Sam is a very intelligent, sarcastically playful, clean-cut 22-year-old lad who was referred by Manny. Basically his story is he was a high-achieving youth until second year university and 3 years later has $20K student debt, no degree, no job, smokes pot a lot and is living in his parents’ basement. He conjectures that the pressure of going to post-sec contributed to his failure, but also mentions a relationship breakup. An important bit that I failed to explore in the interview but came out as the printer did its job is that Sam’s older sister has completed two university degrees and is married to a guy who is applying to med school, and she may pursue post-graduate studies, i.e., she’d doing it ‘right’ where he demonstrably is not. I wonder if there is also some shame that he is hanging with the social echelon that his parents serve in a professional capacity.
FM: Okay, so let’s begin by you telling me a bit about where you were raised, who was in the family, what they did for a living, etc. etc.
I was born in [a small town in Ontario], up north, second child. I’ve got a sister 2 years older than me. We moved to Cottage County in ’93, so I was about 2 or 3. I’ve lived here ever since. My parents are still together.
FM: What does your dad do?
My dad works in the criminal justice system. And my mom works with expectant mothers.
FM: Okay. So start your story with how you thought about leaving, or not leaving, Cottage County?
I always just assumed that I would. And I didn’t really think much of it until end of high school when I was applying to universities. I ended up being in [university town] during the school year for 4 years. It was kind of arbitrary picking [that town]. I had to narrow down [the choice] between the other schools in the province. I wasn’t really planning on leaving Ontario.
FM: What did you study?
Psychology. Not quite finished the degree.
FM: Lemme unpack this a bit. So there was never any question but that you would go to university? You were a good student?
Yes. Before university.
FM: So how was it for you to leave home and go to university? How’d you manage that?
It was pretty good. The logistics I managed it one way, but in general it was exciting. How I managed? I worked summer jobs all through high school so I’d saved enough to pay for the first half of school. And I took out OSAP loans.
FM: I was thinking more about how you felt about leaving
FM: Yeah, that, and a small town where everybody knows you and knows who your parents are, etc. etc.
I didn’t think too much of it. It was just kinda the next natural step, a natural progression. Because I’d always planned on going to university and they don’t have any universities in [this] area.
FM: Did you stay in res?
For the first year. At [that university] they only give you that option for the one year.
FM: Did you like it?
It was okay. I was in an apartment-style residence. I probably would have preferred the dorm style because it seems you get to meet more different people. I had priority because of my marks and I kinda asked for apartment style because it thought it would be useful to have a kitchen, but it didn’t get much use.
FM: Lots of kids party hardy their first year at least: Did you?
I worked moderately hard my first year. Barely did any partying. Went to most of my classes, I guess, and got pretty good marks. Somewhere in low 80s first year.
FM: I’m hearing that didn’t continue?
Right. After first year, in the summer to get money for school, I ran a little student business, a painting franchise which took up quite a bit of time. I ended up being pretty successful at it. And I made about $30,000 in the one summer and then after that I kinda put my feet up, which wasn’t a good idea. Yeah, and then kinda too relaxed from all my hard work, I started doing some partying, substance use, and then never really got super motivated to try really hard academically.
FM: Hmm, so do you think if you’d had a so-so summer job, not worked so hard, not been as successful, you’d have returned to being a student more enthusiastically?
Most likely. I guess it was like kind of a gamble doing that for the summer when I needed the money for school. I really put a lot into it, and I almost wasn’t ready to be as successful as I was with it.
FM: It went to your head, is that what you’re saying?
No, not exactly. A little bit. But more it was I had this thought that I’d been getting really good marks my whole life and trying to really excel at things and then maybe convinced myself I deserved a bit of a break. Early retirement.
FM: That’s very interesting. Did it occur to you that spending money on school didn’t make sense when you could make good bucks painting?
Yeah. It definitely crossed my mind. I kinda, over a little bit of time, I forgot how hard I had to work to do well academically or with business.
FM: So took success for granted?
FM: Ah, so what did the parents make of this?
