Not working is a strange thing for someone who has worked their entire life. Sure, I'm only 28, and perhaps this sounds like an odd sentiment given that I have only been legally employable for about 10 years. However, I recently realized that before getting married, I was practicing/studying/struggling virtually nonstop since I was 10 years old.
While I realize, of course, that I am lucky to be able to not work at the moment, I am finding my job search here in Switzerland frustrating and the resulting general quietude of my days to be a little eerie. Let me explain. The reasons for this go way back...
For almost three consecutive years in Middle School I was first chair alto saxophone in band. My mother was struggling to make ends meet, and I was one of the Foothills kids who couldn't afford private music lessons. I trudged home almost every day with my heavy sax, strapped it around my neck when I got home, and practiced practiced practiced. I'd show them, I thought. If I could just be great a everything I did, the fact that I came from rather humble means and a loving single mother wouldn't stop me from doing everything I wanted. If I just kept practicing my saxophone and getting those A's, I would have it all. I would have direction. Not only that, I would find a career path that led me exactly from point A to point B. Certainty, stability, and comfort. Maybe a ten year old doesn't think exactly in these terms, but it was pretty close to this idea for me.
All three years of Middle School I qualified for Arizona girls all-star softball team. I was the only left-handed girl on my team and I made a wicked first-baseman. I used my dad's ancient glove, which was a raggedy old thing that I was sometimes teased about, but it served me well.
I should also mention that I was teased in both Elementary and Middle School about my sometimes different, sometimes Tye-dye, and frequently discount and hand-me-down clothes that I wore. I was called a lesbian for yelling at kids who called things "gay." I was told I was fat, unattractive, and undatable, (whatever that means when you are 11!). But I got through it because I pushed and pushed and pushed myself academically, (which sometimes led to increased teasing, but I digress). I also had a really solid group of friends, who are still very close and dear to me.
I took as many honors classes as I could in High School, although I rejected Honors Physics because I knew that it would eat me alive. I took, (and passed), 4 AP classes in High School and in so doing received a whole semester of college credit. I was accepted into the Honors College at the University of Arizona, and during my time there completed a double-major, a double-minor, and graduated from an Italian language school in Rome with a certificate of fluency. In the middle of college my life was turned upside down when my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. I struggled to concentrate on school, especially after he sadly lost his battle against the disease in the summer of 2003. He passed the same morning, just by coincidence, as my maternal grandmother. It was an overwhelming experience, to say the least. I continued on in my studies, however, and in 2006 I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a honors thesis on Gender and Peacekeeping. Now I have a degree, I thought. Not much further to having a successful career, right?
I then slugged on to much more gritty and nonacademic work of being a hostess, cleaning toilets, bar-tending, serving tables, only to get promoted to morning breakfast/lunch manager at an upscale Tucson restaurant and having to work six days a week, rising each day at 4am.
My degree in Political Science and Italian Literature was not leading me to anywhere in particular, and it soon became clear I would need some graduate school work. If I can just get into graduate school, I thought, I will be back on track.
I was rejected by the University of Arizona for a Masters in Political Science. I was told quietly later on by an insider that this was largely because I wanted to concentrate on feminist perspectives in global political economy...which was not a popular subject in the "old boys club" that controlled admissions at that time. So I continued to work ridiculous hours at a job that gave me no intellectual satisfaction or stimulation for another year. I had no health insurance. I finally decided to apply to law school. Surely, that would help me get straight from point A to point B.
In law school my emotional and physical limits were put to the test as never before. I studied and agonized daily, convinced for the first year that I didn't even belong there and would very likely fail at the whole thing. After about a year and half of law school, once I finally had in some way found my bearings and steadied myself, I was assaulted by an ex-boyfriend and delved into a very difficult and emotional recovery process. I struggled through the rest of law school while at the same time trying to grow emotionally, trying to learn from the pain I was experiencing, and trying to become a stronger woman and lawyer. How could I be strong for others, for my clients, if I couldn't be strong for myself?
Happily, I survived those three years of stress and anxiety, only to be pitted the week after law school graduation into a horrific two-month-long bar-study hell that I have only in the last year more or less recovered from. But I just kept thinking...once I get my degree....once I pass the bar...I will finally have my prize of certainty, stability, and undeniable earning power.
After the bar, however, I realized I was in the stark reality of a flooded legal employment market. Many of my classmates had no idea what they would be doing after law school. Good jobs were very hard to come by, and I considered myself quite lucky to have a job lined up after the bar exam.
I then worked at a small law firm where I was paid only $14 an hour and given no health insurance. I commuted one hour each way to my place of work, and was given no money for gas. It was good work experience, but it was tough and I struggled to make ends meet. I ran up credit card debt that fell on top of my already huge mountain of debt accumulated just from law school...around $200,000.
Once I get these good grades...
Once I get this diploma...
Once I pass this bar exam...
I will have the answers and I will have solid career opportunities.
Years of struggle, struggle, struggle...with my neck barely kept above the flood waters of stress and debt.
And now, in an example of life's many ironies, I am still battling uncertainty about what to do next.
I sit here and for the first time I can remember I am not agonizing over an exhausting and difficult job. I can sleep in. I have more than enough time to think about life and what I want to do with it. While I recognize the importance of having some thinking space, I can't help but feel sometimes a bit of a vacuum.
Here in Luzern the job search has been much harder than anticipated. I don't speak German yet, so I cannot even begin to think about studying the Swiss legal system. I have my American law license, yet with only a year of Immigration Law experience, I am hardly a strong candidate for the mostly corporate positions available in American or other International companies here. The NGO's in the area that I so long to be a part of mostly require German, so that is offline for me until I get my German off the ground a little more.
Short of howling at the moon, I feel that I've done everything I can to have a successful career.
So what is my purpose in life? What does it all mean? Why, after all these years, am I still struggling to define the work I want to do? Why am I so at the mercy of these employers who seem wholly unimpressed with a 3.97 undergraduate GPA, four languages, and a law degree?
These are the annoying questions that nag at me. And I really don't have the answers.
I will continue to network in Switzerland, learn German, and apply to as many jobs as I can.
Hodge keeps telling me that I'm doing great, which helps. It has, after all, not even been a year since I moved to Europe. But I want a foothold. I want to dig my heals into something and be great at it. I will continue to be as positive as possible about it all, but it is tough sometimes.
Thanks for reading. Again, this is not meant to be whiny. I just felt compelled to share. :-)