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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Carpe Diem When Building Your Perfect Schedule

Checking scheduleMapping out your college schedule is always a tug-of-war between short-term and long-term gain. You don’t want a schedule that’s too hard or too easy (because that just means you’re putting off the hard schedule for later). You need to keep in mind the delicate balance between core requirements, credits for your major, and electives. Even if you map everything out in advance, your best laid plans could go awry when the classes you were eyeing all get scheduled at the same time.

When I was an undergrad, I developed a strategy early and held fast to it for the remainder of my four years: Try as many things as possible, avoid commitment as long as possible. First, I didn’t declare my major until the last possible minute. This was for two reasons: (1) I wanted as much time as possible to try everything first. (2) At my school, if you entered declared, there were certain freshman year required intro classes. Declare later and you could skip those, leaving more time for more interesting material.

The other piece of my long-term strategy was knocking out core requirements as quickly as possible, trading a comparatively tedious first year for more freedom down the road. It mostly worked out well, especially since I decided to go for a double major by the end of my sophomore year, so I needed all the room I could get credits for two majors before the end of the four years.

While the plan worked to a point, I made a big mistake by not leaving myself any wiggle room to do things on a whim. This screwed me out of a number of courses that needed to be taken sequentially. Since I’d eaten up my first two years with checking off the essentials, I didn’t have leave myself much time to work up to some of the higher level courses in my majors.

The second mistake was more tragic. My Medieval Lit course was run by a Prof. Wilson. Easily one of the best instructors I’ve ever had. He spoke seven languages (half of them dead ones). He could recite the first 100 verses of Beowulf from memory. In Old English. He was the sort of professor who could go off on tangents and loop them back around to the main topic. He could bring current events into a discussion of Pilgrim’s Progress and make it feel organic. He was passionate about what he did and you could feel it every time his class met. (For your mental picture, he might have been played by Richard Attenborough.)

When Prof. Wilson announced he’d be teaching a course called Heroic Literature, I couldn’t believe I could get credits for something so tailor-made to my interest. It would be a cross-cultural examination of the idea of literary heroes. It was a course of his own design, so no one else in the department was really qualified to teach it.

But I had my strategy, so I held off, opting to take it next time it came around so I could take care of more boring stuff first.

Near the end of the semester, Prof. Wilson was nowhere to be found. A few other professors in the department took over his classes for the remaining weeks. Eventually, word leaked: Prof. Wilson had a particularly aggressive form of cancer. He was diagnosed in November and passed away shortly after the New Year.

I wish I’d taken more classes with the guy. I wish I’d thrown my plans out and just gone with my gut. But I didn’t.

That’s my advice to anyone mapping out plans for the future. Not just for college, but for anything in life. If there’s something you truly want, go for it. Never put off the things you’re most passionate about. You never know if the only day is today.

Scholarships Replace Parents As the #1 Payment Source for College

The amount of money parents contribute to their kids’ college education is dropping. Or, more accurately, it’s struggling to keep up. As recently as 2010, parents paid for 37% of the total money spent on college education around the country from their own income. Three years later, that amount has dropped 10%, with grants and scholarships now taking over a greater percentage of the heavy lifting.

Student Borrowing 18%, Parent Borrowing 9%, Parent Income & Savings 27%, Grants & Scholarships 30%, Relatives & Friends 5%, Student Income & Savings 11%

How college was paid for in the 2012-2013 academic year. Source: Sallie Mae

Simply put, the cost of college is increasing faster than parents can afford to keep up with it.

To fill the gap, more students need to take out loans (14% in 2010 has become 18% in 2013) or simply fit the bill for their education from their own income and savings (9% in 2010, 11% in 2013). It’s to the credit of colleges and universities that these numbers aren’t much higher than they could be. They’ve upped how much they spend on scholarships and grants, as well as simply offering more full-rides and other financial support, in order to keep the burden on students from getting too overwhelming.

Keep in mind that these numbers are percentages of total money, not of students. In other words, 18% of total amount spent on education last year came from student loans. It’s not that 18% of students took out loans. The actual total number of students graduating with some sort of  debt? Nearly two-thirds.

