Don’t mind me; I’m just practicing my click-bait titles…
It is often said that if hard work was the only way to success, day laborers, farmers, etc. would all be millionaires. Hard work is a key to success. No one (except maybe lottery winners) has ever achieved anything in life by sitting around the house doing nothing. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman freeing slaves, Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook or Obama becoming president, you won’t hear about high achievers sitting on the couch with a lot of free time on their hands.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t be insinuating that anyone who didn’t find great professional or financial success failed to do so because they lacked discipline. Many of those people lacked opportunity, money and some were lazy and poor planners, but some lacked good fortune.
I say luck because many of my peers who came from similar backgrounds as myself are doing very well while others, who didn’t work any less hard are doing terribly or did so terribly that even after being back on their feet are playing catch up.
I want to tell the tales of 3 of my peers, all of whom graduated college within a year of each other and a year of the Great Recession, eliminating the disparity that graduating during prosperous times would create.
All 3 are women of color, giving them the same likelihood of facing sex and race discrimination in academia and the workforce.
All 3 were traditional students with parental support (albeit to various degrees), no teen pregnancies, criminal past, etc.
While they remain anecdotes, I wanted to provide that small glimpse of their backgrounds to demonstrate that some of the major things that tend to create inequalities were not factors or were the same for all women.
I’ll start with the one that graduated in 2007. That was pre-recession but her lack of meaningful experience limited her opportunity to find full-time employment in time before Sallie Mae came calling. She was a little stubborn about getting internships in her field because they paid less than the temp-jobs she got that were completely unrelated to her major. She eventually found a job a year later after she began managing her salary expectations a little better. She built her savings and got her own apartment. She was no longer living on whatever allowance her parents could spare but she wasn’t living a life of prosperity either. For example, she couldn’t afford a car in any state (new or used) because the added cost of fuel and insurance was too much for her tight budget to bear. Some days she didn’t run the heat to keep utility costs manageable.
A year later, Peer #2 graduates. All is well. At least for a few months until the market crashes and Lehman goes out of business on a humid august day. It’s pandemonium and lay offs start rolling in. She got to keep her job but it was only a matter of time before she too was offered a severance package. She takes it, finds a job in retail and applies to graduate school, but she falls behind on her bills. Shortly there after, she lands another, better paying job which offers to pay for her to finish her degree. She says goodbye to retail for good as she graduates, gets promoted and gets married. Her now-husband who also has a good paying job brings in solid additional income that allows them to move to a really nice part of town and she keeps thriving. 8 years after undergrad, she has a happy family life, has a successful career and is financially stable.
Peer #3 is also a 2008 graduate. She’s an outgoing creative woman with a heart of gold. She’s generous to a fault. She’s active and participates in any and all activities that could enrich her undergraduate experience. She had lofty aspirations so she travels internationally and tries to get internships at various prominent organizations. Unfortunately her field of study is narrow and doors are closing fast. Her field is in demand but only for the most seasoned workers. There’s no desire to invest scarce resources into building inexperienced people. She bounces from paid internship to paid internship until things get so bad that she ends up working at the mall, focusing on just making a living since building her resume has done little for her career prospects. As a result of her basic costs (which are relatively low given that she still lives at home), she is unable to make her student loan payments which go into default and double in size after capitalized interest and late fees. 8 years after graduation, she is still making minimum wage and owes more on her student loans than she borrowed.
Next time you see someone struggling, don’t assume that they’ve done everything wrong. It could very well be that the necessary opportunities for success didn’t present themselves.