Why I don’t have a degree

There is a three-year-old essay published in Hazlitt and written by my namesake, Alexandra Kimball, on How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford an Internship. A respective caption for my essay would be How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford a Degree. Boy! I was compelled to write it.

How do I explain to a potential employer that the reason I do not have a degree in journalism is not due to laziness or stupidity, but to the simple fact of not having the money. I did not have the privilege (or is it a curse?) of going into debt as everyone else did – I was a so-called international student, and I could only afford a two year college diploma – and I paid for it with my own savings gathered over the previous years. I remember how horrified and surprised my classmates were when I told them just how big my tuition was. To understand why I could not afford four years of university education you have to take your domestic student tuition and double or even triple it. Then you have to add various additional expenses with no means of payment. Roughly $92,000 for a Bachelor’s degree.There are few bursaries available for international students, but they can hardly cover anything. If I stayed and tried to gather the funds needed for a degree, I would still be doing it.

Of course, you can ask why I did not wish to stay and get a degree in my own country, where free and low-cost education has always been available to me. I did study and I left after several years – a decision I doubt I will ever regret. The only journalism program in town was a derelict monstrosity without a single working professional among its faculty. The professors were literally old and had been out of the field for a long time. When the digital age rolled in the program took a huge blow, enrollment rates dropped as being a journalist was no longer noble and hardly profitable – the internet had it all. The university decided there was no point in further development so the funds never came. Although the program is still active, it can hardly offer anything beyond academic knowledge on languages and literature. If I continued studying there, I would still end up working anywhere but the field of my choice – neither dead nor alive, journalism in a provincial town with a salary so small, you could barely afford living even by the provincial town’s standards. Not that I wanted to work there anyway.

After hours of deep contemplation in an attempt to figure out what to do with my life, going to study abroad sounded like the best thing to do. Since at the time I could not afford a degree, I had to find something else. My shortcut to journalism, I called it. So I became a photographer. It seemed natural – all my interests evolved around languages, literature, and art. Photography was already a part of it. But the two year diploma program made me so much more than just a photographer. The experience of living and studying in a foreign country outweighs the high cost of education. I am closer to journalism than I ever was before. Or I was closer, up until I graduated. There was so much going on in college, so many resources available – you only had to ask. Ever since I graduated, I wished I could continue my studies. Each time I was told on an interview that I would have been a “good fit for the company” if I had a degree or more years of experience, I wished I could continue my studies.

A college graduate with many irrelevant experiences, a passion for photography and journalism, and a dream of finding a regular job. Now were does it leave me in an industry where I am expected to volunteer the first (many) years of my career? Three years ago, Alexandra Kimball expressed her hope for a better future for interns. The tide is turning slowly, but we are not there yet. While I have been on a hunt for a regular job in Toronto, I saw positions called “Intern (Volunteer)” too often. In defiance of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, many students and graduates of journalism, design, photography, and marketing programs are asked to volunteer their hours in exchange for the so desired two to three years of experience. Unpaid internships have been a subject for parliament debate several times over the past two years.

NDP MP Laurin Liu introduced Bill C-636, called the Intern Protection Act, earlier this year. Bill C-363 offered workplace protection laws for unpaid interns. Intended to prevent further exploitation of students and graduates, Bill C-636 would have significantly altered the current. Unfortunately, the motion was defeated at its Second Reading. A few weeks later, new unpaid internship rules were introduced in the Budget Implementation Act, which will amend the Canada Labour Code to explain in details when unpaid internships can be offered, and what conditions have to be met. Some of the proposed changes, like ensuring health, safety and other basic workplace protections, were long overdue. But allowing an unpaid internship last up to a year, that will just worsen the situation.

Creating laws to protect interns will only solve half of the problem. Some provinces in Canada already provide limited protections to unpaid interns, but the majority of students/graduates have no knowledge about it. The businesses abuse internships because there are too few instruments to punish them for doing so. And those who work without being paid are not really trying to argue against it simply because they really need that experience. EXPERIENCE. What an ugly word. Many of my classmates, who were great and promising photographers each in their specialization, are not even working in the industry.

Seeing as I struggled to find a permanent job due to lack of experience, my family advised me that I had three options. The first one, returning to my hometown and working in business, which I did until the day I left to study abroad, sounded surreal at its best. After everything I have done to pursue my dreams, I was not going to accept defeat. The second option suggested that I should forget my ambitions and just find a job in retail. Returning to university to pursue a degree was the third option. If I knew this was an option, I would have asked for help sooner!

I took my chances and ended up in the second year of an amazing Journalism & Visual Media program, which offers a versatile curriculum paired with a relatively low tuition. Once again, I am going to study abroad – this time in Ireland. Being indebted to my family is something I can live with, and regardless of the outcome, I will do my best to make the time spent in university count. I have no desire to hear that I would be a “great fit” if I had more experience, not anymore. I will make myself the best fit there is.