Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Picking up stakes

It's the time of year when a lot of people I know are on the move. Students who just graduated are finding apartments near their graduate school campuses. Others are getting jobs, leaving jobs, or relocating closer to their jobs, a better place, something more affordable.

Settled as I am, I feel more nervous for these friends in transit than they might even feel for themselves. Last night I had dinner with recent graduates and talked about the places they were bound: New York, Chicago, Savannah, Oxford Mississippi. Their coveted spots in prestigious programs didn't come with financial support. Not only are they leaving home for the great unknown, they're going into some serious debt.

Looking back at that time in my own life, I find that I worried very little about how it was all going to work. With supreme confidence in my abilities and the unfounded belief that academia owed me a living, I never had to stare into the abyss of loans or weigh the worth of my education against what it was all costing.

And so I'm not sure my advice is worth much to these students. What good is my experience, when their burdens are so different? Should I really be telling them to grab that top-tier graduate program slot even with no fellowship or assistantship?

The problem is that I've seen any number of students put off the decision to attend grad school in recent years -- only to get stuck, seemingly. I've started to worry that students clearly destined for an academic life won't be able to get there if they decide to wait. The momentum dries up along with the best opportunity to work your way into some funding. My probably poor advice stems from that concern.

So there they go -- students, friends, proteges, acquaintances far and wide. Moving around, moving on, chasing the dream or giving up on one. I haven't lived that life in so long that their mobility astounds and frightens me. I wish them all the best, and I'm glad I'm just watching them from the sidelines.

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