Learning from the Past
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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Sahar's grandmother (standing in the front) in a classroom
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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, my family and friends eagerly asks me what I plan to do next, to which I usually reply that I plan to work for a year or two in one of the various jobs my international relations degree can help me get, then apply for 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.
My college experience has prepared me for a wide range of jobs, rather than provided me with training for any one specific job. More importantly, though, my experience in college has helped me learn time-management, leadership and organizational skills that I will need in whatever I do.
Being a soon-to-be college graduate during a financial crisis puts a different perspective on joining the economy. On the one hand, it is scary to be looking for a job when I have heard so many stories of highly qualified people finding themselves suddenly unemployed. But on the other hand, there also seems to be opportunity for growth, and there seem to be changes in global job opportunities. As an international relations major, I have spent a significant amount of time learning about globalization and how it is changing the worldwide economy.
This interest in global experiences has shaped my family as well as both my formal and informal education. Growing up Afghan-American at a time at a time when the United States is militarily involved in Afghanistan has always made me feel responsible for somehow bridging my two cultural identities. My interest in studying international relations grew out of my understanding that interactions between nations, cultures and people are complex and are too often stereotyped and misrepresented. One of the ways I try to combat stereotyping is to learn about people's personal experiences.
Given that the transition from college to a career 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 in the U.S. 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 because we all entered the workforce affected by potentially limiting circumstances.
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. 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, as long as 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 the country 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 since she spoke English as her second language. She thought 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 experiences are different from my own, their stories have made me more hopeful and excited about my future. They both found careers that they loved even though they had to overcome certain obstacles and had limited choices. They showed me that there is a certain amount fluidity and flexibility in the jobs you can have; that your major in college may or may not dictate the things you will do in your life; and that there are opportunities and chances to do meaningful work that you love in a variety of ways.