We tend to think of graduating college as a process of finally entering the “real world,” as the moment when safety nets are discarded and young adults bear the full brunt of personal responsibility.
There is more than a grain of truth to that narrative, but it also shortchanges us — students, educational institutions, and members of the “real world” alike. It is too simple to capture what is an incredibly rich experience.
This special edition of the Exponent explores student encounters with life after MSU, hoping in some way to depict the kinds of decisions faced by 20-somethings in Montana today. In assembling this edition, the staff interviewed more than 30 MSU students, seniors and alumni. They offered remarkable stories, each with its own set of struggles and rewards.
If there’s a refrain that emerges from these stories — each of which begins at MSU and continues somewhere beyond — it’s of people and of places. The stories will reveal their true richness when read not as transitions into the real world, but as passages of individuals between communities — whether in Bozeman, small-town Montana, or across the globe.
My own story is not so remarkable, but its arc strikes me as similar.
AN UNEXPECTED HOLD
My first time in Montana was to interview for a scholarship at MSU, having grown up in a comfortable suburb outside Pittsburgh. Through high school, I worked at a hardware store my aunt and uncle owned in a small, blue-collar town. It was the kind of place where people valued practical know-how more than academic fortitude. No one cared that my uncle introduced me as a “friggin’ genius,” especially when I couldn’t help them with their mechanical project.
I wanted to be able to relate to those at the hardware store, and to my aunt and uncle, even after I had furthered my education. I searched for a place where I could live the life of the mind and keep both feet on the ground. I wanted to go someplace new, someplace challenging, and someplace I could make a name for myself. For this out-of-stater, the fantasy of Montana was that place. It’s an all-too-familiar narrative, as I now realize.
Montana for me began as a site for an experiment in identity. Five years later, it has become a new way of living.
I did not anticipate the personal hold Montana would have on me. Several years passed before I began considering this place for my life beyond MSU. I learned about Montana through the people I met, the natural spaces I encountered, the courses I took and the newspaper for which I began reporting. I learned what no one had ever told me: that knowledge can create community.
THE TREASURE STATE
Montana, I’ve discovered, has some exceptional people. Maybe the mountains have a way of attracting beautiful minds, or carving in them a magnanimous character. Its universities, too, are one of the state’s greatest treasures.
However, when it comes to economic opportunity, the state does not have such an exalted reputation. The pressure this disparity between community and opportunity puts on our college graduates is taken up in this week’s cover story.
It is also something our lawmakers and higher-ed administrators, charged with funding and directing the state’s university system, feel a responsibility to address. As such, they are increasingly urging our universities to raise the number of graduates with skills considered useful in the Montana workforce.
In adopting this approach, however, I think the state risks narrowing the scope of higher education in a way that does not adequately serve students once they graduate. If there’s one environment that is most unlike the “real world,” it’s the simplified, virtual space of a training center.
The stories of changed lives and opened opportunities that occur at institutions like MSU tend to emerge from relationships between people and groups, not job training alone. University education puts pressure on the art of living; it fosters self-awareness through challenging intellectual and social experiences. That awareness — and the blend of confidence, sensitivity and humility that derive from it — is what helps graduates know where to look once they move on.
Yet, no matter the preparation, knowing where to look next is a tough task — especially for graduates of our state.
Some of us need to leave Montana. Some need to stay in Bozeman. Many of us leave but hope to come back one day. Each path pulls at our graduates, in emotional, personal and professional ways. No decision is cause for judgment or shame. At times I, an out-of-state student from the suburbs, forget that decisions to move within the state often involve a similar personal struggle as decisions to leave altogether.
For my part, I will be graduating in May, then heading to Ekalaka, Mont. for a few months to work at the county museum (see Nate Carroll’s story). My life after that is open-ended: no job, no place to live, not sure which state to live in. I might be the system’s worst nightmare. I might be in for a rude awakening. But I am confident that, in time, I can make it work, and I can do some good, somewhere. I have MSU, and Montana, to thank for that.
Place certainly isn’t everything for college graduates. And it shouldn’t be — not in the 21st century. But in Montana, for those who see graduation on the horizon, it’s hard to hear that question “What next?” from a friend or family member without thinking about the communities in this state. I know I can’t.