It was kinda a slow development, especially from their perspective. They didn’t make too much of it until the next summer, I did my business again but I didn’t make nearly as much profit as the summer before, didn’t work as much, as hard.
FM: Were they pissed?
Not really, not like the classic parent line. They might have been a little disappointed, but not much anger.
FM: Okay, then year 3 at school?
Year 2 at school – forgot about this. After I ran my successful little business, I thought maybe I should get a degree in successful little businesses, so I ended up switching my major from psychology to business, wasted most of the year taking business courses, switched back again to psychology. But I didn’t go to 10% of my classes, so it’s not the fact that I took business courses that screwed me over, just not wanting to be there, I suppose.
FM: Okay, so you really were majoring in partying?
Kind of. I took a course in third year in drugs and behaviour, which I didn’t go to a ton. But I liked to think I was getting a hands-on approach to learning.
FM: So what kind of drugs? Weed almost goes without saying?
That’s the big one. That’s what most people say, but that’s the only thing I’ve really used on a habitual basis.
FM: So not the really hard, bad stuff?
Ummm, kinda. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different things. I’ve never partaken of the really bad stuff, never injected anything or done meth or crack, but other than that, I’ve tried my hand at a few different things.
FM: Did you think you were ‘addicted’, i.e. dependent on drugs?
With marijuana, I recognize that I preferred to use it more often than not, on a regular basis. It’s kind of the type of thing where, as long as there’s a somewhat feasible way to get some weed, you could call me dependent on it. But it’s nothing too intense or extreme, in terms of needing marijuana.
FM: You’re not in any danger of holding up the corner store to get weed?
I don’t think so.
FM: Okay, so substance use starting in second year university, enough to compromise your academic behaviour… and then?
I’ll just jump in. I tried marijuana a handful of times, starting end of grade 9, grade 10. Then I abstained for a few years. And then I smoked once in first year. Towards the end of the summer after first year it was pretty much a nonstop endeavor. End of the school year, it definitely compromised my academics. But it wasn’t that I was getting high and then trying and failing. I just wasn’t getting to class or opening my books.
FM: Lack of motivation? Common with weed.
I’d like to see some kind of studies…
FM: Really? When I worked with kids, many used weed to allay anxiety. To get to sleep at night, psych themselves up for a stressful encounter of whatever sort, like going to court. And to keep themselves from exploding – if they drank, they fought, but if they smoked weed, they’d mellow out. So it was considered a drug of choice for many of them. And I didn’t particularly disagree – I thought it was a reasonable way for them to self-medicate. But, they were in alligators up their ass, very difficult life situations, and I don’t know how to understand kids in university mellowing out quite that much. I don’t understand the stress it might be. Or maybe it’s just doing what everybody does.
[incredulously] “I don’t understand the stress” – university? You don’t see how it could be stressful?
FM: I’m not hearing it from you. Some have said so; I’m not hearing it from you. Was it stressful?
I guess it got more stressful as it went on, as I became less successful at it. More of a negative in my bank account can add some stress. Smoking weed on a regular basis doesn’t help out the bank account either.
FM: Can I ask if it had anything to do with losing the sense of yourself as a high-achieving kid, the idea of not being sure who you were any more?
Partially. I didn’t really bring it up, but I dated this girl from the end of grade 10 until part way through university, and pretty much there’s a big correlation between trouble in the relationship and I guess self-medicating with marijuana. And then with the business as well, there was some life stresses.
FM: Was your girl also at [your university]?
FM: And you split up with her…
Pretty much at the beginning of first year, and then we got together at the end of second year.
FM: About the time you time went back into psychology?
Kinda. Blame it on psychology.
FM: Okay, so you said you hadn’t quite finished the course, so how did the story continue?
Third year and fourth year, pretty much the same as second year, with less indecision about my major. So not getting out to that many classes, not really doing the work. Lots of times I’d do the bare minimum, I’d read the lecture slides the profs would post. I could pass the mid-terms, just squeak by the class. But probably as often as not, I would do my minimum amount of work but then miss a test or two or an assignment worth 30% or so, so it was really hard to squeak by with a 51%. I got a couple 48-49%, which at several hundred dollars each, is not fun.
