Part blog, part oral history, part research project.
How has the Great Recession affected your path beyond college? What is your story?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Layla is in her mid-twenties and recently earned her Masters in Public Policy. For now, she lives in Oakland. She spent much of her undergraduate pursuing education issues and is passionate about engaging youth in the policies that affect them. Throughout the interview, Layla descended into wry laughter about her current job.

When I first decided to go to grad school, I thought that I wanted to be writing curriculum or designing a program for young people to be connected to policies. And then by the time it was time to graduate, I felt like I didn't know anymore what I wanted to do.

I knew that I didn't want a job to be specifically research-oriented. I still wanted it to be interactive with people. And I knew the idea of connecting people to policies is really important to me.

So I did this whole “ideal/less than ideal” job search thing. The idea was that I would spend a whole lot of time crafting my cover letter and being really, really deliberate on my ideal jobs and then crank out as many less-than-ideal jobs as possible. ‘Cause, you know I was getting broke. I kept feeling like...Job searching sucks, right? It's hard to feel successful when the outcome that you want is still not happening. No matter how many resumes you send out it's still hard to feel like "Oh, I did something."

Now, I work at this start-up nonprofit. This one was a less-than-ideal job. They're actually the only people that ever called me back. [When they called] I was kinda confident. I was looking at the less-than- ideal job, reading the job description and then I convinced myself that it was a really awesome job and that I really wanted it and that I'd mistakenly written less-than-ideal on it.

The phone interview went pretty well. I totally crammed for it. The woman who interviewed me is a weird phone person. So I'd talk and then she'd go, "Yeah, thanks for sharing." She laughs. And I was like, "Sorry?" It was really weird. We did that and then, I obsessed about how it went. But, pretty quickly after, she e-mailed me. Maybe a day later, "Oh, we're going to invite you in for an interview." They did the interview at this super posh cute place. It was actually up the street from the real place where I really work now. She laughs. So I went and it's all fancy and I met the board president and saw the board member and I remember thinking like—I’d assumed that I was going to meet the staff. So the interview itself went really well. And they asked me to do a timed writing. Which is crazy. It was 30 minutes to write an op-ed piece and an outreach plan for an event. I left there feeling shitty. I didn't do either of those well. I had 30 minutes and I'm dyslexic.

I've been reflecting on what they were trying to get at recently. Hindsight's twenty-twenty. Because now so much of my job is working under pressure, I feel like that was actually the test—as opposed to getting anything right, getting something done. It's a way that I hate to work and a way that I work a lot.

I'm really surprised that I got a job so quickly, but I think that a big piece of that is because it doesn't require the skill level that I have. The person who was doing this job before me was a sophomore in college. She laughs. I was like, "Ooooh! You guys are making me feel good—tell me more."… I don't think that there's as much opportunity to hire people that are overqualified when the economy is booming.

I think I definitely—I had to do it. The day I found out that I got the job? I was at $5 in the bank account. So I needed to. I feel mildly duped about how excited I was about it.

It's the exact right organization, which is how I think I confused myself. They do what I wanna do. I don't do what I wanna do. You know? It's that. It's decently close, in that it's the right kind of place. Just the wrong kind of position.

I get to work about 8. I do a lot of little stuff that fills my day entirely—I don't know that I could tell you what I do. Everything just takes a lot of time. I do mostly website stuff. I’m stupidly over-qualified for this job. I'm more or less an office manager who blogs and tweets. You don't need a masters degree for that, right?

And I get paid crappy. Yeah, I thought that would be different for sure.

Usually I leave, like physically leave work at about 6:30, 7. I just come home and maybe make dinner, sit down and immediately do work. And then I stop that at around 10, eat food, hang out with [my boyfriend], complain about work.

I feel like what they stand for is cool and I hate working there. Which makes me sad. She laughs. It's really, really busy. My position is actually two and a half positions. So they needed an office manager, they needed a communications person and they needed support for all of the [community] work. So they balled it up into one position. I should never be an office manager. On the best of days, I'm nobody's office manager. She laughs. I suck at that. The communications part is what I was interested in. When I worked at the P----- , I did all of their outreach and all of their newsletter blog, all of that kind of stuff. I would go to community meetings and connect to people. I feel like that is the least of my work now, but that is what I was most excited about, right? So that's kind of whack. The [community] work, even though it's really, really frustrating, is really interesting. I like watching it unfold, but hate being in the room while it's unfolding. That said, my role for that work? Is notetaker at the meetings. So I'm not doing anything interesting, I'm just watching things that are interesting.

The one cool thing is that I found out that everybody else that works there feels the same. Which sucks, but makes me feel not-so-bad. We ended up having this long discussion about how unhappy we all are...It all came spewing out at this team retreat where I was like, "Oh, P.S., I hate my job.” It was really bad. We were talking about all of these organizational problems—the fact that we move too fast, the fact that there's no consistent vision for us all to work toward, no decision-making process for us all to work together…Those I think are [all] very true and I would've said them, but somebody got to them before I did. So, I was like, "By the way, I hate it here." She laughs. And now they just think that I need constant praise

I ask her why she hates her job.