So what can a student do? Not much, unfortunately. Basically, you can be very grateful to your parents for what they’ve done and go out of your way to find scholarship opportunities. Obviously it’s going to vary greatly from individual situation to situation, but here are a few general pointers:

  • Even if your parents are paying for college, apply for some scholarships. There are tons of them out there, and your parents will certainly appreciate any money you save them.
  • Weigh your options with student loans carefully. While often necessary, they can be very tough to pay off for young professionals. On the other hand, taking the income hit you’ll get from not getting your ideal degree might leave you just as strapped for cash through your 20s.
  • There are a lot of great scholarship resources out there, but no single, completely comprehensive search engine, so don’t limit yourself to Google. Ask around. If there’s some sort of local community group, church, synagogue, mosque, sports team, etc. that you’re a part of, your odds of getting their scholarship are definitely higher.
  • Don’t just look during the summer. Most scholarships are offered year-round, and the earlier you look the more likely you won’t miss an application deadline.

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

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It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Why Aren’t College Students More Invested in College Town Politics?

iStock_000015650351XSmallThe traditional idea of a college town is one that’s truly built up around the college. These towns have bars and restaurants packed with students. They root for the school’s sports teams, especially the local hotels and motels who fill up with visiting family during games and graduations. The campus is the most identifiable landmark in town. It’s the largest contributor to the local economy. It’s in the identity of the town.

Many of the largest state schools are in these sorts of towns. The students of Arizona State University makes up over a third of the population of Tempe. University of Georgia students a little shy of 30% of Athens’ population. Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, a city of 42,620. Total number of students at VA Tech? 31,087. Over 70%.

Yet in most cases, the student population is considered essentially transient, and that has a big impact on both the way these towns think about the students as members of the community and the way the students view themselves.

Berkeley, CA, realizing the size and impact of UC Berkeley (about 32% of city population), recently approved a measure that would let the school be considered its own voting district. It was an amazing act of faith in the judgment of the student body and their say in local politics. A similar proposal was suggested regarding the University of Vermont (about 27% of Burlington), but was dismissed by the local government. The Burlington city government simply assumed that students would not be interested enough to get involved.

That assumption might not be as baseless as it sounds. UVM hasn’t been able to drum up enough enthusiasm among the student body. So what’s happening? Why would students pass up the opportunity for greater direct influence?

As politically involved as students can be, it’s rare to see that same passion applied to local politics. As far as I can tell, here are the biggest reasons why:

  • The student body is made up of lots of people from lots of different places. I went to a college outside of my home state, and probably around 80% of my friends were from out of state (or country) too. Our local politics were the decision made by the school itself. That’s what had a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. It didn’t feel like we moved into a community as much as we created a new community of people from around the country (or planet).
  • Local politics aren’t as flashy, dramatic, or interesting as national/international politics. Strike up a conversation about politics and it would usually be (at the time I was in college) about the Iraq War, abortion, or gun control. Either international relations or broad social issues. As students (especially at a liberal arts college), we were used to speaking about vague theoretical concepts of how things should be. We weren’t used to discussing practical issues like construction on the freeway or a tax hike on property owners. We had very little media exposure to city-level concerns, even in the media we created ourselves (like student newspapers).
  • Students don’t think of themselves as members of the community yet. It’s a little like the old question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We get so used to thinking of our education as the time before we start our “real” lives. Local politics don’t seem like something we can, or should, be a part of yet. College students have largely not yet been greeted as full adults, so on some level, they don’t see themselves as full adults.

If Burlington changes its mind and lets UVM become a district, I think it would the student interest would follow. Students would be more interested in local politics if they were invited to become more invested. But if the city/community doesn’t try to get the students involved, it’s unlikely they’ll bother.

Whether or not a city wants so many young people to have a more powerful voice is a different matter…

 

Opinion: Supreme Court Makes the Right Call on Affirmative Action, Pleases No One

A photo of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

This morning, the Supreme Court kicked off its summer blockbuster season with a long-brewing case on affirmative action. We first talked about the case last October, where an aspiring college student named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas: Austin for discrimination after not being accepted.

