Anxiety and Aspiration on the Edge of Education: Juniors Reflect on the Journey Thus Far and Uncertain Future
By Nick Papazian
Alex Macphee didn’t come to Skidmore to major in computer science. He wanted to be a history major, then anthropology, and only after two major changes did he settle on CS. “After two CS classes I realized that that’s what I was the most engaged in at school. And, y’know, kind of better prospects, but that to me is auxiliary to the fact that it was just the thing that I found the most interesting to study.”
Even though Alex chooses interest over prospects, he, along with many other college juniors, has plenty of concerns about his not-too-distant future.
“It’s sort of a scary field to go into…I feel like everyone acts like there are just unlimited tech jobs out there…and maybe there are but…to, like, really do what you want in the tech industry I feel like you have to have a lot of knowhow…and there’s just so much to tech…I don’t even know what to specialize in yet.”
He listed quite a few subjects that he’s not familiar enough with within the tech industry. It’s tough–it’s a very specialized industry.
“Ideally, I really wanna do QA, which is ‘quality assurance’ for, like, a software shop, but it’s kinda scary because I just don’t really know if I’m gonna be qualified for that, and I really don’t want to go to grad school, so we’ll see what happens.”
Alex is worried that he won’t be able to get a good tech job out of school. He added that he doesn’t have any connections in the industry.
“If it has to be some kind of droney IT work, maybe that’s gonna have to be it.”
But he says he doesn’t want to get stuck “being a sad systems admin.”
He’s gotten some help from the Career Development Center at Skidmore, and last year he got offered an internship. He didn’t take it, and he says he regrets that now.
He currently has an internship with SPAC, where he’s transferring data into a database. He says he enjoys it and it ties in nicely with one of his classes.
I asked him if he was confident that he would get a job in his field out of college. He paused for few seconds.
“Um, if I’m super honest, I’m not that confident at this time that I’m gonna leave college and get a job. Like I might have to compromise my standards. I just don’t really know.”
But he is confident that he will be able to get some sort of tech job eventually. “I think there’s enough out there, that people are looking for.”
I asked him if he felt like he wasted his time at college.
“It’s definitely like a concern. I feel concerned…I think, if I were to do it again, if I could go back with the knowledge I have now to being a junior in high school, um, I would’t tell myself that I needed to go to college…Because there was a really big pressure at my school to go to the best college you could, right? So, like, a lot of kids go to Ivy league schools from my high school…There’s big culture of taking as many AP’s as you can…I hear a lot of people talking about taking two AP’s as if it was a lot, and I took, like, three AP’s my senior year, I think, and was a like a slacker.”
“If I could do it again, I’d be much more willing to have gone to a community college and gotten a degree in computer science…or gone to a cheaper school, and just gotten a degree.”
He did say he didn’t regret going to Skidmore. He likes the small classes, and he says he’s met good people here, but he also says he wouldn’t make the same decision again.
Henry Tizard is majoring in what he came here to major in, unlike Alex. I asked him if he’s ever second-guessed himself, and the major track he’s on.
“Yeah, sure…um, I mean I’m pretty sure the major was the right decision. Sometimes I wonder if I should have gone to a more ‘economically inclined’ school…I thought about a business major as well, but I knew it was always between those two. I didn’t come here specifically for academics.”
I asked him what he came here for, if not for academics. He said he liked the music scene and that he wanted to go to a small school, although he did say that, sometimes, he regrets coming to Skidmore. When I asked him if he ever worries that his time a college would be a waste, he very frankly said, “Yeah. I mean…if I don’t get hired for a decent job, then I guess I wasted a shit ton of money.”
Henry’s biggest anxiety about life after college is having to live with his parents for too long. He says he’s sure everybody worries about those sorts of things, but he also said that, right now, “I think I’m in a decent place.”
However, Henry and Alex both come from families in good financial situations. The pressures on those who aren’t as affluent could be far greater.
Brian Roberge, also a junior, is the first person in his family to go to college. His dad went to trade school. I asked him how it felt to be the first person in his family to go to college.
“It’s definitely a unique experience for me,” he said. “I think about it a lot…My parents are super supportive and super excited that I’m in college, but at the same time, they haven’t gone, so they can’t help you with things.”
He told me that there’s a lot of extra pressure being the first student in a higher education institution.
“Yeah, definitely…Right at the end of winter break, I was having a freak out where I thought to myself ‘What am I doing?’ I just don’t know how college is supposed to pay off.”
Brian is a political science major. He says he thinks he can do something with his major, but he has other worries, like processing financial aid in a way that maximizes savings, course selections, and internships. He added that, sometimes, he’s just “at a loss.”
We talked about his future for a bit. “I know I want to help people, and I know I’m going to help people,” he told me. But he’s not sure what he’s going to do yet.
He’s conflicted about grad school. Different professors have given him different answers to some of his questions.
“For me, it was go to college, join the army, or be a carpenter, so I just gotta not screw up the going to college thing.”
Luckily for Brian, a professor has asked him to help with research over the summer. He’s still not sure about his future, but he knows what he wants to do.
Nick Acosta is in a similar situation to Brian’s. He’s also a first generation college student (his mother went to college briefly but did not receive a degree), and he also majors in political science. He doesn’t question his major, he says, because he was able to declare a double major with economics. “It kind of resolved any qualms I had with political science,” he told me.
“I know I want to go to grad school and specialize in a specific field involving politics and economics, but I only know vague areas of interest.”
He said he questions whether or not college will prove to be worthwhile all the time. “I’m a first generation [college student] in my family, really… My sister has been kind of the success story in my family…going to a city college. And I’m going to the first private college.”
He told me that there’s an expectation around going to a private college where people expect him to be a huge success, but he doesn’t really know what he’s going to do afterwards.
I asked him how he could be so confident about grad school. Nick has a GPA of over 3.5. He’s on the National Honors Society for political science. He says he’ll definitely be able to get into grad school, but “maybe not my top choice.”
However, academic achievements do not negate student debt. Nick says that one of the biggest worries is his debt. He works during the school year and has done paid internships over the past summers (he’s hoping to go to DC this summer), but he says he’s still worried about how he will pay off those loans.
“I’m probably in debt, I think, almost fifty grand in debt by the time I graduate Skidmore. And that’s fifty grand in government loans, more unsubsidized–so there’s more interest on that…I had conversations with my parents about paying them off early, but because of our financial situation we just can’t do that.”
After Nick graduates, that debt will land fully and squarely on his shoulders. However, there some quick graduate programs he could apply for that he hopes will get him a good job to pay back the loans.
For now, though, all of these students will keep grappling with these uncertainties, one way or another.