Networking and Class

As part of the prompt for this week’s blog post, we were instructed to create a profile on Pitt Commons as a first step to connecting with other Brackenridge alumni who have similar interests, career paths, or academic majors. I reached out to an alum who studied Philosophy and German as an undergrad and ended up completing a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago. We’ve shared emails and I’m excited to get some perspective on the culture and graduate experience at UChicago since this is where I’m interested in applying for a JD, PhD program.

It’s nice to see how expansive the Brackenridge community is, let alone the Pitt alumni network. Having this resource makes me much more optimistic that myself and other Pitt students can reach out to people who’ve completed similar tracks as our own despite the job search being so overwhelming. In an economically trying time like the one we’re living through, it’s going to be especially tough to find opportunities and pursue our intended career paths. Hopefully the dramatic chaos wrought upon our “normal” social routines will force us to reconsider the deep-seated problems that are only exacerbated by the faltering economy and lockdowns. I don’t think it’s that high-minded or preachy to carry the conversation in this direction, since, for one, we know all too well how radical change became necessary throughout history in order not only to regain a sense of stability but to start correcting for long-standing faults in our institutions and practices. FDR’s social welfare programs and the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements of the 1960’s demonstrated, undeniably, that times of turmoil are opportunities for real change.

But for another matter, it’s important that we talk about the “normalcy” of what we as a society are used to at any point in time, whether it’s during a crisis or not. The alumni network provided by universities to place exclusively college students in reach of opportunities is one such norm we should reconsider. I’m obviously trying to echo the demands for reassessing and restructuring institutions like law enforcement that Black Lives Matter activists are currently calling for, but I think the importance we place on networking for college students is yet another reflection of a systemic failing we should take more seriously, namely, class division.

To be clear: I’m not saying professional networking is a bad practice or that the alumni networks supported by universities like Pitt are heinous institutions. However, I am convinced we as a society need to rethink the higher education system, both for the actual economic foundations it rests on, and for the cultural mania it fosters. These problems are as simply stated as they are pervasive and nearly impenetrable. Example: College is too expensive. The increasing costs of attending universities coupled with the stagnant wages of the last couple decades comprise enduring barriers of class division, ironically in spite of their appearance for facilitating socioeconomic mobility. The fact that other systems of higher education are capable of providing comparable educational quality at significantly lower costs should make us realize what the driving principles behind U.S. college expenses really are. And realizing this along with the reality that other aspects of higher ed such as alumni networks provide highly exclusive privileges to young adults entering the job market forces us to conclude the access to such services is another convention our economic system uses to perpetuate its own disparities.

It’s especially uncomfortable to reflect on the widespread importance our culture places on going to college when we know this path to success is not open to everyone. I’ve spoken with people from other countries where the university system has its own difficulties with maintaining class and privilege, but its striking to hear how other cultures are not as singularly obsessed with getting high school grads into college like we are. It’s so commonplace it becomes all too easy to forget; just think of any American teen drama in film or on TV, though, and you’ll probably remember the characters all being anxious about their future for going to college. It all sounds pretty neurotic considering how exclusive the college system really is.

I think the crisis prompted by the lockdowns and economic downturn is putting us in a more desperate situation where we have no choice but to start talking about more ambitious ways to fix these problems. However, we can’t be honest in having this sort of conversation if we forget how far back the problems have persisted, including through times of prosperity.

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