Perhaps you’re wondering why my debt is comparatively so low to that of the other poor slobs who were unlucky enough to graduate alongside me. The short answer: the post 9/11 GI Bill. The long answer involves telling you about how my dad became disillusioned with the financial industry after getting his MBA, quit his job at a bank, and, with a toddler to provide for, joined the military in 1993. This is how my family ended up moving every three years, and why I attended 5 different elementary schools, 2 different middle schools, and 2 different high schools. My first year in college, my dad got deployed to Iraq for 3 months. Then, about a year later, he volunteered to go again for 6 months. As a result, he was given 36 months worth of undergraduate educational benefits; he generously gave 18 months to me and 18 months to my sister. So I only had to take out loans for the first two years I was in school. Otherwise, my debt probably would have topped the $25,000 mark.


Everyone is doubtless aware of the spate of articles denouncing the so-called Millenial generation that has circulated widely during the last couple of years. I’d like to propose that there’s a close link between all of that nonsense & the student loan crisis.

It starts, I think, with the American Dream and an obsession to “grow the middle class.” Not that extravagance, billionaire status, and celebrity aren’t still facets of the American Dream–but pretty much no one contests the idea that everyone should own a car, a house, and get a college education. Pretty much.

I had a fairly heated argument with my younger sister not that long ago. She was complaining that a Bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean as much as it used to, simply because a greater number of people have Bachelor’s degrees now than, say, 30 years ago. She thought the solution might be to limit the number of degrees awarded each year. I told her that yes, that might work to some extent, but then posed the following questions:  Is education a universal right? Shouldn’t everyone who is qualified to get a Bachelor’s degree have the opportunity to get one? Who will decide who is “worthy” of getting a degree? What will the new definition of “worthy” be in a system where only a select percentage of the population is “allowed” to go to college?

Let’s think for a moment about the benefits that come from having an educated populace. In addition to the economic benefits accrued by degree holders, there is a “cascade” of other positive effects: “Graduates…tend to have better health, rely less on government social programs, are less likely to be incarcerated, and are more likely to engage in civic activities.” [1] One might even argue that having an educated populace is essential to a functioning democracy; Thomas Jefferson certainly thought so. Among his more brief musings on the subject is the aphorism that “Light and liberty go together.” Of course, in 1795 the bar for general education was considerably lower than it is in 2013. And today, a bachelor’s degree is a pre-requisite for almost any decently-paying job. [2]

Despite having a degree from an elite university, I’m not an elitist. I don’t think that only “certain people” should be allowed to go to college. If I’m a better-educated version of an administrative assistant from the 1960s, so be it. If the baristas at Starbucks all have degrees from fancy liberal-arts colleges, I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with that on a superficial level. If the same jobs are available, but the required credentials for doing those jobs have risen in response to a higher volume of degree-holding job seekers, well, then, that just means that the populace in general is better educated. Can this lead to some degree of dissatisfaction? Sure, if you think that having a degree in English, History, Anthropology, Political Science, etc. entitles you to one of the ever-elusive “meaningful” jobs out there. And this is where horrible articles like this come from.

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it only considers one part of the equation. Underemployment is a real issue, not just an existential one. This is why:

  • In 1880, it cost on average $300/year to get a Bachelor’s degree from one of the top colleges in the country. Adjusted for inflation, $300 in 1880 equals $6,926 in 2010. [3]  Instead, in 2010-2011 the average tuition at a public 4-year college was $15,918 and at a private/non-profit college, $32,617. [4]
  • The average starting salary for the class of 2013 is $45,327. [5] In Illinois, that’s about $2,821.47 per month after taxes. If you’re making monthly payments on a $35,000 student loan balance, your monthly payment will be about $400. Guess what? “It is estimated that you will need an annual salary of at least $48,333.60 to be able to afford to repay this loan.” [6] Great.
  • Not all jobs are created equal. Many recent college graduates are able to find only low-paying jobs without benefits (i.e., health insurance), or get hired as contractors subject to firing without notice. Moreover, the likelihood that you’ll be forced to change jobs soon after graduating is higher than ever. Today’s youngest workers will hold 12-15 different jobs in their lifetime. [7]

Whew. This is a long post. But bear with me. I haven’t even discussed the aspects of student loans that make me truly angry.


Among the many, many articles I’ve read about skyrocketing tuition costs, ballooning student loan debt, and depressed college graduates, this Rolling Stone feature is my favorite, not least because of the headline: “Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal.” This is where I learned, for example, that the Department of Education will make an estimated $184 billion in the next 10 years on the new federal student-loan system, that the DOE makes money off of students who default on their loans, and that the official default rate is 13.4% – which The Chronicle of Higher Education says is a gross underestimate. Default, for those not in the know, is when you miss a monthly payment. This is the page from my “Student Loan Repayment Handbook” that sometimes makes it hard for me to fall asleep at night.