The Supreme Court’s call was agreed upon 7-1. (There were only 8 votes since Justice Kagan recused herself.) To make a long ruling short, the Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts, saying that they didn’t scrutinize UT-Austin’s admissions process closely enough before sending the case along.

If that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, well… it is. The justices said quite a bit on the nuanced topic, but decided on very little. But all things considered, that was probably the best thing they could have done. Any sweeping decision on affirmative action — for or against the policy — could only have resulted in lots of unfairly disenfranchised people.

A nuanced topic needs a nuanced ruling, and the Supreme Court’s non-decision only reflects the pointlessness of the question “Is affirmative action good or bad?” It’s both and it’s neither. Kicking the case back down to the lower courts just shows that if you want the Supreme Court to give you a straight answer, you need to ask them a more specific question.

Race-conscious admissions discriminate unfairly. Race-conscious admissions help establish and maintain a diverse academic community. Both of these statements are undeniably true, meaning we can’t entirely get rid of affirmative action, even if we haven’t figured out the best way to do it yet.

Personally, I’m more sympathetic toward the UT-Austin administrators trying to establish a balanced admissions system (even if the end result is deeply flawed) than I am toward a single student who didn’t get into her first choice of school. That being said, I’m glad these sorts of cases get brought up, because affirmative action should be scrutinized heavily. It’s the only way to develop, over time, a system better than what we currently have. Delaying a decision was the right call. This topic needs more time to evolve.

It’s Better to Drop Out Than to Never Try, Says Study

A four-year college degree isn’t for everybody. I’d be reluctant to even say it’s for most people. However, everybody needs and deserves education. Our society just needs to do a better job recognizing the validity of the huge variety of types of education for different types of people, interests, and careers.

I know a lot of people who went to college, but I know less people who have diplomas stuffed in a drawer somewhere. And that’s totally fine.

Now we have proof that this is totally fine, found in a paper from economic think tank the Hamilton Project. Turns out the boost to your lifetime salary received from even a little college experience significantly exceeds the amount you spend to attend. (Students with some college experience earn $100,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than students who have none.) If you’re looking at higher education as an investment into a future career, it’s worth getting any amount you can pull off.

Naturally, if you’re looking at this purely in terms of numbers, a degree still helps a lot more. Students with bachelor’s degrees earn $500,000 more in their lifetimes than students who end their education after high school.

However, let’s say you’re a struggling high school senior who knows he can make it into college, but isn’t sure if he can make it through. Pursuing a degree isn’t an all or nothing proposition. Getting half a degree still leaves you with half of what you’d learn if you hadn’t tried at all. And that will have some impact on what opportunities you get once you enter the workforce.

Ever heard anyone say, “Reach for the moon. Even if you don’t make it, you’ll land among the stars”? If you can ignore the horribly inaccurate astronomy, it’s still advice worth thinking about.

How Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Hands holding a sign reading "Will Work for Credits"

The further along students get in their education, and the closer they get to entering the workforce, the more the line between the two starts to blur. College athletes, for example, aren’t getting paid for their athleticism, other than the lucky ones offered scholarships. But in many cases, their hard work is still making truckloads  of money for their universities.

Internships are the tipping point between education and career. But if higher education is something that you pay to do and employment is something that you are paid to do, which of the two is an internship?

It’s a point of contention, for sure. A group of former interns recently sued the Hearst Corporation in a class action suit, claiming they were owed back-pay. The judge threw out the case, saying they didn’t meet the definition of a “class,” since the work done varied too much between individuals. But if the case had been able to play out, it would have come down to an argument over the nature of the work. Were the interns primarily there to receive instruction and experience, or were they there as a free source of labor?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, there’s a few criteria an unpaid internship must meet to be legally acceptable:

  • It must give educational training.
  • It must be for the benefit of the intern.
  • It can’t displace regular employees.
  • It can’t give your employer a competitive advantage.
  • It isn’t a lengthy try-out for a full-time job.
  • Everybody involved has to know and agree to the fact that there’s no paycheck.