FM: By this time, you’re spending borrowed money? OSAP?
I paid for my first year with money I’d saved, second year with money I’d made with my business. And then third and fourth was OSAP.
FM: Your parents weren’t helping?
They kinda were, but not – they weren’t paying my tuition or rent for me, they’d help out with groceries sometimes.
FM: Okay, so you ended university short of credits for a degree, when was this?
A couple of weeks ago. This semester I was taking on-line courses from [my university] through [local] e-learning. But just wasn’t staying on top of the course load and stuff, so I dropped my course before I had to pay the full amount. Still had to pay a good chunk of it.
FM: How was the decision for you to discontinue on campus made?
At the end of last school year, my fourth year, I just kinda assumed at one point that I wouldn’t put any more time or money into this right now. And during the summer I thought, oh, I’d give it another kick at the can on line, it’s a bit cheaper doing that.
FM: And living at home?
Pretty much the same idea. It’s cheaper than trying to pay rent somewhere.
FM: Are your parents cool with what’s unfolding?
FM: I think you’re being facetious?
I considered saying ‘no’ really sarcastically.
FM: So they’re on your case?
Yeah, sometimes more than others. It’s kinda a tricky situation at times. Weird family dynamics, being 22 in their basement.
FM: And the confusion about whose rules take precedence?
FM: What’s the plan?
What is the plan… the plan. I’m not working right now, so short-term plan – but not super short-term, I’m thinking for the new year -- it would be nice to have a job. I have a couple of prospective things in mind. I need some kind of income so I can start chipping away at my debt. Just having some money for expenses, some fun stuff here and there too.
FM: You drove here today?
In mommy’s car.
FM: And using her gas?
Yup. Even if I get a job, I’m not going to touch the gas pumps if I can.
FM: And how long do you think their patience – or their pocketbooks – will allow that to go on?
Gas wise? I don’t know. I’m kidding. If I have a job, I’ll be pitching in gas when I’m using the car.
FM: How easy is it to get the car?
Fairly easy. In the summer, it’s easier. My dad takes his motorcycle a lot of the time so it frees up a vehicle. And my mom doesn’t work on Mondays so that’s how I was able to be here today.
FM: You said you’d worked all during high school. What kind of work?
The summer before grade 9, I scooped ice cream and was a bus boy at a little restaurant. The next summer I worked at Subway. And then I did construction for 3 summers. And then the painting. The couple years I had the painting business, I didn’t do much painting . I had a couple of employees swinging the brushes for me. Couple? I had half a dozen. And in the winters throughout high school, I ref’d minor hockey. Which I’m probably going to try and do next winter.
FM: Would they be asking about your drug use when you apply to ref hockey?
Unless they’re asking with a little plastic cup, they’re not going to get a straight answer. I don’t think they’d ask about that.
FM: No, probably not unless it interfered with your performance.
See the puck more clearly.
FM: Okay. What was the career plan when you chose psychology as a major?
Kind of to be a psychologist. But more than a career plan, I kinda had a school plan. Just to finish degree # 1 and go from there. That plan is on the back burner.
FM: But is it still the plan?
Kinda in the back of my mind. But certainly not one that I think is set in stone or anything like that. I’m more than half-way done my degree so chances are I’ll finish it at some point. If I’m going to finish it at some point, I should be really trying. I should get some really good 3d and 4th year marks, but it’s not going to be any time soon.
FM: What about – you’ve done well at construction business – what about a change of direction?
Sound like my mom’s dad. Why go to school and not learn anything? I don’t know, like what I’m doing now is not extremely fulfilling or anything, but I don’t know how much I’d enjoy doing that for an extended period of time. I’m kinda a hand-on guy but I can’t build a house or anything. As far as the construction world goes, painters are kinda the bottom of the pecking order, I think. I’ll probably definitely be doing some painting in some way, on the side, but as a full-time goal, I don’t think it’s something I’ll try to work towards.
