A generational exploration of women and the economy
What Previous Generations Taught me About Opportunity and Crisis
As I prepare to enter the workforce during uncertain economic times, I've found hope in the stories of my mother and grandmother, who also faced adversity and limitations as they began their careers.
Sahar's grandmother (far left) and her professional colleagues in Afghanistan
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As I begin the transition from college life to finding my first full time job, I feel a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I leap into the unknown. When I go home for vacations each member of my family eagerly asks me what I plan to do next, to which I have devised a general, but legitimate sounding response about taking a year or two to acquire work experience in one of the various routes my international relations degree can take me and then going to graduate school. Most people are satisfied with this answer, but some push further and ask what job, to which I have to honestly answer that, at this point, I have no idea.
Given that the transition from college to careers has been on my mind lately, I decided to find out more about the experiences of the women in my own family. On my mom's side of the family, I am the first woman to complete her college education in the United States; both my mom and grandmother began their college experiences in Afghanistan. My mother immigrated to the U.S. after three years at Kabul University, finished her degree at Cal Poly Pomona and, subsequently, started her career here. My grandmother completed her four years of college in Kabul and became a principal of a women’s high school. Though their experiences are different from my own, we share many of the same worries and aspirations.
When my grandmother attended college in Afghanistan in the late 1950s, universities were gender-segregated. Women had one higher education career track available to them: teaching. Women would take satellite classes through the University of Kabul at Malalai high school (the best women's high school in Kabul). My grandmother completed her teacher's training through these courses and began to teach at Malalai. She taught Persian literature and history for 20 years and became a principal. At one point, she took time off of teaching for one year to become the editor of Maymun, a women's magazine. My grandmother's position as the principal of this renowned high school led to invitations to international teaching seminars and even led to her appointment as a woman representative in Afghanistan’s parliament. When I asked my grandmother if she would choose her profession again if she had the choice, she said yes. My grandmother had a constrained choice of profession, but she loved her work and it led to amazing opportunities and achievements.
Afghanistan changed after my grandmother went to college. In the 1960s the University of Kabul became co-educational and women were able to choose any profession they wished, if they achieved a high enough score on their entrance exams. My mom began her studies as an English language major, hoping to enter the field of journalism. One semester short of her graduation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and my mother left Afghanistan as a political refugee. When my mom started college again in the United States, none of her credits from Kabul University transferred over and she had to start from the beginning. For one year she pursued a degree in journalism but soon decided to take up accounting. She explained that this was a practical decision. She came to realize that journalism was a difficult route to pursue with English as her second language. She decided that accounting would open up more career opportunities. My mom took about ten years to complete her Bachelor of Arts in accounting because she married, had children, and decided to stay home with us. Now, my mom is working at a major company using her accounting degree.
Although my mom and grandmother's stories are different from my own their stories have made me more hopeful, prepared and excited about my future. They both found careers that they loved even though they reached them with some constrained choices. They showed me that there is fluidity and flexibility in the jobs you can have. Your major in college might or might not dictate the things you will do in your life. There are opportunities and chances to do meaningful work and work you love in a variety of places and ways.