schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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The Borrowers: Student Debt

For a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years I lived in a mid-sized university town in Canada. My mother taught at the university, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around libraries, student lounges, and green spaces on campus, pretending to be a mini-student. I remember that there was a popular cafe, run by grad students, right in the middle of campus. It was an old brick house with a patio. Sometimes, I would meet my mum there, and we would have a bite to eat on the patio. One of the exterior brick walls of the cafe, abutting the patio, was covered in numbers written in chalk, many of them running into multiple-digit lengths that were beyond the comprehension of my twelve year-old math skills. I kind of admired their colourfulness. It was neat that students wrote stuff on walls. (I’ve always had a thing for graffiti.) At some point, when I was older, maybe fifteen or so, I realised what those numbers actually were. Written way up high, above the scribbled, colourful digits, were the words: Wall of Debt.

The numbers represented individual students’ debts and loans, accrued over their years as undergraduate and graduate university students. I don’t remember any exact figures from the wall, but, looking at current student debt stats, I’m sure many of them floated around, and even more above, the $20,000 mark. And that’s just Canada. In the US, undergraduates who finance their education wholly via loans can expect at least this much debt in just three or four years, let alone tacking on two or more years of graduate studies. As a young person planning to enroll in a graduate degree program next year (and excited about it), these numbers turn my stomach.

Let me take a step back, though. I’m a twenty-four year old woman without a high school diploma. I homeschooled/unschooled the last two years of high school (actually, I spent most of those years either travelling or working on biodynamic farms). I don’t have a lot of money. In 2008, I applied and was accepted to a small, private American college based on a portfolio, rather than a GED, SAT, or high school transcript. Thanks to this portfolio, I received a full scholarship. I now have a B.A.—and, more importantly, I received an absolutely superbe, enlightening four years of intensive study. And all that for the cost of room and board (which isn’t negligible, but also doesn’t add up to a $20,000-$40,000 debt). I graduated with zero debt. Most of my fellow students didn’t share this experience. During my time at college, I didn’t generally stop to consider how much money I wasn’t spending on my education; I couldn’t hang a price-tag on my experiences, no matter how many zeros I tacked onto the figure. Nevertheless, debt was real: at the beginning of every semester, most of the other students were summoned up to the financial aid office to figure out their loan and grant packages. Figures were floated by me at the dinner table. I felt lucky, and relieved. I also felt increasingly angry that my friends were being faced with enormous financial burdens that might just slow them down on their way to pursuing their dreams. Financial burdens that would follow at least some of them into their fifties and sixties. Because yes, 2.2 million Americans over sixty still owe money on their student loans.

The debate about student loans is pretty wrung out. It’s not a useless debate by any means, but the fact is that as the conversation carries on, millions of students go further and further into debt. It sucks. I’ve been slow to wake up to this reality. It’s easy to set it aside when you’re “getting a free ride.” I feel deeply thankful to my alma mater, and when the time comes that I can give back financially (more than the tiny amount I send to the annual fundraiser), I will, without a doubt. You might wonder why I say that, since all the student debt might look like the college’s fault to begin with. I think in many cases that’s true: the quality of the education isn’t on par with the cost. But I went to a school that did its best with what it had: minimal endowment, a tiny student body, and no big-name corporate sponsors. Every on-campus student was guaranteed a work-study job, and those with higher need were eligible for actual pay-checks. That’s quite a feat, for a small school, especially one that’s geographically located in the most “inconvenient” place (when it comes to finding work as a student, anyway). And have you heard about schools divesting their fossil fuel stock holdings? They did that, too, and they were the third college in the U.S. to do so. All that is something I believe in. (Though all the while I wish the college had had more scholarships, grants, and alternative funding available.)

But for now, I get to plunge into the experience of financing my graduate degree head first, with no experience, and no thick skin, whatsoever. Oftentimes, in the conversation about student debt, the example of free education in Europe is brought up. I was born in Germany, and spent part of my childhood there. I’m an EU citizen, which means that I could take advantage of free education in the old world. There are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t do that, which include that the education I am seeking just isn’t available in Europe. It’s a longish story… But back to free post-secondary education. It’s great, right? Well, I’m not sure. It’s a tough call to make, especially because I seem to be arguing against tuition. The thing is, though, that a university education isn’t right for everyone. It’s not a class thing (or, it shouldn’t be), or a judgement call on my part. I know plenty of people who were much happier, and more successful, learning outside of the university environment—in some ways, I am, too. The problem with free education is that while some people who should have access to post-secondary ed. really can’t afford it, some people can. There is value to this kind of learning, and as much as some of us would like to avoid putting a price-tag on it, there is one. It’s inevitable, since we live in an economy based on, um, yes, sadly, cold, hard, cash. And so, those who can pay, should. In my opinion, the best way for universities and colleges to handle the gap is to adopt the work-college model that is used by some schools in the U.S. There are only seven registered work-colleges in the U.S. Really? Come on, right? I know most schools offer some work-study positions, but these colleges take it to a whole new level. At some schools, like Berea College in KY, all (ALL!) students work 10-15 hours/week, and thus are able to pay off all their tuition as they study. This translates to zero, or very little, debt. I went to one of those work colleges, and while we only worked 4-8 hours/week, it was an interesting, enriching, and educational component of my time at school. Yup, working taught me stuff! I love the fact that we basically had to work while we studied. I think this is smart in an obvious kind of way. (Oh, and by the way, I had to work even though I had a scholarship. I think work should be part of everyone’s education.)

