Don’t want your graduate living in your basement? Listen to Sister Ellen Marie

Dajani Strachan, a senior at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Md., hopes to become an electrical engineer. (Washington Post/Melinda Henneberger)
Dajani Strachan, a senior at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Md., is one of a number of aspiring engineers in her class. (Melinda Henneberger/The Washington Post)

 

At all-girl Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Md., in Prince George’s County, the students in traditional uniforms and the crucifixes in every classroom could fool you into wondering how much had really changed since the Daughters of Charity founded the place in 1959.

Turns out, though, that Seton is ahead of many fancier, more modern-looking secondary schools in “retrofitting” its curriculum for a time in which a college diploma is no longer an automatic admission ticket to a profession, or even a well-paying job.

“The gnawing feeling I can’t get away from,’’ the school’s president, Sister Ellen Marie Hagar (who graduated from the school herself in 1974), is that when working-class families fork over $12,000 a year for tuition, there’s something immoral about watching their daughters head off to earn “psych degrees, and then wind up with fat loans and back home in a job at the Olive Garden. I can’t live with that.”

It’s Catholic Schools Week, and when I hear Hagar speak about the sin of leaving students unaware of the realities of the job market, I think, yes, guilt can be good.

Grads at the Olive Garden certainly wouldn’t be alone; some of my friends whose kids have degrees from all kinds of good colleges are back in the nest now. They are not quite — as Paul Ryan put it at last summer’s Republican convention — staring up at their fading Obama posters, but yes, they are working retail or waiting tables while looking for something better.

“I’m 28’’ with a plan in hand, said a Harvard graduate student I met recently, “but a lot of my friends are still lost.”

All kinds of depressing stats back this up: A Rutgers University survey last year found only 51 percent of recent college graduates working full-time and just 4 in 10 in a job that required a college degree. One in four said they were living with relatives.

Seton is not chucking its longtime focus on liberal arts — writing in particular — but it is trying mightily to make sure that its 600 students, in a school that’s 65 percent minority, are as prepared as possible to major in engineering, computer sciences, pharmacology and other fields in which there’s little to no unemployment and women are in particularly short supply.

In the school’s engineering lab, where students were programming robots on a recent morning, signs on the wall say, “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen,” and “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”

Mostly thrillingly to me — someone who still remembers the day Sister Mary Edna had everyone in our class at St. Mary’s cheer for the kids who said they wanted to be priests or nuns and boo any other aspiration — nearly every girl in the room said she is planning to pursue a career in science, and two are hoping to design prosthetics.

“At one point I wanted to be a chef,’’ said one of the students, Dajani Strachan, a senior from Upper Marlboro, “but my science teacher — she’s from the Caribbean and I’m from the Caribbean — she said, ‘You’re too smart for that.’ ” (I would say “no offense” to chefs, but the sisters also told me not to lie … )

On another floor, Seton’s computer teacher says she’s trying to encourage girls to go into gaming, and the genetics and forensics instructor says her class is routinely oversubscribed, mostly as a result of the TV show “CSI.”

Though lawyers are not in short supply, the school’s planning to offer a “women and the law” seminar for the first time next year, concentrating on rhetoric and making a presentation. Hagar is also busy setting up internships in all these fields, and says CEOs have been eager to work with her. “Everyone understands the crisis” of the current mismatch between education and the best available jobs.

“We don’t live in an age where we can afford to dabble around in electives that don’t prepare you” for anything in particular, she said.

As a former American studies and modern languages major and lifelong dabbler, I can’t say that view doesn’t sting a little. It does.

But as a friend of mine says, the unstated reality is that a middle-class arts history major will get “informational interviews” with all of Mom and Dad’s high-powered friends — and thus an angle of entry that’s just not available to those from low-income families with no social capital.

And if we’re going to compete globally in the way our president’s always talking about, we’ve got to listen to Sister Ellen Marie, who doesn’t sugar-coat where the jobs are not: “If I have one more girl tell me she wants to go into communications, I think I’m going to scream.”

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political reporter who anchors She the People and is spending this semester at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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