3 College Seniors Contemplate Their Appointment With The Real World

Dec 24, 2015
Originally published on January 4, 2016 1:57 pm

What do you get from a college education? And, given today's eye-popping costs, is it worth it? Through this academic year, we're following a group of college seniors from Montgomery County, Md., and asking them those questions. Among those students are three women on the verge of real life.

Alejandra Gonzalez is an in-state student at the University of Maryland, in College Park. She's one of 27,000 undergraduates. To help pay for college, she works at the admissions office.

There are lots of big classes at Maryland, but Gonzalez says she doesn't mind. She's not shy and she says professors are approachable. A political science major, she says one of her favorite courses is Constitutional law, taught by lecturer Michael Spivey. She guessed there are about 50 students in Con Law: Actually, there are 70. They meet in three sections and discuss course work there.

Gonzalez is a satisfied customer at Maryland. Since we met in August, her focus has sharpened: Next stop? Probably a year away from academics and then: law school. Once again the public option would be a lot less expensive than a private law school. Maryland's law school offers in-state tuition: a steal at $27,000 a year.

"Law school is so close that it kind of gives me anxiety," says Gonzalez "Now I have to do like this huge adult step into the real world and it's definitely been nerve-racking. I've never dealt with that before."

She's always had a plan, she says. "But now it feels like my plan isn't as solid." Her whole life, there was a track. Get good grades, get a college degree, get internships, etc. "Someone's always been there planning for you," says Gonzalez, "After college they're like: 'What are you going to do with your life?' And you're like, 'Um, I'm not sure yet ... It's a choice that's mine to make and no one else's.' "

About 20 miles away, in Washington, D.C., stands Georgetown University: private, Catholic, academically elite, and — not surprisingly — expensive. The school is on an idyllic urban campus done in university Gothic. And senior English major Margie Fuchs loves the place: especially for its intellectual atmosphere.

In her favorite class this past semester, Romantic Poetry, taught by Professor Duncan Wu, everyone contributes. And everyone is not a lot of people: just nine students.

Fuchs is still thinking of pursuing a Ph.D., just as she was the first time we spoke, when the school year began. And, like Alejandra Gonzalez, before the next phase of her education, Fuchs plans to take some time off.

"Having a breather of a year, at least maybe six months, will really help re-stabilize me after a very intense academic environment," she says.

So what does "not having a plan" actually look like?

"It's not just a year off," says Fuchs. "I really want to start doing research into where do I want to go. What next steps, whether its grad school or maybe start looking at other job opportunities, fields that interest me, doing internships. This is kind of my time to look around."

She plans to take the GRE, so she'll use her time after school to fully prepare for that entrance exam.

Our third college senior from Montgomery County is Becca Arbacher. She's a double major at Columbia in New York City — one of the most expensive colleges in America. She arrived from high school planning to study Physics, which she has done. But once in college, she was equally attracted to Political Science. For that major, she's writing a senior thesis, which is optional. It's about the relevance of nuclear deterrence to contemporary threats of cyber and space warfare.

Next stop for her? A job.

"I'm pretty lucky, I've gotten two offers that I'm deciding between," says Arbacher. "I'll definitely be in Washington, D.C. next year."

Both potential jobs contract with the government and take a technical approach to policy work: exactly what she wants to do.

With this good news comes a question: Wouldn't someone as bright and driven as Arbacher do well at any school? Did attending Columbia make a big difference?

"In my physics courses that don't have a discussion component, I could have read the same textbooks at any other school, I could have done the same problem sets at any other school," she says. "The difference is in the kind of people you're around, what the school expects of you, in terms of pushing you further."

At Columbia, she says, "people don't really go home and relax for the summer. People always have internships. You're always on."

She was required to take humanities classes, which gave her permission to take classes she was interested in and to explore other academic fields.

"The intensity of the culture here and the breadth of the education offered here has really defined my college experience."

We'll check in again with our college students later in the academic year.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now three young women on the verge of real-life. They're college seniors. They are three of the students from Montgomery County, Md. whom we're following this academic year. Montgomery County is just outside Washington, D.C. We're checking in with them, asking about the value of a college education - the high-priced private variety and a less-costly public education.

Hey.

ALEJANDRA GONZALES: How are you?

SIEGEL: How are you, Alejandra?

GONZALES: Good.

SIEGEL: Nice to see you again.

GONZALES: Nice to see you, too. Hi.

SIEGEL: We found you at work.

GONZALES: Yes, you did.

SIEGEL: Alejandra Gonzales is an in-state student at the University of Maryland in College Park. She is one of 27,000 undergraduates. To help pay for college, she works at the admissions office.

GONZALES: And I clocked out (laughter).

SIEGEL: There are lots of big classes at Maryland, but Alejandra told me that she doesn't mind that. She's not shy. And she says professors are approachable. She's a political science major, and one of her favorite courses is Constitutional law, taught by lecturer Michael Spivey.

MICHAEL SPIVEY: Welcome to the penultimate class.

SIEGEL: Alejandra told me there are about 50 students in Con law. Actually, there are 70. They meet in three section and discuss coursework there. But for this day's end-of-semester presentations - proposed rewrites of the U.S. Constitution - only four students spoke.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We also extended the minimum residency period prior to being elected president from 14 to 25 years.