As you can see, a few of these definitions are more than a little fuzzy. (Though keep in mind the phrasing used is mine.) Every job benefits the worker on some level, even if it’s just another line you can put on a resume, so I’m not sure how even the most mind-numbing internship would fall short of that requirement. Also, every intern does work that ties back into the objectives of the company somehow, otherwise no company would hire interns. So while “displacing employees” and “competitive advantage” might be a little strong, in one way or another all interns will be doing work that someone else could be doing. That being said, these vague rules are probably about as fair as they can be, considering the already vague definition of the word “internship.”

So should companies pay for internships or not? It’s a tough question. The classic anti-unpaid argument is that unpaid internships only offer opportunities for employees financially stable enough to work for free. Therefore, if an internship is the expected entry point to a career, that career is only available to people in good socioeconomic standing.

But, fair or unfair, how is that different from any form of higher education? At least an intern doesn’t have to pay the company in anything other than time. Sure, college students can take out loans, but that just leaves them saddled with debt. Either way, isn’t the ultimate objective of both the same: to gain the experience and credentials to help launch your career?

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I took an internship with a newspaper. It didn’t pay and I couldn’t use it for credit. Still, I’m happy I did it. It gave me a major leg-up when looking for entry-level positions after graduation. It got me my first job. But I also only did it for two and a half months. Long enough to get what I needed: experience and recommendations.

I have no doubt that there are a lot of businesses out there exploiting their interns as a source of cheap (or free) labor. But interns should keep in mind that they might be able to exploit those businesses too. Find the business that will give you experiences you can use as future leverage.

The key deciding factor should not be money, but should be variety. If the internship is just repeatedly doing a single, simple, and boring task, it’s not probably not worth doing. If the internship means you get to be shoved into a dozen different bottom-level tasks, then there’s educational value, as well as a dozen new things you can put on a resume and spin into something bigger during future interviews.

10 Reasons You Might Want to Take a Few Summer Classes

iStock_000020064261XSmallPre-college, summer school is hung over the heads of students like a threat for not working hard enough. That’s already an unfair stigma for grade school and high school students, but for college that stigma truly makes no sense. If you’re reluctant to sacrifice your three months of sunshine for a few spare credits, here’s a few reasons you might want to reconsider.

1. Summer classes are typically easier. Take this one with a grain of salt, because I have no doubt there are plenty of exceptions, but generally speaking, you won’t need to do as much work during a summer term.

2. You can knock out that class you’ve been dreading while you’re not ridiculously busy. Have to take Organic Chemistry sooner or later? Have you been putting off your core Foreign Language requirement? It might be worth tackling those when you don’t have any other distractions.

3. You’ll still have plenty of time for a job. Assuming you’re only taking one class, it’s only a few hours a week commitment. Not too many students work 9-5 at summer jobs, so it should be pretty easy to make it work with your schedule.

4. Plenty of time for a vacation too. Even if you’re taking a full load, most summer terms last less than two months. Plenty of time to still take off for the beach, another country, or to hang out with the family for a months or so.

5. You don’t have to take them at your normal school. If your college gets pretty lonely during the summer months, it’s fairly easy to knock out your summer classes at a school closer to home, even the local community college. Just make sure to double check with your current institution that all the credits will transfer.

6. Easier to find dirt cheap textbooks to rent. Places that rent out textbooks (like us) only have a limited stock available. There’s no scramble to  find an affordable copy during the summer, when most copies will be sitting around our warehouse.

7. Shorter, cheaper rental terms. Another benefit for semester students taking an accelerated summer term: You can save a few extra dollars by renting for just a month or two.

8. Smaller class sizes. This isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but summer classes grant the opportunity to have a more direct one-on-one relationship with an instructor, since class sizes shrink by a huge margin. However, be warned that the instructors for summer classes are often TAs and not full professors, so it may not be the one-on-one interaction you’re looking for.

9. Earlier graduation. If you’re really committed to grabbing credits here and there, you might even be able to shave a term or two off the whole college experience. Again, this isn’t for everyone, but with the cost of college rising as it is, any tuition corners you can cut might be worth it.

10. Getting campus (almost) to yourself. You’ll see a very different side to your campus in the summer. It’s kind of like walking around New York City at six in the morning on a Sunday: all these buildings and nobody in or around them. You’ll miss the mania of a packed campus after a few weeks, but for a short term it’s a relaxing change of pace.

