Whenever I am asked by my parents what I want to do once I leave the booze and sex filled fairytale land that is Duke, and embark on what can only be grudgingly referred to as ‘the real world,’ I give them the same answer they’ve heard for the past five years: “law school.”
But seeing as I take courses more so focused on gender and sexuality as opposed to politics and philosophy, this answer usually doesn’t satisfy them.
“But like, you are going to make money, right?” is often the question that follows. I usually answer defiantly, making respectable fields like “international human rights law” and “gender equity law” sound like taunts, rolling off my tongue with a certain level of acidity that is usually reserved for insulting my worst enemy. My parents are worried that I may be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after school with no way of paying it off unless I work in a traditional high-paying field.
And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at least share some of their sentiments.
From a young age I was always taught to value money. Not for the flashy things it could immediately get me, but rather what it could provide if I saved enough of it. An education. A downpayment on a house. Things that my parents considered luxury items but what most consider items necessary for survival. See, my parents immigrated from Czech Republic in the late 80’s speaking no English, with little to no money in savings, and with a young child in tow from my mother’s first marriage. They are the epitome of the American dream, with my mother getting her nursing degree after cleaning houses for several years, and my father working as an HVAC Mechanic for a large pharmaceuticals company after doing basic janitorial work wherever he could. Because of the importance they placed on saving as much money as they could, they were able to send my brother and me to two extremely expensive private universities. They celebrated smart investment decisions last year by buying a third home. In their eyes, going in to low paying nonprofit work would be the ultimate slap in the face because it would mean that the money they spent on my education would be something of a waste. Every decision in life has a cost-benefit analysis. Even during this unpaid internship, my parents have been asking me to come home on the weekends and lifeguard at my old pool club in order to make some extra cash.
But truthfully, my parents’ disapproval of going in to the nonprofit sector is not the only thing keeping me from engaging in this kind of work. At what point can you say it isn’t worth it to you anymore? If you really cared about ‘the movement’ then you wouldn’t care about money, right? How can you help others if you are struggling so hard to make it yourself? Many of the people I’ve encountered in the nonprofit sector (including the President of my organization) have held corporate jobs first, making enough for a comfortable safety net and then embarking on their ‘true passions.’ Admittedly, this seems like much more of a viable option for me, as expectations for post-graduation have been piling up on my shoulders like permanent cinderblocks. I don’t consider myself a sellout so much as I consider myself a realist. But perhaps that’s just what I tell myself in order not to feel guilt when I see that others are making it happen.