As a graduate in the middle of the Great Recession with a graphic design and fine art degree, my experience of the job market and career opportunities is greatly skewed. I didn’t fully realize this until my interview for the job I currently have. It went something like this:
The owner of the company, now my boss, takes the samples I’ve brought to show my design ability (mostly my wedding invitations, programs, save the dates, etc), looks at them for maybe 20 seconds and says, “Why haven’t you been doing this (meaning graphic design) all along?”
Deep sigh, “Well I graduated in 2008…”
“Ah, that explains it.”
It was not until this statement was spoken into my life that I realized how frustrated I was as an artist and a young professional. I was stunned and grateful.
To say I was a good student in school would be an understatement. Overachiever would be more appropriate. But when I graduated, I couldn’t even get a job at a coffee shop, let alone a job in my field. And I had coffee shop experience! This was not the world I was expecting. I was told from kindergarten on that if you work hard, do your best in school and graduate from college, you’ll get a good job. I wasn’t expecting a design job, but I was expecting to at least be able to pay my bills. Little did I know the world had drastically shifted.
Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t starve. I always had a roof over my head, by the grace of God, clothes to wear, and money in the bank (though not much at times). But I did live on $12,000 -$15,000 a year for two and a half years with tons of help from family and friends. I was incredibly humbled time and time again by God’s provision. I worked a dead-end administrative position at a college ministry for two years, finally took a barista job at a friend’s coffee shop just to do something different, taking yet another major pay cut. Of the now almost 7 years that have passed since I graduated, I have spent at least 75% of that time job searching. I could write cover letters for a living. (Actually I kind of do now). I’ve done everything from after school programs, camping, tutoring, Girl Scouts, filing, budgeting, cleaning, taking out the trash, balancing the cash drawer, putting together books, making coffee, shoveling snow, fixing things, hauling boxes, breaking down boxes. Lord Almighty, if I had a dollar for every box I’ve broken down and hauled to the curb, I’d be a very rich woman.
But none of them ever involved much of my degree. I’d given up hope that I was even capable of being a designer. All those years of schooling long forgotten, just another cog in the American consumer machine.
Now I find myself at an architecture firm designing everything from spreadsheets to presentations to proposals in Princeton, New Jersey–far from my childhood home in Indiana. I found the job posting on Craigslist of all places. It fits. I am good at what I do and I enjoy it. It’s a real job with benefits, raises, and bonuses. And I am finally using all that schooling. 7 years later. What I thought was wasted has been put to use.
The temptation is to become bitter and entitlement. To dwell on things like all the time I’ve wasted doing dead-end jobs, how far behind I feel compared to my coworkers, and the baby clock ticking in the back of my mind. Statistics show that if you graduated in 2008 you have suffered financial setbacks that will take years to recover. But I can’t stay there because no matter what my teachers said or the American dream promises, this world doesn’t owe you or me a damn thing. Super powers rise and fall. Economies crash. Wars destroy. The rain falls on both the wicked and the righteous.
Even more so I am tempted to puff up in pride, to focus on all the hard work I did to get myself to where I am today. To set myself apart, saying it’s about damn time. But I would never have even had the opportunity to live out here without people extending their hospitality or parents who paid for so many things or friends who fed me or bosses who recommended me. And I definitely wouldn’t be able to do my job so well today if I hadn’t been given all those random opportunities along the way.
So take joy in the good things you have been given. Make the most of the opportunities before you no matter how small they may seem. You never know where or when you’ll find yourself drawing on those experiences to help you in the next. Most importantly, acknowledge that you didn’t get to where you are by yourself. Teachers, professors, bosses, taught you how to learn, follow, and lead. Family and friends provided when you couldn’t. Coworkers stepped in when you fell short. We don’t get anywhere in this life on our own, no matter what year we graduated.