FM: I’m hearing that you can’t conceptualize of yourself as other than a white-collar guy, a business owner, or some–
Kinda. I was going to say also that at this point I probably shouldn’t be my own boss. That’s another reason why in the short term, I don’t think that’s for me. I’m a pretty decent painter. I can show people how to paint but I don’t really want to be doing it for other people.
FM: So you need a job with a boss, but you’re not real enthusiastic about doing as told?
Ahh, kind of. Like I said, I kind of have some ideas about some work. Like I know a couple different people who are hiring, so I’ll be able to find some work in the next little while. But I don’t know if it makes sense to start half way through December, or if that’s me being lazy. Maybe eat some turkey and then go back to the grindstone, maybe.
FM: Actually, it’s not the middle of December yet…
Forgot about the interview process….
FM: What kind of work?
My ideas at this point are the construction job I had in high school which is moving houses and cottages. I know a guy who does satellite dishes and stuff, installations. And perhaps at a resort; I have a friend who works at one and could get me a job. And I also in the summer, the same friend works for [a nearby brewery] and I worked one day at the end of the summer with them, so I sorta have my foot in the door there, but that might be more a next summer thing.
FM: And how much student debt are you carrying?
Just over $20,000...
Especially considering that it’s pretty much for nothing.
FM: Do you have any ideas about how young people who were doing what you were doing – going through the motions of being a student but not really doing it, while the clock ticks on, the debt mounts up… any idea about how that process might be interrupted earlier?
Have to think for a second, there. I dunno. The post-sec stuff seems to be pushed pretty hard on kids. So that’s a pretty obvious one.
FM: How would you see the pressure being reduced? You’re right, there is a pressure.
I dunno. The academic group at the high school are shown some things to do with the trades, work and stuff, but I don’t know how to reduce that pressure. It might just be a part of the way things go. I’m not sure.
FM: Do you think if you’d take a year off to go somewhere and explore or whatever, that that would have worked stuff out for you a bit?
I might have. I don’t think grade 13 would have hurt.
FM: I agree with you. I do think that in this day, making a university choice at 17 is really young. My generation did it, but we were much older at 17 than this generation is. And some kids do the ‘victory lap’ thing. Did that ever occur to you?
It didn’t really occur to me. Two of my best friends who stayed the extra year walked to the liquor store for its opening, so I’m not sure. I didn’t party much in grade 11 or 12 so I might have been okay, but… I don’t really know what a few more high school credits might have done other than give me some time.
FM: Yeah, in fact I almost hear you saying that you didn’t realize until the end of the summer after first year that you wanted some think time. That before then, you thought you were on track.
Yeah. And in a way I was.
FM: And what about the idea that universities should kick kids out when they fail to perform as students – like taking attendance and holding students accountable in the short run for their behaviour. At least that would save them money?
Save the kids money? Do the opposite for the school. I was thinking about that, kicking kids out sooner or something. I don’t know if they should…if I had of pulled my socks up this semester, I would have been annoyed if I hadn’t been given the chance to do so. And if you do get bumped out of a university or something, it might make it harder in the future to get back into academics. I’m not sure exactly. I kinda feel they should just let you keep throwing money at them.
FM: But that is going to really influence your life for the next quite some while. And if you don’t keep up with payments, there goes your credit rating, which means good luck buying a car, etc etc…
FM: Not a jolly thought. Let’s go to other stuff… So we’ve covered education, employment, health, housing… well, lemme ask if you think that housing plays any influence on your story. You talked about the apartment-style res, then living in the community – any influence there on how the story unfolded?
The only big thing that’s popping into my mind is I should not have spent 3 years living next to the campus paying $500 for a bedroom and not much more. Last year, me and four roommates did not even realize where we could have been living for $2500/month.
FM: So being next to campus, the ‘student ghetto’...
Kinda, although at [my university] the campus is not much more than a block, so at least on the one side of the campus there are some decent apartments for students. And it’s stupid; with the campus so small, there was no need to be 10 seconds away from class – kinda ironic since I’m not going to the classes anyways.
FM: So why didn’t the options come to mind? Just the done thing?
