Straight Outta College: Proving Your Worth as a Young Woman Artist Without a Degree

by Lora Mathis

I have not been in college for two months and already I feel that any sense of possibility I had is disappearing. Browsing Craigslist for jobs, I see College Degree Required on every listing. One part of me stays motivated; I remind myself  that for creative opportunities, the quality of my work matters more than a degree. But there is a worry in me that sounds so much like my mother. 

Lora, what will you do in the fall? How are you going to feed yourself? Where will you live?

What about school?

When I was in eighth grade,I made an impressive list of universities to work on attending. Boston University. Yale. NYU. A family friend caught me clicking through a school’s website once and said, Well now, that’s ambitious. 

Ambitious was me at 14. Having just moved to Quebec, I started preparing to attend high school, telling my mother that I would have to homeschool myself in subjects that my small, rural school did not offer in order to get into a “good school.”

As of now, I have completed two years of general education courses at a community college in Southern California. Aside from a math course, I have all of the requirements to transfer to a four-year university. My plans have been to study English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing. However, as I fulfilled my transfer requirements in other subjects, I began to toy with the idea of studying Photography or Sociology. Having to complete courses in several different fields just to transfer works well for some students as it piques your interest in other fields and gives you the idea that opportunity is everywhere. This makes sense. But I can’t stop thinking What Am I Doing With My Life.

It feels like I have to graduate university in order to prove my worth. As if otherwise, everything I say and create remains undeveloped and therefore, illegitimate. Although, this might just be what it feels like to be a young creative woman. The degree does not matter. The work only half matters. I still have to prove I deserve to be listened to. Always.

The single creative writing course I took in college made me question if I really wanted to be taught how to write. I devoted four hours a week to workshopping other’s pieces as well as my own. Honestly, I wrote some strong poems when I was taking that class. But I also had to take criticism from folks who wanted to be anywhere but in class. Looking back, the best part of that course was that I met two of my closest friends there, who have since been editing my writing and offering suggestions when I need them.

Of course, that’s just one class. An entire program would offer more, I’m sure.

Poetry, to me, is a private act in which I shed a layer of myself and relive everything I’ve ever felt. I write poetry because I cannot carry all of these thoughts inside of me. They need room to breathe. The thought of entering into an academic poetry program scares and excites me. In my head, I weigh the pros and cons. The pros would be building a writing community and learning from my peers. I want that. I want to be pushed in my work and given criticism that allows me to grow. I want the work I create to be taken seriously, and getting a degree is a stamp of professionalism. But the cons are that I do not want to grow as an artist inorganically.I don’t want to write simply because I want to get a good grade. I don’t want to change my voice to suit my professor’s preferences.  

At times, school feels like a chore. There have been many times when I have questioned if I was going to school for myself or someone else.

Right now, I have as much education as my mother. She got pregnant and dropped out of school to take care of her children–namely, me. She calls me almost everyday to ask about school. If you don’t go to school, she says on the phone, I’ll die.

I try to tell her that I am not dropping out, I just need to have concrete reasons for going. I am not sure what I want to study. I want to move around before I commit to a two or three-year program. I understand what a privilege it is to be able to go to school, but I need to make sure I will be in it for reasons other than making my mom happy. I deserve to be happy too.

There’s also the concept of money. Higher education in America is unattainably expensive for a lot of us and even though my family is helping me out, my throat goes dry when I think about how much it will cost. Why is college seen as a social requirement if most people cannot afford it? My friends who went straight to four-year universities after high school are going into serious debt to get their Bachelor’s Degree. They try justify it, talking about their college experience, the teams they’re on and the events that their school throws. All I can think about is, money money money.

I’m not in school right now because I have no idea what I am doing with my life. This is about as much as I’ve figured out: I want to create. I want to foster a strong community around me. I want to present social inequalities through art. I want to learn about the world around me. I want to grow as a person and artist.

The time I have spent in college helped me do all of this. The classes I took pushed me creatively and presented me with new information. I learned how to work in the darkroom and use a large format camera. I learned about love and the social attitudes of sex. I learned that 95% of the ocean remained unexplored. Two years since I enrolled, I feel sharper and more developed. But a part of me wonders if this growth would have occurred whether or not I was in school. I want to keep exploring.

When my mother calls me tomorrow morning to ask what I’m doing and if I will be in school, I will say the same thing I have been saying for the last two months. Mom. I’m not sure. You always say that you are not a complete person until you are in school and that I need to get a degree to be taken seriously, but you don’t recognize my goals. I want to grow as a creative person and be recognized for what I make, and right now, school seems like it’s just taking up a lot of my time. I’ve been in school for sixteen years and want to try something else for a little bit. Let’s call it a hiatus.  

She will say, I think you’re making a mistake.

So I’ll sit myself down and take a deep breath. I’ll tell myself:

Hey, if you’re not in school, it’s okay. You’re not any less of a person. You’re not inferior in intelligence. Your skills are not useless. It is not the degree that matters for creative opportunities. It’s the quality of the work. Put yourself out there. Build a community with creatives around you or online. Collaborate with other creatives. Try new mediums. Create work which scares you. Get involved in shows. Submit your work to magazines and contests. Know that a large number of people are in college because they have the financial means to do so and because they do not know what they’d do otherwise. It’s not stupid to try something other besides what is presented to you.

It’s brave.

Lora Mathis is a poet and photographer from San Diego. Author of the poetry collections “bigger bolder less pathetic” and “i forgive everyone,” she also co-runs the zine press ink/paper press. Her photography and poetry has been feature in The Fem Lit Mag, Words Dance, and Vagabond City Lit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works for Where Are You Press. Where Are You Press will be publishing her latest book,The Women Widowed to Themselves, in Summer 2015. 

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