NYT: Living in Providence After College Makes You Super Lame

by: Lissa Jean

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about college grads who don’t leave town once they’re done suckling from the teat of higher education, and guess what? Brown/RISD students took center stage. From start to finish, the entire piece is tinged with an air of quiet desperation, and you get the feeling the author interviewed these kids out of sheer pity.

Based on this article, if you’re a Brown/RISD grad living in Providence, you’re probably:

1) A directionless yuppie, content to mooch off your parents while you pursue half-hearted artistic projects, like playing in a noise band or making documentaries about the Providence dating scene.

2) Living in self-imposed squalor. See: Abandoned mills, former potato factories, hovels beneath the interstate, etc.

3) Earning extra cash by “milling soap, making cheese or working as a nann[y] for professors’ children.” Churning butter, sheering sheep and sewing patchwork bonnets are also acceptable odd jobs. A basic rule of thumb: it’s always cool to emulate the Amish.

More on this article after the jump.

Here’s my theory: reporter Rachel Aviv set out to craft a piece about how college graduates are essentially overeducated children with too much free time on their hands, and that’s exactly what she did. She found a few relatively disengaged Brown grads, quoted them at length, and then tacked on a couple of paragraphs about the inbred quality of their social circles, political beliefs, etc.

According to Aviv, living in Providence post-Brown is both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, you buy yourself another 10 years of loafing around while your parents’ safety net dangles below. But on the other, you risk becoming a lifelong “townie” – a fate Aviv treats like a prison sentence.

So, OK. Some of this is bullshit, some of it’s not. First off, yes, these aimless kids do exist. Brown (and every other liberal arts college in this country) will always produce its share of Comp Lit grads for whom the future is a scary, unknowable void. Many of these kids will circle around their alma mater for a few years before becoming bored, at which point they’ll move home and take up real estate. BUT, despite what Aviv would have us believe, this pathetic situation is far from de facto, and chilling in Providence post-graduation is not an earthly version of Purgatory.

I happen to know firsthand that for every lost soul Brown graduates, it churns out 20 ambitious young adults eager to shape the world in concrete ways. And yeah, some of them might choose to do that here in Providence, but why is that a bad thing? What’s wrong with wanting to give back to a community that so generously took you in for four years? A community that put up with you when you puked cheap beer into that Thayer Street trashcan last semester? I’ve met plenty of Brown grads who’ve stayed in Providence in order to help make this city a cleaner, fairer, more exciting place to live, and I think that’s admirable, rather than pitiable. Wouldn’t you agree, Ms. Aviv?

9 thoughts on “NYT: Living in Providence After College Makes You Super Lame”

  1. Eve Wartenberg Condon

    What I found particularly offensive was the author’s comment that Providence is “a city that is merely home to a college.” Outrageous. This city’s vast and fascinating history, political climate to rival a Sopranos script, and concentration of colleges (Brown is not the only act in town, thanks very much), artists, and cultural events and institutions give this city a character all its own. Providence is an enclave for artists, activists, and entrepreneurs for a reason: it is a fiercely individual city with rich historical and cultural resources. Shame on Ms. Aviv for not striving to report both sides of the story.

  2. Jessica, Thanks for putting into words the tangled mess of thoughts and emotions this hatched in my head.

    The students who Lissa seems to stake out as “lost souls”–those living cheaply, pursuing unusual lines of work, or working day jobs to pursue their passions–aren’t at odds with the “ambitious young adults eager to shape the world in concrete way.” They’re one in the same, they are those ambitious young adults. Having the aspiration to make a difference are not at odds with having a job (whether that job is part of your aspirations or not).

    And yeah, Megan being your poster child for aimless liberal arts grads killing time until they join the corporate world is so off base it basically invalidates the whole article.

  3. It’s easy to be jealous of someone as cool as Megan Hall. How easy? Just read the article and you’ll know.

    Stick around, Megan! Good things will come of having your ilk in our midst. (I mean, heck, it gets us mentioned in the company of Davis and Athens, GA.)

  4. Jessica Ramsey

    Lissa, thanks for writing about this.

    I gotta say that I thought Aviv’s article was terribly inaccurate. So many of my friends, many of them Brown grads, are making this city move. They run non-profits, they are journalists, they are graduate students, they work for the city, they’ve launched software companies, and they run for office.

    Megan Hall as an example of recent grads who don’t have any direction? Really? As a good friend of Megan, I gotta say the woman has been a powerhouse for years, even during her time at Brown. The article glossed over the fact that Megan has always worked full-time for community organizations and was a freelance journalist before she was hired by WRNI. She’s been contributing to Providence as a thriving city and is well respected by anyone who has worked with her. Her wonderful “Break-up Project” is just one piece of the work she’s done in this town.

    Plus, the “making cheese” example of Aviv’s article referred to Louella Hill, who started a remarkably effective non-profit directly out of college, ran the thing for several years before starting the first artisanal cheese production company in Rhode Island. She’s well respected by the agricultural and culinary communities, and is regarded as a hero in the local food movement, not just in RI, but around the country.

    Oh, and to that guy Marc, I have a job where I get to “make a difference,” “raise awareness of,” and “create a safe zone” for an issue I really care about. I really cannot stand when people don’t associate the kind of work I do as meaningful work. For some people, work isn’t based solely on amassing capital. What I do every day is amassing capital for my neighborhood and my city. I’m lucky to have found a way to live off of what I love to do.

  5. I’m pretty sure that I don’t know a single person who mills soap. I also don’t think that this generation is particularly different than any other one, with the exception that they start their adult lives with much larger debts.

    But of course, the lack of traditional jobs could also have something to do with the dreary economy, the demographic shift that means lots more twentysomethings these days, and everyone’s insistence that super-expensive college educations are the be all and end all of how not to fail at adulthood.

  6. I think the author did a good job pointing out several small cities that have similar phenomena going on.

    As a local, I’ve always been amused by the ratio of people here doing things like:

    ‘making a difference.’
    ‘raising awareness of…’
    ‘creating a safe-zone for…’
    ‘experimenting living in…’
    ‘thinking about grad school.’
    ‘saving up to get out of here.’

    versus the number of people who actually… have… jobs.

    Really. I spent the first fifteen years of my life just -dying- to get out in the world, and the next ten to be taken seriously, all so I could actually have a ‘real job’ and amass the capital to live well on when I slowed-down in my old age. It’s funny that I’m now friends with a huge number of people, most older than myself, who are entirely content living ‘outside the GDP’ as far as money is concerned. I’m considered ‘old’ and ‘serious’ because I have a career at 25 years old.

    My Grandfather was raising kids at 20, my Dad owned a house at 25, and ::looking both sides:: my personal opinion is that this generation is so disgusted with their parents (and the fear of becoming like them) that they won’t participate in the world they’re in, instead they focus (often to their own detriment) on -changing the world by boycotting it- rather than affecting change through progressive participation in the framework laid out for us.

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