After five years of college, two transfers and one honors BA in English, I managed to land a career in Medicare customer service.
I answered phones, was screamed at by the elderly, their children and their doctors, and handled the paperwork and data entry no other department in my company wanted to deal with.
In other words, the semesters of late nights, skipping class to write papers and pouring (sometimes literal) tears into my writing amounted to a big mess of debt and a job that didn’t require a college degree.
I would have been devastated if it weren’t for the fact I needed the money.
It’s been nearly three years since I took that job, and the only thing college seemed to have prepared me for was crying and drinking.
When you have to call an elderly woman, who uses an oxygen tank simply to move from her bed to her living room chair, and tell her that her hospice coverage has been cut off because she’s not dying fast enough, you learn to save your breaks for a long drag on a cigarette and a quick call-and-cry to your husband.
And, at the end of the day, the first thing you do when you get home is pour yourself a drink to turn the heartbreak, verbal abuse and tedium into a fuzzy memory.
You do this only to sharpen it anew the next day, the day after that and every day until Friday.
Did I mention we also had to work weekends and holidays?
I missed Thanksgiving and Christmas two years in a row because I was new, because I didn’t have children and because I believed “taking one for the team” would eventually get me promoted.
And, it did. Now, I work strictly in data entry for California Workman’s Compensation claims.
I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the endless buzzing of my phone and even the screaming and cursing. At least then I was able to interact with people.
It’s been a year and a couple months since my promotion, and the tedium has only managed to grow.
We were told to act more like machines, to think of ourselves as an assembly line and to, basically, erase our humanity, our dreams and our desires in the quest to move through cases as quickly as possible.
It didn’t take long before I was using my sick leave to take mental health days, to leave early with the excuse of a “family emergency” or to simply start slacking, which is something I never thought my overachiever complex would ever let me do.
Combined with a diagnosis of bipolar II and a lack of a suitable medication, I filed for disability at the beginning of April, and my life insurance company expects me to return in the middle of June.
However, I don’t think I’ll be going back.
This space from the office has given me time to think about what I wanted to get out of my college degree, what my goals were when I graduated in 2011 and what kind of life I want to lead now.
In the past eight months, I’ve spent more time on outside projects than I have on my office work.
I’m not ashamed of that; in fact, I’m damn proud.
In that time, I’ve started a podcast, created an online magazine and begun my career as a freelance writer, all of which make me happier than pushing paper.
In the past month and a half, I’ve had the time to write new pieces twice a week, to think about what’s best for my business and to figure out what I really want.
To be fair, none of these projects (aside from the occasional freelance check) have brought in any money, and my disability checks don’t last long.
But, at the end of the day, I can look at what I’ve made and be proud of it. I can wake up in the morning excited to work on the projects I believe in. I can use the skills I learned in college to become the writer and editor I always dreamed of being, even if, for now, it’s just for free.
Maybe that diploma didn’t come with an automatic editorial assistant position, a book deal or a chance to option my screenplays. But, it did give me the power to create pieces I’m proud of and to help other writers find their way.
Perhaps, in June, I’ll have to go back to my cubicle, and if so, I’ll accept it (begrudgingly). But, in the meantime, I’m looking for new opportunities.
I’m using what I’ve learned beyond academia and the office to show I’m capable of being a social media strategist, a staff writer, an assistant editor or something else entirely.
The point is, the degree does not infuse you with value. What you do with your degree, even if (especially if) it doesn’t pay the bills, is what matters.
The workforce after college lies beyond a door that only a degree can unlock, but once you’re beyond that gate, consider it worthless. No one will care where you went to school, what GPA you had or what clubs you were involved in.
When you’re submitting applications, writing cover letters, sitting in interviews or beginning a business of your own, the only thing the Big Wide World cares about is what you can do.
So, start doing. The world is waiting for you.