Last week, I attended a rehearsal with Counter Productions Theater Company that took place at the CCRI campus in Warwick, RI. Despite the number of years I’ve lived and worked in this state, I have never visited the CCRI campus. I was surprised to discover that the parking lot at the Warwick campus is HUGE. I was even more surprised to see how full it was. It was about 6:50 on a Tuesday night and there were maybe a half dozen available spaces in the furthest, darkest corner of the parking lot. I chose swiftness over proximity and took the first spot I found in the second to the last row of cars and speed-walked in the February cold toward the now distant building. In the walk from my car, I found there were many, many cars circling for spots and still several other cars following individuals who were headed to their vehicles, presumably leaving the campus for the day.
All this made me very optimistic. Rather than feeling frustrated by my less than convenient parking spot, I found myself getting choked up about the number of people assembled there to educate themselves. I took it as a hopeful sign in light of some grim publicity I’ve come across lately about higher education.
A popular lamentation in education recently is the dwindling interest in humanities majors in favor of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). I’ve also been reading a lot about how undergraduate degrees are becoming more geared toward job training than personal growth and enrichment. The consensus seems to be that academia is drinking the STEM Kool-Aid and humanity (so to speak) is doomed! I hadn’t taken a position on this yet but, making my way through that parking lot at CCRI, I definitely wasn’t troubled by whether or not all the cars in the parking lot represented STEM students or humanities students.
I know a lot of single parents and people who work full time who are concurrently pursuing higher degrees or taking CE classes at night. I admire this. I admire continuing education students even if you don’t have to grapple with the challenges of parenthood or full time employment while you’re studying. I’m starting to understand that it really DOES take courage to reach beyond your comfort zone in pursuit of your dreams — whatever those might be. There is so much social pressure on individuals to pursue one direction over another that we often fail to listen, even a little bit, to our own yearnings.
I went into college knowing exactly what I wanted to study and what kind of student I was. I majored in theater with the intention of pursuing a career, indeed a LIFE, in the theater. But despite my confidence in the direction I wanted to go and the choices I made in alignment with my professional ambitions, I’d hardly refer to my undergraduate education as “job training.” Beyond any career aspirations I had, my underlying objective was to leave college with a wider view of the world and to learn more than just how to “make it” in theater (as if there’s a tried and true formula for that).
This is why I chose a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies. Art imitates life, after all, and through all my research into different colleges and theater programs, I had gleaned this notion that the more I know about life, the more diversity I am exposed to, the more resources I will have to create. All of that was a personal choice based upon my interests, goals and resources at the time. Keep in mind that, I was a only senior in high school. I’m lucky that my interests are pretty consistent now with what they were then. But not everyone graduating from high school (then or now) knows exactly what he wants to do for the rest of his life and, since we’re all living longer lives these days, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect an 18 year old to have to determine and begin training for the job that will carry him through to retirement.
Despite graduating from college in a decade when the economy was good and jobs were plentiful, there is a lot that my education didn’t teach me about becoming a working professional. I had to learn a lot of that the hard way — by making mistakes and figuring stuff out for myself. Workplace etiquette, for example. How to leave a job gracefully. What is a “side”? For the theater people reading this and wondering — yes, it’s true, I paid a lot of money for an education (that I am extremely grateful for, mind you) that failed to inform me what an “audition side” is. At my first professional audition in New York, I remember nodding my head and following the other actors after being told, “go to that table and grab a side.” I thought I was being told to sit down!
Thankfully, my education empowered me and provided me with tools and exposure to individuals who encouraged, aided and pointed me toward a life of discovery, a life of abundance and the skills to pursue answers to my questions — like what the heck is an “audition side?” College taught me to read, read, read. I had never read in my life the way I read in college. I learned how to find and pursue resources. I learned how to communicate, how to collaborate, how to respectfully speak my mind in a community where I was exposed to cultures, ethnicities, identities and creeds that were wildly different than I had ever known up to that point in my life.
I don’t imagine that every one of the students cramming their cars into the CCRI parking lot were en route to STEM careers. And even if they are, isn’t it good for humanity that so many people in our small state are actively engaged in learning? I happen to know that some of the cars in that parking lot represent individuals who are pursuing certification to work in low paying child development careers. These individuals do this work for the love of it — not unlike theater people and lots of other artists and humanities professionals. It is how they have chosen to spend their waking hours between now and retirement. Child development careers generally do not pay STEM money, but those jobs and the talented people who do those jobs just as vital to our community. My children have been exposed to dozens of these passionate teaching artists through daycare. I have learned a lot from these individuals and I’m always touched by their genuine interest in my child’s well-being and growth.
We have come off some pretty difficult years as a country — especially in Rhode Island — with unemployment rates achieving all time highs. But many, many humans are persevering. They are educating themselves. They are working, parenting, taking classes, creating, competing and trying for something — sometimes all at the same time. I can’t help but be a little emotional about that. Even if it means I have to walk a little longer to get to my car.