Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Chavala Madlena

GET UPDATES FROM Chavala Madlena
 

An Illegal Education: How I Had to Commit a Crime to Get a Fair Chance

Posted: 14/02/2012 10:27

I was born to a single mother in Oakland, California, now I live and work in London as a journalist, a field which is financially precarious and notoriously difficult to break in to. People are often curious as to how this happened. The answer is: I broke a few laws, here and there.

One of the reasons I initially eschewed becoming a journalist is because, to me it appeared that the profession required both an ability to work without being paid, and that deep pool of general knowledge that only kids with middle class parents had access to.

For the first chunk of my life I was in a single parent family: welfare, food stamps, all of that.
Luckily for me my mother remarried and our financial situation stabilised.
When I was nine years old we began to move back and forth to the UK for my step-father's job.

From what I remember, an average day in an American public school was thus: enter, sometimes through a metal detector, at 8am, lunch was 30 minutes, confined to the cafeteria.
Science would be learned separately - biology one year, chemistry another. History, geography and cultural studies would be mushed in to one homogenous lump called social studies and was tested by multiple choice.

Creative writing was almost always an extra credit assignment. There was practically no critical analysis in any of our assignments. There were thousands of kids, I got the sense that my teachers had a difficult time even feigning care and after school programs were almost completely non-existent.

I know that logically, these schools must work for some of these kids, America is full of intelligent, educated, talented people, educated at public schools. The system is stacked against them though.

Britain has plenty of it's own 'failing' schools and in the last 10 years or so politicians of all stripes have begun to meddle and tweak the education system more and more, shrieking about British inferiority in the face of an army of Chinese geniuses. However, my own experience of going to school in the UK was life changing.

I got the sense that it was how school used to be in America - recess, playing fields, after school programs, teachers who took an interest in their pupils, a much more traditional curriculum based on equipping the students to think critically.

The range of subjects is vast for the first three years of secondary school - usually around 10 different classes, rotated over a fortnightly schedule. The curriculum was still focused on testing - at 16 you take what are called General Certificates of Secondary Education, one for each subject.
You can technically graduate and leave school at 16 after your GCSEs. Former Prime Minister John Major famously left school with only three 'O' Levels (the predecessor to GCSEs.)

If you stay on to go to sixth form college you take usually three but up to three six Advance Levels - 'A' Levels - which are essentially like junior college-level courses - along with different electives each semester. What you take at A Level often dictates what you go on to study at university and critics of the UK education system, including current Prime Minister David Cameron, have said that 16 is too young to begin to specialise.

I am sure this is true for many people but for me I knew what I was and was not good at by 16 and I was glad not to have subjects I would never excel at, weighing me down.

I am still shocked by the fact that college students in the US are patronised in to being spoon fed courses that they would not otherwise choose and that not only do they have to pay for the privilege of these superfluous classes, but it can jeopardize their overall grade point average.

If you choose not to take 'A' Levels then there are plenty of apprenticeship schemes, or more vocational courses like art and design, business, information technology - often available at sixth forms that provide A Levels - so you still all graduate as a class, there is still a 'high school' feel to things.

My mother and step father moved back to the United States when I had just turned 15. I tried re-assimilating back to life in the US, hanging out with old friends, but I hated it (refer to above description of a typical school day.)

My step father made it clear he would not be paying for me to go to boarding school (which would mean I would be able to have a student visa.)

However my mother knew none of my educational needs were being met by, for example high school level English classes that based my grade on multiple choice tests.

Having seen me excel back in the UK, my mother quietly shipped me back to stay with family friends for the rest of my secondary education, on a visa that would expire soon after my return.

Moving out of home at 15 was not easy, no parental support and other things like being too scared to get any after-school jobs in case my visa status was found out.

One morning a police car pulled up outside where I was living and I hid in the closet, convinced they had come for me.

Once I heard them leave, I casually asked the woman taking care of me what they were for, as she did not know I was in the UK illegally,

"They've come to check the license for the hunting riffle we have in the attic." Phew.

It was all worth it in the end, I achieved some decent 'A' Levels. Decent enough to get in to a top UK university that is also consistently ranked in the top 25 globally. I had also been exposed to a culture that has ultimately shaped who I am and opened me up to a world outside of the US.

Now came the hard part.

My mother's marriage was ending and I was back in the situation of single parent family, no fund for college. However the genie was out of the bottle, almost everyone I knew was going to college, many to Oxford and Cambridge. I was academically inclined and vocationally, useless.

Going to college in the UK became the only option for me. A Bachelor of Arts only takes three years to complete and the tuition fees even for foreign students were only around £8,000 per year for the top universities. For domestic students, universities cost the same amount across the board - Oxford and LSE cost the same as any other university in the land.

