When I heard some months ago about the FBI investigation of wealthy parents who lied, cheated, and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children into some of the United States’ most elite universities, I was not surprised. Money and privilege often outweigh merit. But this college admission scandal is just one example of how higher education can perpetuate economic privilege rather than expand economic opportunity.
I myself know firsthand about a lack of economic opportunity, especially since I recently spent more than a year trying to find a full-time job. Being unemployed is hard. Being unemployed when you have a master’s degree is perhaps even harder. Before graduation last year, I thought I would have my pick of job offers after earning my diploma. Instead, I went on an arduous search for a full-time position while also working part-time as a perfume vendor, among other gigs, to earn money. It turns out that having a degree, even an advanced degree from an Ivy League school, is no guarantee of immediate employment.
As an undergraduate, I worked at a Macy’s department store during holiday breaks. In graduate school, I worked at Bloomingdale’s. I went to school during the week, managing a four- or five-class course load depending on the semester, and worked in retail on the weekends, balancing my time between a long commute and research papers. My commute to Bloomingdale’s was an hour and ten minutes. Getting to class took an hour and a half, if New York public transit was cooperating—and two hours or more if it wasn’t.
Since I live in southeast Queens and my classes were on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, arriving to class on time was something of a miracle. One day when I arrived late, my economics professor sent me an email after class saying that my tardiness was disturbing and that she would appreciate it if I could make an effort to be more punctual. She likely had no idea that I regularly woke up at 6:30 am to get ready, have a quick breakfast, and travel a long way to make it to her 11 am class on time. I replied to her email, apologizing and explaining to her where I lived, and promising that I wouldn’t be late again.
Unlike my economics professor, my supervisor at Bloomingdale’s was understanding when I arrived late. I enjoyed working there, in part because the store is in Soho, so the clientele is generally very calm and cool. There was a certain “hipster” vibe that infused the store. It made interacting with customers, a key part of the job, very easy.
One afternoon when I was working a weekday shift after classes, two sisters from Argentina asked me for directions to Canal Street. When they realized I spoke Spanish, the conversation quickly turned to my experience living in Spain, and to how the Spanish language differs from country to country. We developed such a good rapport that they decided to buy perfume from me before leaving.
Some of my classmates were surprised to hear about my double life, selling Bvlgari and Hermès perfumes by night and attending public policy classes by day. Knowing how long my commute was, they were curious as to why I hadn’t moved closer to campus. Well, because living in Manhattan would require more student loans on top of what I already was borrowing. And as someone who comes from a working-class family, I was trying to hold down costs as much as I could.
Having to work while earning my degrees definitely made me a lot more aware of economic privilege. Talking with my classmates, I often got the sense that money was not a concern for most of them. Whether from the US or from abroad, many of them came from privileged backgrounds or had received scholarships from their home country to attend our program. While some of them were going on weekend ski trips and partying constantly, I was working and counting my savings to make sure I could afford to do my summer fieldwork abroad. The difference in our priorities did not really faze me because, the way I saw it, all of my hard work would be worth it in the end.
And yet, 14 months after earning my degree, I was still working in retail, and still waiting for the hard work to pay off. I applied for numerous jobs, which led to a handful of interviews and subsequent writing tests, but no job offers. I have great skill sets, as well as professional experiences abroad, in government, and with international institutions. I can speak, read, and write in three different languages, and I have a master’s degree from one of the top schools in the world. What I did not have, until this past July, was a full-time job offer.
I feel grateful to have finally found employment, especially given that among Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree, 4.8%—nearly 3.7 million—of them were living in poverty in 2017, up from 4.5% (or 3.3 million) in 2016, according to the latest figures from the US Census Bureau. Though still far lower than poverty rates for less-educated Americans, this was the only group to see an increase in that period.
Throughout my job search, I also was acutely aware of how race and gender can affect the way in which many career opportunities present themselves. My being a woman of color played a role in my network and my job prospects—I did not personally know too many women who looked like me and were in a position of power to easily say, “I have a job open at my organization that you would be perfect for. Send over your resume.” While it was a woman of color who hired me for the position that I now have, she and I did not know each other prior to my getting the job, nor did we have mutual colleagues, nor did anyone put in a good word for me with her. Luckily she saw something in my résumé and experiences that showed her I would be qualified for the role.
I work in New York City government now, focusing on issues that I am truly passionate about. It’s funny—I lamented how long it took me to find full-time work. But at the same time, thinking about how much I like my new position, I appreciate that sometimes the best jobs are the ones worth waiting for.
Though I’m thrilled to finally feel that I’m in exactly the place I was meant to be, I’m acutely aware that meritocracies are rare. My advice: While building a career, it is important to remember that a challenge, a setback, or a period of unemployment might very well be the result of not having had the economic privilege to get to a desired goal as quickly as others, but it is not a testament to not having worked hard enough.
Anika Michel received her master’s degree in international affairs in 2018 and now works in the field of public policy.