I'm the only communications person and I had assumed because I am the only communications person that I helped make decisions around stuff. Not the case. I got told extremely bluntly that my job was doing the bidding of other people that do the thinking. And I've been really trying to push back on that and do thinking anyway, but it's hard when that' s the place where I start at every day. I worked really hard to become a critical thinker. To be doing something and to just be a gopher—to be a complicated gopher…I put up websites, I do things that require a skill set, but I don't think and I don't feel like it's valued when I do, I feel like it's a little bit put up with. She laughs.

I don't like it at all. I'm trying to like it more. I'm trying to get zen about it, honestly. I don't think that I'll ever really like it. Even before I got disgruntled [she laughs], I realized the first day that half of my daily tasks are things as a dyslexic person that I struggle with…Everybody needs me to do something and are genuinely appreciative of the work that I do. It's just that it's really stressful to do something that you know that you struggle with. So, there's that piece.

And then there's just like…I'm not feeling successful in the work that I'm doing—I'm busy all the time, but it's not the same as having something to be proud of.

This is the point in my life where it is time for me to work a whole lot. I was totally ready for back sweat and crazy working, right? But I wasn't ready for this much work without feeling fulfilled. I expected to feel a lot more confident in myself and my abilities—I have a cool new piece of paper and I have all of these new skills, but I feel way insecure now. I'm really stressed and I'm—because I'm doing work that is so not my bag, it's all organization and catching other people's typos? I don't catch my typos! She laughs.

I'm always nervous and I don't feel confident in the stuff that I do.

I really thought I'd have more autonomy in whatever it is that I'd be doing. I thought that I would have the opportunity to be a lot more creative and do work that I thought was interesting.

I would hope that the next place that I look for a job, that they would understand that we've been going through a recession and that I wasn't necessarily in a job that was my maximum potential. But it doesn't look super great on a resume, fresh out of grad school, [to] be a glorified office manager. The only good thing is that it's a startup and that I do lots of little things. So I feel like I have some good resume spin.

My boyfriend just graduated in 2010 too and it's been even harder for him ‘cause he got a masters in fine arts—more nuanced than that, he does video art. He's been having a really hard time finding a job. He's been applying for a bunch of jobs that he's overqualified for too. One thing that he really wants to do is teach. At this point, we made a deal, I'm putting off my job search until he finds a job.

And even though I love Oakland and I love the Bay, we'll probably have to move. We're just, more or less, gonna go anywhere that doesn't suck that he can teach. This is probably the right area for me to do some interesting nonprofit work and reform work and stuff like that. This is probably not where I'll end up, at least not in the next couple of years. We're gonna live somewhere not as interesting, with not as many opportunities. It will be hard for my whole future trajectory.

Postscript: Less than 3 months after this interview, Layla was laid off—the nonprofit ran out of funding for her position.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Claudia went back to school as an adult and transferred to a four-year college after attending community college. She designed her own major in Criminal Psychology and graduated in Spring 2010. She speaks passionately and demonstratively—leaning forward in her chair, animated and intense, but quick to laugh.


My original picture was that I was gonna go straight to law school. But...that didn't happen for a coupla reasons. I suffered a pretty severe break in my ankle. I sat for the LSAT cold because I had already paid for it. So there was that. However, even with the low LSAT score that I had, I would've actually gotten into law school anyway because of my personal statement, my letters of [recommendation], the fact that I designed my own major. But, when the economy goes bad, the first thing people do, is they [go] back to school, that somehow we have this idea that if I go to school—that degree equals success.

I applied to 8 law schools. What happened when I applied for UC Berkeley, the entire institution, both undergrad and all their grad school programs, they received 83 thousand applications. Ok? And they took a very small percentage of—maybe 20 thousand applications, a quarter of the applications they got.Two-thirds of it was out of state students. This is a public university, they receive both state and federal funding, which is null and void because of the economy. And so they're asking for out of state students to come in because they're going to pay out of state tuition fees.

I saw the impact of the economy directly in trying to get into [law] school. And now that I'm applying to law school [again], I'm applying to schools outside of this state, because those schools will probably be more apt to take me because I'm gonna pay their out of state tuition fees. It's ridiculous! What was disappointing was that as hard as I worked at school that I couldn't get into law school because so many out of state students were getting in. Because those are the people paying the fees that they want.

The day after I graduated, I began looking for jobs. I looked for a job for how long? Four and a half months before I landed a [clapping to emphasize each syllable] SER -VING-GIG. I've finally landed a job—waiting tables. So, really fabulous—my original career that I was trying to get away from... I had to, I actually had to take that. [I had been] tailoring every single cover letter, to every single company and just not getting responses. I mean it took me a long time to get a serving job. I was applying all over the place, going to the interviews and not getting any of the jobs. And the reason is my resume, because I'm educated, because I can complete a sentence. My resume says I'm probably more qualified than you manager to do your job [and] I'm extremely experienced. The less qualified you are, the more they want to see you and deal with you.

