Street Smart Chicago

An Abstract Education: The Seductive Call of the Experiential

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By Francesca Thompson

During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was convinced that after graduation, I was moving to Botswana.

Well, maybe not to Botswana specifically, but I was determined to go abroad with the Peace Corps after earning my bachelor’s degree in creative writing. I wanted to experience the world. Plus, I was fairly certain that a degree in creative writing would get me a really nice cardboard box or a lifelong place in my parents’ basement. There seem to be two paths for continuing education after undergrad: keep treading the theoretical education path and pursue a graduate degree, or make my own education through worldly experience.

My friend Ferzana, however, earned her degree in psychology from the University of Illinois, which seemed much more promising than my writing degree. “I’d heard about how terrible the job market was, but I was still confident that I’d be able to find a job fairly quickly,” she said to me over dinner. “But I really couldn’t. It hit me that the job market was really as bad as it was made out to be, and that I wasn’t exempt.”

So, after graduation, instead of taking out another eighty grand in loans for grad school or laying low in her parents’ home and continuing the soul-sucking job search, Ferzana took an unpaid internship with Habitat for Humanity affiliate Okiciyapi Tipi in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Okiciyapi Tipi is on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, which is largely sovereign from the United States, so it pretty much counts as going abroad. Experiencing the world. Ferzana worked with people in town who needed new homes and with many volunteer groups from around the country.

“The internship with OT was a crucial step in creating my own education,” Ferzana says.  “In classrooms it is rare to learn about present-day Native [American] social justice issues…or the amazing work that is done on reservations. I honestly believe that the knowledge I gained from spending five weeks on the reservation has been more useful and significant in my life than the four years I spent in college.”

It was refreshing to hear someone speak so highly of their experiential education, as I was beginning to doubt my commitment to the Peace Corps. Just go to grad school like a normal person, I said to myself. Botswana seemed so far away. I began obsessing about malaria. But the Peace Corps or unpaid internships in South Dakota aren’t the only alternative options for post-grad education these days. Since the job market took a nosedive, programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America are exploding and becoming extremely competitive. Almost fifty thousand people applied to work for Teach for America this year. Five thousand were accepted. A friend of mine applied and went through three intensive rounds of application and interview, including executing a mock lesson plan, before they rejected her. Another friend was accepted, and sent to Oklahoma City, where she now teaches fifth grade and loves it.

But what about more self-made education? What kind of experience still counts as furthering your education? A few weeks ago, I was meandering around the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, chatting with my eighteen-year-old cousin who was in the middle of filling out college applications. Something I remember doing—I don’t envy her. “People put so much weight on where you get in and where you end up going,” she said to me as we stared at a mammoth, chaotic Jackson Pollock that took up most of the white wall. “My friends are obsessed. It almost makes me want to give up and just travel the country instead, Kerouac style.”

Kerouac style. I hoped the emphasis was on the picaresque and not the extended acid trip. The idea of taking off on a long road trip, no end in sight, was and is still appealing to me. It’s tempting to do it while I’m still single and without a cemented career, not tied down to one place or person. Seeing the country, meeting and talking with people who can tell me stories I’d never hear in a classroom—those things count as education, right? Perhaps they wouldn’t prepare me for a job in business or economics, but for the artist in particular I think experiential education is appealing because good art tends to come from worldly experience. There are exceptions, but the best way to write an authentic story about something is to live it. Kerouac didn’t write his opus sitting holed up in a classroom.

This being said, I would never discourage my young cousin from attending college. An undergraduate education is invaluable, in terms of personal growth and marketability in the work force. But in those moments where I questioned whether college was worth it, my mother frequently told me, “First earn your degree and then you can do whatever you want.” I think this is sound advice, and I repeated it to my cousin even after our long conversation about blowing off college in favor of gamboling around the country. Do what you need to do when you need to do it, and however you choose to educate yourself after that is up to you. And there exists a literal world of possibilities.

For me, Botswana fell out of the picture months ago; I could barely handle tent camping in Yellowstone this summer. Instead, I’m packing my things and moving to California to become another soulless Hollywood slave. My creative writing degree will be somewhere at the bottom of my suitcase, folded into a book. I will continue to write my novel, even though I’m fully aware there is no money in it. And comfort remains in the thought that both my Peace Corps application and the road remain indefinitely open.

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