SIEGEL: Alejandra Gonzales is a satisfied customer at Maryland. Since we met in August, her focus has sharpened. Next stop? Probably a year away from academics and then law school. Once again, the public option would be a lot less expensive than a private law school.

GONZALES: I'm mostly considering Maryland, which has a really great law school. And they do offer in-state tuition to Maryland law school students. I believe it's 27 the last time I checked, so that's definitely a different financial price versus 50 or 40.

SIEGEL: It's a steal at $27,000 a year, huh?

GONZALES: Yeah. Yes, so...

SIEGEL: And is - I mean, since we spoke to you last, is there anything - some special lesson that you learned in this time that...

GONZALES: I don't know how to put this. Law school is so close that it kind of gives me anxiety just because I'm graduating, and now I have to do this, like, huge adult step into the real world, and it's definitely been nerve-racking. And I've never dealt with that kind of before. I've always had a plan. But now it feels like my plan isn't as solid.

SIEGEL: Because ever since you were a little child through your senior year of college there's a track laid out for you.

GONZALES: Yeah, there's always - someone's always there planning for you like, OK, like, you know, you have to get good grades so you can go to college. And when you're in college, OK, like, apply to this internship, figure it out. But after college, you're like, what are you going to do with your life? And you're like, um, not sure yet. Maybe I'll go to law school. Maybe I'll go to grad school or - so, yeah, it's definitely - it's a choice that its' just mine to make, no one else's.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SIEGEL: About 20 miles away, in Washington, D.C., stands Georgetown University - private, Catholic, academically elite and, not surprisingly, expensive. Georgetown is on an idyllic urban campus done in University Gothic. Senior English major Margie Fuchs loves the place, especially its intellectual atmosphere. In her favorite class this past semester, Romantic Poetry, taught by Professor Duncan Wu, everyone contributes and everyone is not a lot of people.

DUNCAN WU: Are we all here? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Gosh, we're all here. We're looking at "Ode On A Grecian Urn" today. I think probably the best thing is if we just go around in a circle, taking a stanza each, going clockwise around the room, starting with Margie.

MARGIE FUCHS: (Reading) Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness. Thou foster-child of silence and slow time...

SIEGEL: Margie is still thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. just as she was the first time we spoke when the school year began. And like Alejandra, before the next phase of her education, Margie plans to take some time off.

FUCHS: So as of right now I've actually decided that I want to take a year off. Once I graduate I think kind of having a breather of a year, at least maybe six months, would kind of really help re-stabilize me after, like, a very intense academic environment.

SIEGEL: So take me through. You don't have a plan. I understand that. But take me through the broad outlines of the idea of a plan for what happens after you finish at Georgetown.

FUCHS: So, yes, it's not just, you know, a year off. But within this time I really want to start doing research into where do I want to go? What next steps, whether it's grad school or maybe start, you know, looking at other job opportunities, fields that interest me, you know, doing internships. So this is kind of my time to look around. And then from there I hope within this next year to be able to take the GRE then the English-specific GRE if needed. And also having this time I'll be able to really, you know, fully prepare for them.

SIEGEL: Our third college senior from Montgomery County is Becca Arbacher. She's a double major at Columbia in New York City, one of the most expensive colleges in America. She arrived from high school planning to study physics, which she's done. But once in college, she was equally attracted to political science. For that major, she's writing a senior thesis, which is optional. It's about the relevance of nuclear deterrence to contemporary threats of cyber and space warfare. Next stop for her - a job.

BECCA ARBACHER: I'm pretty lucky. I've gotten two offers that I'm deciding between, which I actually need to figure that out in the next couple days. But I'll definitely be in D.C. next year doing - working with either - both companies contract with the government and take sort of a technical approach to policy work, which is sort of exactly where I want to be.

SIEGEL: That's very good news that you have two job offers in an area that you'd enjoy working in.

ARBACHER: Absolutely, no, I got very lucky.

SIEGEL: You know, I suspect that some people hearing you describe what you've done in college would say, I think Becca would have done very well no better where she would've gone to college, that you could have made a very successful four years out of any place you went. So the question is how much value - how much added value is there for which college you chose, I guess?

ARBACHER: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I'm not great with flattery, but (laughter). So I think that something I've come to realize, especially in physics courses that don't have a discussion component, is that I could have read the same textbooks at any other school. I could have done the same problem sets at any other school. The difference is in the kind of people you're around, what the school expects of you in terms of pushing you farther, in terms of - I mean, here people don't really just go home and relax for a summer, you know. People always have internships. You're always on. But I think the intensity of the culture here, the breath of the education offered here has really defined my college experience a lot more. Like, the fact that I had to take humanities classes, it wasn't just a I want to but I can't because of it's not useful, that I actually had to, I think that made me feel a lot better about being able to take things I was interested in.

SIEGEL: Well, Becca, thank you very much. It's great to see you again.

ARBACHER: Likewise.

SIEGEL: And it sounds like you've had quite an eventful semester. And we'll be back to see you before you graduate.

ARBACHER: Sounds great.

SIEGEL: That's Columbia senior Becca Arbacher. We'll check in again with our college students later in the academic year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.