Now that I’m looking at grad programs in the U.S. and Canada, I’m saddened to see that, from the small handful that offer the degree I’m interested in, a number suggest that first year M.A. students not work. The course-load is too heavy, they write, to make time for part- or full-time work on the side. This is just wrong. The course-load should accomodate work. I’d gladly add an extra six months or a year onto my degree if it meant graduating without debt and, even better, working in my field of study and earning money while pursuing my degree. I’m not interested in an insular education that demands I detach myself from the rest of the world and live in temporary and unrealistic stasis, dependent on a fake income that will later come back to haunt me. I love learning, and I love the concentrated amalgamation of resources and experience that is a university. But I also love to work. And I don’t believe that I should experience undue stress (and pressure from faculty who believe that working students cannot focus fully on their studies) because of this. For now, I am trying to be optimistic about the process. I’m excited about the prospect of doing an M.A. (M.L.A., actually, for those who might ask), and I’m trusting that the details of financing my education will come together without too many hiccoughs.

I’d be curious to know about other people’s experiences with the big Wall of Debt. Do share, if you feel so inclined. And thanks for reading! xo

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.


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Tell Me Something That You’re Afraid Of

Looking down after climbing a mountain in northern Vermont.

Looking down after climbing a mountain in northern Vermont.

In 2011, I took part in an audio-documentary-making workshop at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, VT. I took the course in preparation for putting together a series of recorded interview with Vermont beekeepers as part of my bachelor’s thesis. During the workshop, I did a practice run. Out on the streets, I asked people to share with me something that scares them. Here is a smattering of what they told me.

What are you afraid of? xo


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Beauty Is Twice Beauty

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I was introduced to the concept of systems thinking during my freshman year of college, by a a teacher, Ned Houston, who received a round of astonished applause at the end of a fiery lecture about ecology and humanity (in a class called “Humans & the Environment). Systems thinking, feedback loops, and connectivity, were all ideas that I knew existed, but hadn’t had the language to describe. I knew these loops and connections were real; I had seen them in action. To me, even now, several years later, systems thinking remains one of the most beautiful ways of interacting with and understanding ecology and humanity. Systems in nature are non-linear and so interwoven and interconnected and interdependent, it’s almost unbearable to consider them in the face of the destruction of our land. Nothing we do happens in a vacuum. Everything has an impact. We get to choose whether it is constructive, or not.

In June and July, I’ll be attending a six week intensive on ecoliteracy. Ecoliteracy: a wonderful word that, according to spellcheck, doesn’t exist, and otherwise causes some people to raise an eyebrow (“Uh, another one of those hippy-dippy ideas that don’t really mean anything.” Wrong! It means so much! Everything, perhaps…). In preparation, I’ve been rereading a book that I first read during college: Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. This book, which is part of the Bioneers Series, is a collection of essays by everyone from Wendell Berry and Alice Waters, to Donella Meadows (author of Thinking in Systems: A Primer) and Fritjof Capra. Apart from the fact that apparently everyone who contributed had to have a funky name, it’s a tome of enormous depth and wonder. What is ecoliteracy? To echo Fritjof Capra, when we design the human aspects of a landscape: our homes, our farms, our neighbourhoods, cities, etc., nothing brings us closer to true sustainability than mirroring natural ecosystems. Ecoliteracy means understanding these systems, “reading” nature, observing ecosystems in action, understanding the limits of our environment, and cultivating a sense of place. In terms of design, beauty in nature is twice beauty: there is what meets the eye, and there is what lies below (sometimes literally, the details and purpose we look hardest at to see)—what lies below is a perfect, intelligent (non-linear, and therefor harder for us humans to grasp) system. A system we can learn so much from. A system that inherently has form, pattern, and meaning.

What I see all around me (in the news, on farms, in city planning) is a tendency to forget that humans are part of this non-linear system, too. When we think linearly, as we might tend to, we might think in traditional economic terms: where input and growth are the only way forward. The past is behind us, the future unknown, but the end goal clearly mapped, though not often expressed so bluntly: growth until nothing can grown any more. But nature doesn’t underwrite this way of life. Nothing ends without becoming something else. No thing appears out of thin air. Every human being, no matter what their path, will eventually become compost, nourishing soil microorganisms and all the plants and animals that thrive in their midst.

On farms, cyclical thinking has many names: organic farming, sustainable agriculture, biodynamics. What all of it means is that the farm is an organism. The farmer stay on the land, committed to the cycles before and after him and/or her—they’re just another part of the cycle. Wendell Berry says is beautifully in his poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. Here’s an excerpt:

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

I’ve been inspired too, lately, by the work of Ben Falk, and his design firm, Whole Systems Design. If you have a moment, take a look at his videos. Ghandi’s words, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” have hovered close to me for many years now. Falk expresses this same sentiment from an ecological perspective: like many of us, he began his journey into agriculture, sustainable design, and a reduced carbon footprint by committing to make a smaller impact on the planet. Now, some years later, he’s convinced that making as big an impact as possible is the right path. That is, planting and growing food in a renewable way, teaching lots of people about it, creating sustainable landscapes for businesses, colleges, and private clients, and above all, really, thoroughly walking the walk. And celebrating all of it. Being big, joyous, and outspoke. I’m inspired by the minutely detailed systems that bring a dynamic, natural flow to his farm. I love that he heats his greenhouse with hot water warmed up in coils of pipe inside a giant compost heap. I love that his farm is brimming with edibles, from turnips by the woodpile, to raspberry vines leaning heavily into pathways. Every bit of space is used for food and beauty. Isn’t that cool? And doesn’t it makes so much sense?

The language of nature is accessible to everyone. We can’t escape it (and why would we want to?), so we may as well learn to speak it. What an endlessly astonishing place, this world. xo

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

—Mary Oliver, The Summer Day 

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Wild leeks.