I have lately been putting together the stories of the young people I have spoken with around Ohio, and wanted to share some personal reflections.
I cannot compose this chapter without considering my own circumstances, and also feeling compelled to provide a full disclosure. I am only one year older than Meggan and Arianna. Like them, I am trying to find my way academically and professionally, and have yet to secure myself financially. I have also surpassed the average ages of marriage and childbirth, and am in no rush to catch up with my cohort. Just like Meggan, I work on a part-time basis while transitioning to graduate school and am not paying rent thanks to the hospitality of my parents. Unlike both of them, my choices have been made under privileged circumstances. Nevertheless, these choices were also intimately connected to the recession.
My parents, Syrian immigrants, determined that the old world should not be far from our upbringing in Cleveland. Politics and culture rarely came in separate lessons; one realizes that a country’s cuisine, for instance, cannot be appreciated without knowing that politics itself has the power to put food on the table. Inspired by the quotidian yet profound nature of politics, I made it the focus of my studies. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science from American University in 2008, fortunately debt-free. Yet that year, my peers can tell you, was just about the worst time one could be tossed into the job market. I quickly recognized that my very expensive degree was not going to open many doors, and least of all to the intellectually engaging jobs I had in mind (and frankly, I did not have much of a skill set for more ‘practical’ work). With the encouragement and financial support of my parents, I decided to make use of the next year by moving to Syria and studying Arabic, promising to enroll in graduate school upon my return.
On the side of my language studies in Damascus, I volunteered as an English instructor for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. In the alleyways of the dilapidated refugee camp I worked in, my perspective on politics shifted away from the institutions and structures of power I learned about in college, and towards the reception of that power among the people. In other words, I became interested in politics from below. That interest carried me toward pursuit of a Master of Arts in Arab studies at Georgetown University (graduate school as promised, but not law school as per my father’s pleas). In the course of my graduate studies, I learned to ask probing questions about the political realities I had witnessed, and to develop methods for seeking answers.
In between my two years of study, I had the unexpected, but highly welcomed, opportunity to take a year off to assist my professor in establishing the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. There again I witnessed several captivating phenomena, including a government relentlessly implementing policies to promote and maintain high standards of living for the middle class, and an economy dependent upon (but a population largely unwelcoming of) millions of migrant laborers. These two topics alone fill volumes. Ultimately, I wondered most about the dissonance between the rising middle classes in the developing world, and the stagnating and even declining standards of living of most Americans (noting that income disparities pervade all capitalist economies, and increasingly so in Asia). I wondered if Americans felt something happening to the American dream.
After returning from Singapore and completing my degree at Georgetown, I graduated into a slightly improved economy holding a higher degree than before. But now I was too driven by my experiences to subject myself to an office environment (a privileged sentiment, surely). I wanted to understand – and, ideally, relate – the impact of overriding economic and political structures on folks on the ground, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. My home state of Ohio – with its diverse economic sectors, political moderation, large population, painful history of de-industrialization and ongoing reconfigurations for the modern economy – seemed to possess a larger American story.
Setting out on my journey around the state, I again made a promise (to myself this time) to return to graduate school. At the time of writing, I have accepted an offer, with funding, to study for my PhD in political science. In this pursuit, I am knowingly embarking on a path far less privileged than I have known heretofore. Indeed, higher education has been suffering for years from decreased government funding, strapped budgets, and increasing competition. Since the crash in 2008, 48 states have cut funding to higher education and, in turn, academic positions – especially tenured ones – are increasingly eliminated from university ranks. Stories of PhD-holders on food stamps abound, and countless more statistics and studies demonstrate decreasing job and economic security for academics. The same economic processes dogging the people in these pages will impact me as well.
Fortune has facilitated my ascent, but I’m taking it from here.