And then for the other jobs that I was applying for it was no response or delayed responses. And then, to add insult to injury, when I'd get there, they'd be like, "This position pays eleven dollars an hour." "This position pays twelve dollars an hour." "We don't actually have shift work, it's an on-call." Ok, well, what does on call mean? They wouldn't even have set days, like Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday you're on call. It's like you're on-call 24 hours a day 7 days a week. So, if they call you at 1 a.m. on a Friday night, hopefully you haven't been at the bar getting drunk [laughs] because they need you to come into work.

I interject, “You're talking about service jobs, right?”

No. Now I'm talking about real jobs. They can afford to be super-super picky right now. They can afford to do this, because there's no—there are no jobs...So, what's the applicant pool? Three thousand people? For one job? No kidding, seriously! It's crazy.

I still engage my mind. I totally actively engage my mind, because serving is so brainless. I mean, once you know how to do it and you're really good at it. I've been finding it hard to discipline myself . But, hey, it [applying to law schools again] has to get done, so…The problem with serving at night is that you're with a bunch of other people mostly who don't have college degrees who don't have these kind of lofty ambitions.

I make ten dollars an hour plus, like two hundred bucks a shift. That's a livable wage. It's ridiculous. You know? That I can't use my college degree. So I laugh about it. Like, "Ooo, that [diploma] came in real handy."

I've been really disappointed and I've been really angry that this is the world that I've inherited. From these fucking buffoons, these bankers and these think tanks and this system of government…and no jobs for us and the shitty economy. Just super disillusioned. You think you're doing the right thing, “I'm gonna go to school, I'm gonna get my degree, I'm gonna move forward.”

I really enjoyed [school]. I'm so glad that I was able to do that. The value of learning how to think critically about what I'm reading, the value of being able to compose letters or documents—it's enormous. But do I need to be seventy thousand dollars in debt now? Seventy thousand dollars of debt that I can't pay and not just that, I mean, with the private loans, I can't even fucking afford the interest payment right now!

How the fuck are we supposed to pay back all of these damn loans when there are no jobs for us. And the only way that we're going to be able to make it—really make it, is to invent work for ourselves. And that's going to be something local and sustainable. Whether you make clothes or you grow food or you make soap or you do this kind of stuff, where you're writing and trying to get published and can get speaking engagements and stuff like that. Those are gonna be the ways that we're gonna be able to make money in this economy. The old way of doing things is not going to work for us anymore. But what's really shitty is that we're all operating under the old mode of thinking, “I'm gonna go to college, I'm gonna educate myself, I'm gonna get my degrees, I'm gonna get my job.”

It's just a disillusionment. A total disillusionment that, you know, we're all sold this whole thing, that if you go to school and you get your degree, that there is a place for you to be a productive member of society in your field. She laughs. That whole thing? I really believed that—I really believed that. And today, I'm totally, totally fucking disillusioned from that.

I just sat for the LSAT again. I did better than I did last time. I still didn't place where I need to place. She sighs. Law schools are tiered. You have first tier law schools, second tier law schools, third tier law schools. Basically, the lower a tier law school that you go into, the more common you are, but, the more practical your education. So, when you go into these first tier law schools—Harvard, Yale, Berkeley—they turn the law into a very academic pursuit. The law is not supposed to be academic—law school is a professional school. You tell me how to interpret statute and case law and what the hell I need to do in the courtroom—that is what law school is for.

I think it's really good that I didn't go into law school right away because it gave me a better perspective on what school is really about, and what law school is gonna be about. I'm gonna apply to Tulane in New Orleans as a first tier law school, but I'm also going to apply to Loyola in New Orleans, which is a third tier law school. Why waste the money? I spent like $1500 applying last year. Tulane, I'm above their GPA but below their LSAT. Loyola, I'm right on target and I probably could get in to Loyola. [Loyola is] going to be extremely procedural. They're not going to expect me to be sitting on a bench somewhere, wrestling with the human condition, ethics and the law. It's been like a reality check about what school is. And it's also brought me down to earth as far as the school search in that, you know what? I don't need to go to these expensive schools and stuff. I can go to a cheaper school. To understand that going to school now is not about having money and being able to buy into the system. That by going to school I get a degree to do work that I enjoy. Serving is fun, but it's not engaging at all. I wanna do work that I enjoy and if that is what going to school is going to allow me to do, then that's why I wanna go to school. So, I'd say that this recession has impacted the way I think about school. I'm not thinking about [school] in that old way that I used to think about it. I'm thinking about [school] in a different way, a more practical way.

I'm not even gonna call it a Great Recession, I'm gonna call it a Depression. We're in the beginnings of this right now. We're in the beginnings. We are going into the Greatest Depression. I've really gotten into this mode of reuse, recycle, repair, stop buying, stop consuming. If you consume less, you require less money. To use my money for what my money is for.

There's something about it that seems like so...not fair somehow. It definitely has politicized me.