I will say that students at American Ivy League schools get a lot more bang for their buck - more hours of instruction, generally better facilities, much more support and campus activity - but if you go to a top five UK school, you are not far off of this experience.

Something that definitely could not be replicated by going to a Dartmouth, say, is the fact that even with my small salary from my part time job, I could pop to Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, wherever for the weekend, or for the school breaks.

In the UK and many parts of Europe taking a 'year out' before or after college is the norm - for me it was necessary. I moved back to the US for a year and was lucky enough to work for a year as a researcher at CNN and saved almost everything for college.

I managed to swing a Pell Grant here, a government subsidized loan there, enough to satisfy UK customs officials that I had enough to support myself for a year and get that three year visa stamp in my passport.

Even though my student visa limited me to working only 20 hours a week, and my college frowned upon jobs for students, I had to get a job straight away. I ended up working well over the amount of hours permitted whilst on a student visa.

When it came to final exams in my last year of school, I wanted to have the same advantage as those students who were not working and I took out a small educational loan from Bank of America to get through those months. I am still paying it off along with the much larger loan I had to take out halfway through my degree when my savings dried up.

People often point to the scholarship idea when the student debt issue is raised. I am still not quite sure if I agree that only the exceptionally gifted should be given help.

I recall at the time my mother attempting to guide me with the comment, "I know a lady who worked her way through college when she was your age - that's just what people do."

I remember feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of a minimum wage job on one hand, tens of thousands of dollars in tuition on the other - never mind the fact that I actually wanted to do well in my studies, perhaps even have a tiny sliver of the college experience. I cannot imagine what it must be like now for prospective students.

I went in with eyes wide open - there would be no guarantee of a dream job, no parental support, no safety net, not even the chance to stay in the country where I had lived for three years and cultivated contacts, when I graduated.

However I was never tempted to think "if I just study business ..." or "maybe I will be offered some sort of decent paying job when I graduate..." I knew it would be a struggle but I did not know how, financially, near insurmountable it would be or how quickly a college degree was to de-value.

I definitely wish someone had taken me aside and bluntly told me about what carrying debt after graduation would mean, in black and white. It means a night job in addition to those six month internships which seem to be expected by and ever widening number of fields now.

Maybe it means no grad school, it means even a low-paid entry level job in the field you love may not even be feasible. It means no travel.

After graduation I managed to get a four month working visa to Australia, in an effort to put off my problems of having to relocate back to the United States without so much as a toe-hold in the job market there.

The biggest conundrum I was delaying was one I am sure plenty of young people have faced before me: your career ambitions are not driven by money, but you've just taken out $65,000 in loans to begin that steep climb up the class ladder, and what do you have to show for it if not a high paying job offer straight out of school?

Again, my mother attempted to offer guidance,

"Why don't you work in a bank or something?"

I ended up overstaying my visa in Australia but managed to get an under the table job and an employer that looked the other way. My mother, in the dark about this, was thrilled: I could start paying off those bills that had begun to come through the letterbox as soon as I graduated.

I ended up wasting two years of my life. I wasted them in glorious sunshine, traveling to Asia and having some of the best times of my life, however these were my crucial early career years and I spent them working in a job in order to save up enough to begin my post-graduate education and subsidize the inevitable months of unpaid internships.

With a way to make my loan repayments as well as pay for school and save up, I began a post-graduate degree at the University of Sydney in development studies - it cost me $6000.

I continued to work myself in to the ground that year (more illegal overtime, given my visa status) and saved up enough to go and get that work experience I needed - interning at NGOs in Russia and Asia, which eventually gave me breathing space and financial security to break in to journalism.

I moved back to the UK to do my Masters in journalism and have been living and working here - legally - ever since.

The cliche about money is that 'you can't take it with you' but I have always felt it was the other way around: when you die, no one says 'he may not have been educated, accomplished or travelled, but at least he was solvent.'

I have been repaying my loans since graduation and I will probably still be paying them by the time I retire. Given the choice to do it over again, I still cannot see any way I could have done things different, legally. This does not mean I think it is right but I also think that US law makers should not be twisting the debate to put more burden on students, instead of less.

One could argue that had I taken a well paying job in those early few years I could have got my debt down to manageable enough levels that I could go back to school, switch careers or travel.

Who knows, I may have fallen in to a career field I would never have thought of?
I could have had all those travel and financial rewards when you are older, when you have earned them.

However I already knew there were things I did and did not want to do: falling in to a job for the money was on the 'not' list and being able to control your own career path - lofty as that may sound - should not be the privilege of the rich, well-connected or even just the über geniuses.

 

Follow Chavala Madlena on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chavalamadlena

FOLLOW UK STUDENTS