January 20, 2012

Degrees of happiness

A liberal-arts degree is worth the risk of post-undergraduate uncertainty.

As a pessimistic traveler, I usually arrive a good two hours before my flight leaves even at an empty airport. In doing so, I’ve learned that airports are not fun places to hang out. There’s always a crying baby, the smell of French fry oil, and the walls are always that depressing shade of speckled grey. But they do have bookstores. Not anything special, just your basic Barbara’s Booksellers stocked with all the latest celebrity memoirs, vampire romance fiction, and sexy self-help books. Still, compared to the stores that sell overpriced perfume and “I heart [insert major city]” T-shirts, Barbara’s is a pretty okay place to spend 20 minutes.

At my last foray into a Barbara’s I bought Tina Fey’s memoir-type book, Bossypants, in hardcover. I thought it would be just the sort of light, funny airplane material an 18-35-aged female and 30 Rock enthusiast such as myself could digest comfortably. But it wasn’t—in fact, it’s pretty uncomfortable to get through. Fey spares no details about her North Side, post-graduate, and pre-Second City existence. And while she spends only a chapter detailing her time at an incredibly depressing desk job at a YMCA, this one chapter alone was enough to scare me.

After reading her book, I realized that a lot of Fey’s story is not really exceptional. Admittedly, she is both incredibly talented and successful, yet she spent a good many years after college living through the “grimness” of a YMCA reception desk in a scenario familiar to so many. The people are grim, the lunches are grim, the bosses are grim, even the concept of being awake for the morning is grim. But grimmest of all is the crisis that can follow the realization that, in the real world, your degree is not worth a whole lot.We’ve all been forewarned about this grim possibility at some point, and many of us have felt the weight of it looming over our heads. And as we take those tentative “Steps to Success” on what could end up being a very long and difficult path, it’s easy to become just the slightest bit cynical.

We come up against this cynicism all the time in our daily University lives and sometimes it’s hard to tell how we will feel at the end of it. But Fey, in the end, was glad to have that theater performance degree. While it didn’t get her the job at Second City (that came from talent), it did get her a promotion from the reception desk to the actual office at the Y with a pay raise that allowed her to continue improv classes. So if life in the proverbial real world will be grim for everyone, I at least want to embrace these four years at college as an opportunity to binge on education. And all I ask is that, somewhere down the line, my degree gets me from reception to the office.

In my first quarter at UChicago, I’ve force fed myself passages of Marx and Durkheim, Ovid and Eliot, taken a workshop on memoir and storytelling and acted with University Theater. I’ve gotten lost on the CTA, seen concerts in the city, eaten too much Mexican food, and even fallen on my face on the dance floor at DU. (That was one time, okay?) I’ve taken it upon myself to meet as many people as I can and I daresay I’ve made some friends. I’ve done so much and yet whenever I allow myself to sit alone and indulge in inactivity, I feel guilty for not seizing some opportunity somewhere (and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way).

This university and the opportunities it has to offer are a privilege. This is a fact we can never forget. In the face of the cynicism surrounding the future that lies beyond it, we can’t afford to lose sight of the infinite possibilities we are free to enjoy right now. If the grimness must fall, I want to be prepared and take it on not only with my liberal arts degree, but also with the wealth of great experiences I had along the way to attaining it. I don’t want to half-resent my degree, as Fey seems to in her book. Self-deprecation is fine—in fact, here it’s encouraged—but resentment is never where you want to be.

So I’m taking Fey’s advice she learned at those Second City improv classes: saying yes. I’m saying yes. I’m saying yes to four years of studying theory and literature and art and yes to a life of living, of beating back the grimness with those very liberal-artsy luxuries.

Meaghan Murphy is a first-year in the College.