Yeah, generally. Yeah. Probably a bit of laziness too. In fourth year, I just had a group of friends and just went along with them, but pretty much the same setup as I’d had in 2nd and 3rd year too.
FM: Are they still your friends?
Yeah, I haven’t seen them since the spring. Because I haven’t really been in [the university town].
FM: Are they still in school?
One of them graduated in four years – I wasn’t as good a friend with him. The other three guys are finishing up this year. I dunno if it’s just my friends, it’s kinda weird that only one guy finished on time.
FM: But you were all party buddies, right?
FM: Do you have friends locally?
I do. Most of them aren’t here year-round, but there’s a little handful.
FM: Are they working?
Some are, of the ones in the county right now. Some are.
FM: At what kinds of jobs?
I have a friend at a grocery store, selling furniture at a furniture store.
FM: Are they all living at home?
Not all of them but most of them.
FM: Even though they’re working?
FM: And are they into family mode, girlfriends, babies, etc???
For the most part, I dunno, it’s really only a handful of people I hang out on a regular basis here. One is in girlfriend mode, none is in family or baby mode.
FM: Okay. Involvement with the law. Anything?
Got some friends who are cops and lawyers and security guards. I don’t believe so. I’ve got some friends who aren’t living here permanently now who have some DWI, but nothing else.
FM: Okay, I’ve got some finish-up questions. Are we ready for that?
Yeah, unless you have more pre-finish-up questions.
FM: Sometimes the finish-up questions bring up pre-finish-up questions… So… For the people who will read this story, in order that it be understood as you intend it, to give it some focus and shape, would you say what is the Most Important Event in this narrative: could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, an absence or a hole or something like that.
Probably ... I was going to say probably if I didn’t end my relationship with my girl that way, I would have still kept getting A’s. Maybe the business during the summer changed my priorities and added to an already-stressful situation.
FM: Was the already-stressful situation in this case having broken up with your girlfriend?
Not really. That kind of came after. Just kinda school and needing money for school.
FM: So working your tail off at that job was motivated by knowing how expensive school was.
And within the company they did things to motivate us. In your first year managing, if you made $70,000 in business you got to go to Jamaica. And I did $110K so I got to go to Jamaica. So that was motivating. They kind of pit all the kids against each other, just to make it more competitive.
FM: Like the real business world, in some ways?
FM: Okay, next question. People who read this story will form an opinion about how it will unfold, good or not so good? What do you say?
Hmm. [long pause] I’m kinda thinking that it doesn’t really matter; they might be right, they might be wrong.
FM: But the question is what do YOU say?
We’ll have to see. Stay tuned. To be continued…
FM: Okay, now two advice questions. First one is: What advice would you give to your younger self, whether or not your younger self would take the advice: what advice?
Huhhh… I really am not quite sure. Hmmmm….. take a year off after high school?
FM: Can I offer that – disclosure, I know your family – that you have what I call ‘good kid syndrome’, i.e. that everyone expects you to be a good, achieving kid and you do that, but at some point you need to consider if that’s really you, and you ‘kick over the traces’, act out, have a wild period, sow some wild oats, all those expressions, out of which emerges some sense of who you are, vs who everybody in your community thought you were. Anything there for you?
It’s pretty accurate – I would agree with that for the most part.
FM: Well, the ‘cure’ would be to act out, then, not to smoke pot every day and think about what you would do if you did something. You feel so stuck to me…
FM: I just think that sometimes it doesn’t matter so much what you do as that you do something, and take the consequences, good or bad. And that’s how you figure it out, in action, not reflection. Do you know Friere, the works of Freire?
FM: We’ll talk… Okay, last question. What advice would you give to those of us who would hope to be helpful to young people like yourself that would make this transition more easy, have a better outcome, roll out more smoothly, whatever. What advice?
I’m not sure because you seem to be fairly understanding or in tune with how young people feel, you personally. Hopefully the people you work with are similar. But offer $60 for an interview.
FM: Sorry, it’s only $40! I’m thinking you’re not sure.
FM: Okay, that’s it for me. Anything more?
I don’t think so.