When my daughter went into her final year of college, I started feeling a sense of trepidation about what would come next. She was a Sociology major (yay!), was into the arts (yay again), and had lived in New Orleans for four years (cool). Fortunately, she lined up an internship her senior year and now two years later, things have worked out pretty well.
But you never know. In an economy that rewards those in STEM fields and business, the seniors I now teach are predictably in panic mode as they face a very uncertain future. Regardless of all the internships and community service experiences they are accruing, there’s no avoiding the dour statistics for young college graduates. When one student came to me, asking for advice about applying for a consulting job that was way beyond her reach, I found myself counseling her about the virtues of working in a coffee shop. So what if she’s an international relations major!
My first “real” job after graduating from college was working in a state psychiatric hospital. This seemed like a “natural” place to be, since one whole side of my family was riddled with serious psychiatric disorders. Between an aunt with agoraphobia who never left her house, an aunt and an uncle who had “manic-depression” (now called bipolar disorder, a more “respectable” name), and a mother who struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism, I was quite at home working in an institution for people with severe mental health problems.
When I graduated, the state psych hospital was hiring tons of young college graduates. This was in the early ‘70s, when thousands of patients, people who had spent years, sometimes decades, living in inside the walls of state hospitals, were released into the community in a move to “de-institutionalize” them. The motive was humanitarian, but the reality for many of the patients was downright cruel because many of them were unprepared for life on the outside. Nonetheless, it did mean that a lot of my friends and I had jobs when we graduated.
I was hired as the institution’s dance therapist. I had been a dancer for many of my young years, and my professional goal – if one could call it that – was to somehow combine my interest in helping people with my passion for dance. I lucked out, since the field of dance therapy was just emerging, and one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. was willing to train me during my senior year of college.
I worked with people who were still living “inside” the institution, as well as out-patients who were being transitioned into a day treatment program. Because I was a professional dancer in a mental hospital, many of the institution’s rules did not seem to apply to me. Or at least that’s what I thought and how I behaved… More than once, I led a group of patients in a snake line through the hallways, wearing a leotard and tights. We seemed off-limits to criticism, as this “crazy” activity was “therapy”! It felt downright revolutionary!
While working in an institution wasn’t where I “landed” professionally, it was nothing short of a profound experience for a 21-year-old. I fell in love with schizophrenics who were smart and spoke in metaphors that seemed poetic and deep. I’ll never forget one of my out-patients, a diminutive woman named Ruth, who spent her entire adult life in the psych hospital. Ruth held her body like a tight fist, and stood all day, rocking rhythmically back and forth. I feel teary when I think about her. Another person seared in my mind is a tall, broad gentleman in a perpetual cowboy hat. People called this man of few words, “the Captain”. One of my most glorious days was when I took “the Captain” for a drive in the country, with two other patients. Outside it was minus forty degrees – this was Central New York in winter – but inside the car, with sun shining through the windows, it felt warm and protective. He said little throughout the drive, just smiled…
By the time I was hired to work as a dance therapist at the state psych center, sociologist Erving Goffman had already published his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. One of Goffman’s greatest contributions was his critique of what he called “total institutions”, which included mental hospitals and prisons, those institutions with a high degree of regimentation, and an elaborate privilege system. He described relations between staff and patients (or inmates) as caste-like, with detailed “rules” of deference and demeanor.
I knew nothing of Goffman while I was working in that first post-college job. But after studying this brilliant sociologist in graduate school and using his analyses in a class I now teach, it all comes back to me. I lived what Goffman described. Drawing upon those earlier experiences, I could now understand his theoretical frameworks. One of my favorite co-workers, a friendly and clever guy named Willie who was the janitor, surely understood Goffman’s analysis when he changed his first name from Willie to “Doctor”. Whenever anyone wanted his services, they would yell “Doctor”. He always came running with a smirk on his face.
Despite the draw of my first job, I realized within a year that I wasn’t going to last. I was too young, too inexperienced, too overwhelmed with it all. While I found the people interesting, I had no real training. And even though I was a good listener, I fought back tears every time a “client” expressed sadness or joy. Ultimately, what drove me to work at the psych hospital – working with really troubled people – became the reason I had to leave. It wasn’t the right fit, even though it seemed so at the beginning. With a far more robust economy than we have today, I saved up enough cash that year to travel Europe for nearly a year, so that’s what I did!
As my father used to say, everything we do in life accrues and has meaning. This has to be true, as well, for college students who are saddled with debt and graduating to a lousy economy and a dearth of employment opportunities that “fit” with their majors. A number of my friends are living at “home” (where they grew up) and working in unpaid internships that they hope will lead to a paid job. I know one person who dropped out of college in her freshman year and learned how to do organic farming. Now she’s running a business where she creates peace gardens for interested clients. I know one person who couch-surfed for a few months, and then got a job sailing someone’s boat to the Virgin Islands. At one point, during an intense storm, he wondered if he was even going to make it… I can imagine that he’s not the only one feeling that way, although perhaps for different reasons.
When I think about my own daughter – and all the young people I encounter these days – what I wish for them is the courage to follow their passion, and then feel okay about whatever job or internship (or whatever) they find, knowing that those things may not be the same thing. At least for now…