Chapter 8: Default.

“Once you are in default the following may occur:

  • The lender may declare the entire balance, including interest, to be immediately due and payable.
  • The lender may place your account with a collection agency and collection costs may be added to the outstanding balance.
  • Your default status will be reported to all schools you have attended or may be currently attending.
  • Your default status will be reported to credit bureaus.
  • Your academic records will be placed on hold.
  • The federal government may withhold your federal tax refund to repay your loan and interest.
  • If you default on a federal loan, you will be ineligible to receive assistance from any Federal program including:  Pell Grant, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, Federal Stafford Student loan, PLUS loans or Loan Consolidation.”

What the handbook doesn’t tell me is that if I ever miss a single payment, there are additional potential consequences including: not being able to get a cell phone plan, being blocked from buying homeowner’s insurance, and having such a damaged credit score that I wouldn’t even be able to rent an apartment. In other words, my earnings potential would basically be zapped to $0. You can’t get out of paying for student loans in the case of bankruptcy; in fact, the only way you’re exonerated from paying back what you owe is if you die.

All of this makes me wonder why college is so expensive. Why did my university charge nearly $60,000 per year? It’s not because faculty are being paid more. It’s not because the endowment shrank or alumni donations are at an all-time low. It’s probably because administrative costs have risen substantially [9] and because the university spends hundreds of millions each year either renovating existing buildings or constructing new ones. This frustrates me. I would rather have lived in a less-than-beautiful dorm than see it undergo no less than 3 renovations in 4 years. I saw no need for the university to build a new exercise facility (the one we had was state-of-the-art, supposedly) or a new sports arena, particularly when our football team isn’t very good anyway. Now I, along with thousands of other graduates, will be shouldering those costs for years to come.


So, all said and done, what’s the best way to describe the every-student-has-to-go-to-college-and-YIKES-don’t-look-at-how-much-it-costs-because-without-a-degree-you’ll-just-work-at McDonald’s system that we’ve built in the United States? For that, I’ll defer, again, to Rolling Stone:

“It’s cheering millions of high school graduates toward college every year, feeding them into the debt grinder under the banner of increased opportunity, when full disclosure would require admitting that there isn’t a hell of a lot waiting for them on the other side, where the middle class has nearly vanished and full employment is going the way of the dodo.” – Matt Taibbi


*I tried, I really did, to figure out the percentage of students at my school who are required to take out student loans as part of their financial aid package. But this information is either not publicly available or buried deep in an administrative black hole, ensuring that only the person who put it there knows how to find it.

[1] The Broader Societal Benefits of Higher Education
[2] It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk – NYT
[3] Even in Countries Where Tuition Is Free, College Debt Can Be a Problem
[4] Fast Facts: Tuition costs of colleges and universities
[5] Average Starting Salary for Class of 2013 Grads up 2.4%
[6] FinAid Calculator
[7] Experience.com
[8] The Department of Education
[9] Administrators Ate My Tuition – Washington Monthly

And last but not least, that scandalous Rolling Stone article: Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal.

The Awfulness of Job Interviews

I cannot think of anything worse than being interviewed for a job.

The odds are COMPLETELY against you.

The worst part is behavioral interview questions. They drive me INSANE, not least because they are impossible to answer, but also because I never understand how they are relevant to the job at hand in any way. Sorry, but how is my ability to fabricate a compelling story about “a time I overcame a major challenge” indicative of my capacity to fill out a spreadsheet or set up a meeting? The only thing my answer to that proves is that I am able to extract an example from my life and re-craft it to fit into a generic, meaningless, and over-used narrative about how, as a human, I am capable of learning from my mistakes. (What if I went meta on someone and said, “My greatest professional weakness is my reluctance–nay, objection–to answering behavioral interview questions.” Ha!) I guess what I could do, if people are going to insist on asking me this nonsense, is write out formulaic but effective answers, memorize them, and rattle them off every time I’m asked. But how disappointing is that? When you give the same exact answers to every HR manager, even though the jobs you’re applying for may be completely different? I feel like they signify laziness on behalf of the interviewer. Either the person doesn’t know how to conduct an interview, or read an article somewhere entitled “Questions You Should Ask in Every Interview,” or isn’t capable of generating relevant interview questions on their own. STOP USING THEM.

Actually, come to think of it, the best interview I ever had was when I walked into the room, proceeded to talk for 20 minutes straight about my goals and ideas for re-invigorating a student publication, and then finally at the end asked THEM if they had any questions. They all just smiled and shook their heads.

And please, don’t ever say: “Tell me about yourself.” THAT IS WHAT I AM TRYING TO DO.