The Five Stages of Grief Writing a Final Paper

A sad panda

Sad panda

For some, the final paper is even more dreaded than the final exam. At least with an exam, you can only do so much work in the time given. With a paper, there’s this sinister feeling that you always could have done more. So naturally, you put off thinking about it as long as you can.

I was reading the other day about the Kübler-Ross model, better known as the Five Stages of Grief. I thought I’d overlay the same ideas onto the process of writing a final paper. The comparison was uncanny.

STAGE 1 — DENIAL

“Professor ____ gave us the final today, but I’ve got like 2 and a half weeks to do it. Plenty of time.”

The student engages in a conscious or unconscious rejection of the situation. The disruption of his/her schedule is seen as an opportunity for more active forms of procrastination. His/her sense of time is distorted. The student seeks constant social interaction to avoid engaging with vague sense of impending doom. Bravo reality TV programming suddenly becomes fascinating.

STAGE 2 — ANGER

“What is this crap? 15 freaking pages of this? She barely even covered this in class.”

When the student is ready to engage with the assignment, he/she initially rejects the terms of the assignment as unreasonable. Feelings of outrage may be directed as the instructor, the institution, noisy neighbors and roommates, friends who keep sending emails and texts saying they’re going out tonight, the stupid library, stupid Internet, and stupid Microsoft Word, or perhaps even at the student’s stupid self for signing up for this stupid class in the first place.

STAGE 3 — BARGAINING

“Okay, I’ll start in the morning. One more party tonight, then I’ll get started in the morning, I promise.”

Students may attempt to bargain with themselves, e.g., offering an hour of work in exchange for an hour getting out of the dorm/apartment. They may also attempt to appease a higher power, sending emails to the instructor testing  the flexibility of the page count or appealing for an extension.

STAGE 4 — DEPRESSION

“I can’t do this. This is impossible. What is wrong with me? Why did I wait until today. Guhhh…”

The student becomes silent and stares blankly at his/her monitor. Posture is slumped. Head may be flat against desk or keyboard. In the earlier stages, comments may be left on social media networks looking for sympathetic responses. In the later stages, acts of procrastination will no longer feature any elements of fun. The blank Word document will be opened and stared at for an indeterminate period of time.

STAGE 5 — ACCEPTANCE

“I haven’t slept in 36 hours. I’ve eaten three consecutive meals of Kraft mac n’ cheese and Dr. Pepper. I have no idea what I wrote. But it doesn’t matter. It’s done.”

After realizing he/she doesn’t even have the time to be depressed anymore, the student begins the assignment. Without any energy to devote toward emotional reactions anymore, the student pours out a series of stream-of-consciousness thoughts onto his/her keyboard. Stray glances at the clock only confirm that there isn’t time to look at the clock. Upon completion and submission of the assignment, the student receives an inexplicable surge of energy, later followed by an exhausted crash. Sometimes this happen in reverse.

To Walk or Not to Walk on Graduation Day?

gradcapWhen it’s time to graduate, while you’re sitting there sweating through your academic robes in the summer sun, you’ll start to listen to the names of your class (or department, depending on how your school does it), anticipating friends’ names so you can cheer a little louder.

The odds are pretty good that you won’t hear at least one name you expect to. Some people just plain don’t want to walk.

While the majority of you probably wouldn’t even consider skipping, a number of your classmates have no interest whatsoever in attending graduation. A few of them might even take off as soon as finals are complete. Justifications will vary. Some will say they’re just sick of school and can’t wait to get out of here. Some will be taking off out of obligation to their vacation plans (that they easily could’ve scheduled later in the first place). But whatever the argument, the people who don’t want to walk simply don’t see much value in pomp and circumstance.

And that’s totally valid. If you’re one of the minority that would rather just take off as soon as you’ve completed your last final, then by all means, take off. If the ceremony isn’t for you, then it isn’t for you. No need to feel guilty about it.

That being said remember that only about 10% of the ceremony is actually intended for you and the rest of the graduating class. The rest is for your families. So before you make any rash decisions about skipping, run it by your parents, siblings, grandparents… whoever plans on coming. And defer to their judgment. Just as you only get one chance to walk, your family only gets one chance to see you walk.

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