One Flew Over with Student Loans

I was talking to a student worker of mine yesterday about the choices we make regarding grad school and careers. One of their choices was to work three jobs while in graduate school, one of those jobs being a Resident Assistant, to pay off their room and board. We talked about the coveted Graduate Assistant positions that pay off tuition and how rare they are to come by. I shared my story of almost landing and losing a Graduate Assistant position about four years ago.

It was my first semester of grad school as a Student Assistant for a large archives, when a friend of mine offered me her Graduate Assistant position as she was graduating that semester. I thought it over and talked to the two people I trusted the most. One told me to get more information about the position, while the other told me to not lose the chance of a position that pays full tuition. I ended up not taking the Graduate Assistant position because it was not in my field. It turns out, the position was terminated after my friend left due to budget cuts. Had I taken that position, I wouldn’t have a Student Assistant position or Graduate Assistant position.

And now I am making another choice this time on my career path. While I cannot control who offers me a job, I can control what positions I apply for. As of now, it’s every position I can find in libraries, archives, and administration that pays. I already have two part time positions, one that I enjoy and pays more, and the other that I do not enjoy but includes health insurance.

So, here are my hypothetical choices every time I apply for a position. Would I keep both part time positions and end up with three jobs? Or would I drop the position with less benefits? Or would I drop the position that provides the best benefits? The real question of choice that I’ve noticed in these two experiences is based around money. However, I don’t make those decisions for that reason.

Well-Being over Bank Accounts

I asked the student worker. If you had to choose a job you absolutely hated but it paid the best with benefits, or a job you loved but it paid you less without benefits, which would you choose. Without taking a breath, they chose the job that paid more. I shook my head and said, “I always choose the latter. I’d rather have less money and more happiness.” Of course, they completely disagreed with me.

I’ve been making all of my decisions based on my own happiness over my bank account. While I understand how unreasonable and romantic that sounds, I don’t regret it and I don’t blame people for making the same choice as my student worker did. People who make that choice usually have it easier, financially, than I do. And people who make those choices were the same people who worked in the office. It is so hard for me to wrap my mind around choosing a soul sucking job (or jobs) for larger paychecks and health benefits.

The same way it is hard for my student worker to wrap her mind around accepting a lower paying job and paying off student loans.
If I can’t be happy with myself and what I do, then what do I have left? Yes, more money and the ability to see a doctor with a lower deductible. But is that a life worth living? While I was waiting for library job #2, I had a lot of time to myself while my partner was at work. Since it was the summer, I would take long walks on a trail nearby. During my walks I would listen to podcasts, particularly one by Tara Brach. Her talks focus on Buddhist meditation and I would choose specific recordings on happiness, anger management, and identity.

After uprooting myself from my comfortable safety net of grad school and the network I built, I felt completely lost and that I had failed my family and mentors. Listening to Tara Brach, journaling, taking art classes, and having family visits really helped me get over that initial bought of loneliness and utter self-doubt. I’m getting better at letting go of the impossibly high standards I put myself in and discovering (and accepting) who I want to be.

I still have my good days and bad days, but now I have less bad days. And I’m making the same choices focused on my well-being rather than my bank account. Even though this attitude will not pay off my student loans, it’s a better life than losing myself completely to a soul sucking job.

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