Straight Outta College: Being Black Without A Degree

by Kiki Nicole

The best thing about not being in college right now is that I’m not in college right now. It’s also the worst thing.

I was the first person in my immediate family that was expected to go to college and finish with a degree and job offers and book deals and whatever else we all had imagined for myself growing up. When I was five, I proudly proclaimed to everyone that I was going to go to Oxford University and study English. When I was 17, I decided I would study English at the school where my best friend was going, leagues away from England instead, nestled right in between my family’s homes in Maryland and North Carolina. 

I studied at a private, women’s institution isolated from everything I enjoyed about living in cities. The air was so heavy, we called our campus The Bubble.For fun, you could take the unreliably scheduled shuttle bus to the tiny mall and pretend you still like shopping at Hot Topic. Or you could take it to the Wal-Mart. Or to the small historic “downtown” area where you could pretend like you’re getting the college experience in the only non-Starbucks cafe, and still run into at least 6 other people from your school. If you really felt adventurous, you could walk to Kroger. 

With my major, I chose to do a concentration program  in Creative Writing. The school was noted for having a big writing community and some notable literary alumni and that was primarily why I justified going there (and for some reason, I thought they would give me the most financial aid). But it wasn’t all that. First semester could’ve been called This Class Teaches You To Only Write Like How Your Teacher (Who Is Really A Grad Student) Writes Because They Got Published in PANK And Doesn’t Actually Want To See You Grow. Second semester: You Are In College and Your Creative Writing Professor Prohibits You Writing Anything Too Personal Because It “Makes Her Uncomfortable” So Keep The Personal Essays About Race, Gender, Having Sex, Identity, Or Feminism At Home. 

By the end of my first year, I hardly felt challenged; mostly I felt dismissed and discouraged. Not to mention, I was already thousands of dollars in debt to Sallie Mae. For my first semester as a sophomore, I decided to study abroad in our “excellent program” to see what I’d been missing in England from not applying to Oxford. The Bubble was suffocating me  with steadily rising racial tensions brewing, a steady flow of conservative exclusive ideals into the campus culture and classes, and an emphasis on queerness that didn’t apply to anyone who wasn’t a white, masculine leaning androgynous worshipper of Tegan & Sara. I was ready for this semester abroad to reveal to me if I had made a huge mistake in going to this school or not.

Then I got dumped. 

My university sent me emails while I was in London telling me about the $5,000+ dollars I had owed them and then basically broke up with me, before I had a chance to end things myself. 

It’s kind of embarrassing. 

It’s a strange kind of freedom.

So I decided to do something I had only seen people do on tv: I moved across the country and decided to start fresh. If you know me, you would know I’m a perfectionist. I make millions of goals and plans everyday and let me just say, not being an undergraduate student right now was not a part of The Plan. And that’s kind of okay. I always did well in school but never felt well. I was known for my straight A’s and innovative essays, but I hardly ever had friends or an unscarred arm. I can attribute many emotional breakdowns with periods when I was in school. It’s not really the best thing for me, but I like to succeed. I like to do things Right the first time. 

My last job was in a retail position in a small business that sold collectible toys and kitsch while serving as an art gallery for local artists. One night, I was closing with only one other employee. At the time, he was working in the back room and I handled the floor. A dad and his two daughters came in, and I was actually feeling prepared to interact with them. So we did, and for a while, it was great. I’m gift wrapping their items and the dad leans in to inquire about me. Where I’m from, how did I like it here, if I’m in school. I tell him I’m not and it quickly becomes a Why Aren’t You, Are You Just Working, What Are You Planning to Make of This. I felt guilty for having to explain my situation. I was very quick to mention that I’m in the middle of transferring (an idea I go back and forth with in my head daily). Here was a very corporate, slightly condescending, adult white man clearly succeeding in the Game of Capitalism, and I felt like I had to prove my worth to him, being a very young, Black, “artsy” looking, femme presenting person not currently in school, who gift wraps pastel plushies and writes poetry on the side. 

There’s a lot of Talented Tenth feelings I have about this. For those who aren’t familiar, the idea of the “Talented Tenth” comes from 20th century Black academic, W.E.B. DuBois. In his essay, “The Negro Problem,” DuBois writes: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.” 

This 20th century ideal is still ingrained in many Black communities today. Even if not intentional, I grew up with the idea that I had to be the one to make it “out.” Historically, for Black people, formal education has always been seen as our saving grace. Even if I’m learning more than I could have in any classroom from internet communities or from putting my library cards to good use or from surrounding myself with interesting and diverse people, there’s a part of me who feels like I represent “the Worst” of society. As a Black girl, I have always tried so much harder than I probably needed to just to prove what I’m not to other people. Sometimes I want to go back to school just to keep everyone from sneering at me. In a 2013 article by Maria Guerra for the Center for American Progress, it is noted that “only 21.4 percent of African American women had a college degree or higher in 2010” and I feel guilty for being part of the 78.6% population of Black women without one. For some reason, I find myself being afraid of being reduced to a statistic.

 I find myself wondering, Why am I not in school right now? I’m not in college because I can’t afford it. I haven’t been able to pay off what I owe to my first university, in addition to student loans that found me so quickly after they discovered I wasn’t enrolled. I don’t have access to my account or transcript, which makes the transferring process very difficult. I’m not in college right now because I don’t know if I want it. Prior to what I used to believe, you do not need a degree from a fancy university to become a good writer. I have had opportunities happen to me because I looked for them and I believe in the power of working hard. I believe that the learning never ends. I don’t need to pay $40,000 a year when I can challenge myself on my own and practice my craft diligently. 

I’m not in college right now because I’m not and maybe I should stop feeling compelled to explain my situation. My enrollment status is not in any way correlated to my worth. I am a Productive Member of Society just by living in it. I should not feel guilty that survival is my main priority in life at the moment. This does not make me “uneducated.” This does not make me less human. This does not make me unsuccessful. But most days, the stigma will get the best of me and I will feel almost worthless for being a twenty year old who only works from Monday through Friday, looks forward to watching anime and taking her shoes off at the end of the day, who curls up to weird almost poems scribbled in the ‘Notes’ section of her phone. Other days, it doesn’t feel as bad.

It’s a strange kind of freedom.

Kiki Nicole is the Director of Operations for Where Are You Press. Originally from the East Coast, they now reside in Portland, OR. They are a poet; Their work has been featured in Voicemail Poems, The Pulp Zine and Bitchtopia. They are always changing their hair and have at least one book with them at all times.

Share this post