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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Social Justice career fair speaks to college student dilemma

Published: September 9, 2011
Section: News

At a school like Brandeis, it is pretty common to find students who want to change the world through a career in social justice.

Perhaps they want to join the Peace Corps or Oxfam International or work for the United Nations. Students interested in this path, however, often have to confront one commonly held perception: There is no money to be made in the field of social justice. This is something deeply ingrained in the subconscious of the student body. Whether it is a grandmother scorning her grandson for not having a “real job” or it is a group of students making fun of their friend’s English major, many think positively only about the “money-making” majors, and the stable and financially sound jobs.

A career in social justice simply is perceived by many not to fit into this paradigm. A question to ask, however, is whether this perception is true at Brandeis? Do people see these careers as financially unsound risky ventures? Do students here even care if they make a lot of money in their line of work? Even beyond that, how much do students think about criticism or an anticipated tight financial life when deciding on a major, and eventually what to get a career in?

From analyzing the opinions of students and people employed in social justice, it seems that Brandeis students are concerned about money but often shrug these concerns aside.

At the Social Justice Leadership Forum on Tuesday night, a panel of Brandeis alumni as well as a wide variety of others who have careers somehow tied to social justice discussed the career path and the challenges. Throughout the night they touched on a lot of the issues of criticism and financial instability. They began, however, by talking about how tied to social justice Brandeis is. This concept was summed up by Andrew Slack ’02, the executive director of The Harry Potter Alliance, an organization which fights for a variety of issues, including global warming, genocide, and equal rights; Slack quoted a former high school teacher who helped him come to the decision to attend Brandeis.

“‘When you think about the great schools—right—the big names—right—there’s Harvard University. Harvard. That’s the boat. That is the boat. Brandeis. Brandeis rocks the boat.” This sentiment was echoed by the other panelists, as well as in the introduction of the event. The idea that at Brandeis there is a pervasive culture of giving back and getting involved in initiatives to solve social issues was repeated throughout the program.

The panelists spoke about their own paths in the field of social justice and the various challenges associated with their careers, and one point that was brought up frequently was the financial difficulty associated with the career path. They furthermore brought up the pressure from family on this career decision. The panelists felt, however, that these obstacles paled in comparison to what they gained by making that decision. Slack specifically took the attitude of it being just fine to start off with a low income. He advocated shaking things up while at an age when you can easily do so.

“Please do not let fear govern you. It’s a stupid governor … I do think that people who work in social justice should be paid—and paid well—for what they do. Why not? … [W]e should be paid, but we’re not always paid—especially not in the beginning, and that’s OK. If you’re 20 years old right now or 21, 22, you’re an undergraduate and you don’t have a family to feed. Go out there and make a freakin’ mess.” Slack went on to talk about the pressure that can often be felt, and essentially how to say to hell with it.

“Like, who cares? Your parents? You’re not under their roof anymore. You love them and respect them, but give me a break. [At] some point you’ve got to cut the ties of needing their approval every five seconds. They want what’s best for you, but you know what’s best for you [better than anybody].”

Ally Snell, a regional recruiter for the Peace Corps, said in a brief interview how she views the average Brandeis student and thinks that students at Brandeis have a strong proclivity to wanting to give back. She finds that this is not actually related to major and in fact thinks that students who major in one of the “money-makers” can find a good place in the Peace Corps.

According to Snell, when interviewing candidates from Brandeis and other schools, many respond with ideas like: “‘I have this education and I have this experience … and I don’t just want to use it on me. I want to use that to help people who really need it.’ Or ‘I’ve spent four years working on myself. Now I want to spend time helping people who are less fortunate than me’ … regardless of the major.” Snell in fact claims that a student who has an economics major would be an ideal fit for the Peace Corps’ small enterprise development programs.

One student, Emily Heldman ’11, an American studies major, confirmed the suspicion that there are majors out there that are considered “money-making majors” but finds the prospect of not making much money not troubling at all in her possible ambition to volunteer for the Peace Corps.

“I think there are a fair amount of people who choose their major based on the need to make money, but I really do think that people should do what they love and not worry so much about making money. Being rich is nice and all but I think being truly happy and satisfied with your career is more important … I’m not really sure about how much people weigh money when thinking about their futures. I haven’t at all, but there definitely are people who do and they’re the ones who choose to pursue those stereotypical money-making majors.”

Heldman, however, expressed similar sentiments as those expressed by the panel concerning how worried she was about the prospect of making money.

“I haven’t even started thinking about income. I really feel that you should do what you love and [what] makes you happy and things will pretty much be OK. I mean, you have to be at least a little bit practical about money and live within your budget and save, but I think it’s better to have a job you love that maybe pays a little less than to take a job you’re less passionate about, even if it pays a lot. I don’t know if that will change once I actually have a job and have to support myself though.”

Heldman also went along with the panel on her thoughts about whether there actually is money to be made from social justice. She took a slightly different path, however, suggesting that the skills you receive in social justice work can aid you in jobs in the future that perhaps can pay out much better. She also affirmed the belief in some majors that have negative stigma attached to them for low income.

“I think that if you have the skills that a lot of [social justice] careers need, such as being able to do research, read and interpret information, and write well, then you can find a good job anywhere. I feel like there isn’t a high enough priority placed on those skills, which are very important. My parents both were history majors and started out as reporters, with low journalist salaries and, eventually, my dad became very specialized as a health care reporter and now he’s a health care analyst and is paid very well, so there are definitely ways to make money with degrees in fields like history and English.”

Heldman furthermore addressed the same sort of pressures the panel discussed, as well as the value of different degrees opposed to the traditional “money-makers.”

“I think a lot of the pressure to make a steady income as well as to major in those fields that people perceive as being higher income or leading straight to a good job (which I think is so ridiculous) mostly comes from parents. A lot of the people I know who are going down that path and see my American studies degree as meaningless and stupid and tell me that I’ll never get a job are people whose parents are exerting pressure on them to be pre-med, etc., to get a good job and make bank. My parents were both history majors and basically told me to do what makes me happy and that I would be fine. They also told me—and I really do think that a lot of people don’t understand this—that the skills taught in pre-med or business, etc., are not the only worthwhile skills and that being able to write well, interpret information, do research and work well with other people are all incredibly valuable as well. Just because you’re better at writing than science doesn’t mean you’ll be a failure or a starving artist somewhere.”

What is clear is that Brandeis students are pragmatic when thinking about their future careers. Those who wish to pursue a career in social justice realize that things will be tight financially in the beginning, and yet they are confident that things will get easier as time goes on.

Furthermore, whether an alum, a representative of the Peace Corps or an average student, they all advocate for students simply doing what they love, with the firm conviction that there are many different skills of value and not everything is about making money.