Pomp and circumspect

Frida Berrigan receiving her diploma at the 1996 Hampshire College graduation ceremony.

Frida Berrigan receiving her diploma at the 1996 Hampshire College graduation ceremony.

There are no caps and gowns at Hampshire College. At least not when I graduated 16 years ago. I wore a long red dress with blotches of other colors and a bright blue scarf around my head (it was the 90s, people did stuff like that back then). I don’t remember much of the ceremony, except that it was really long and too cold to be wearing a sleeveless dress. My brother missed his flight and showed up just in time to see me walk. We all missed the post-graduation parties because we drove up to Maine to see my dad in jail that night, who was awaiting sentencing for a Plowshares action at Bath Iron Works.

Unlike many graduates, I did not have a “this is the first day of the rest of my life” sort of feeling, as I grasped the president’s hand and my diploma in one graceful move. Maybe it was because I really graduated in January and was already back in Baltimore, working for a Central America solidarity organization that was housed in an old library three blocks from where I went to high school.

We had a close relationship with El Bario, El Salvador, where many had been displaced during the long civil war. People from Baltimore had accompanied them on the harrowing journey from refugee camps back to their battle-scarred fields at the end of the war and pledged to continue helping them as they rebuilt what decades of U.S. military aid had destroyed. More than 10 years later, our organization was still there, and families in Baltimore “adopted” kids in El Bario, paying for them to be able to attend high school and even university in a neighboring city.

We also put out a newsletter with lots of articles about NAFTA and economic imperialism, held potluck dinners with speakers from Central America and the Caribbean, and collected medicine and medical equipment for Pastors for Peace delegations to Cuba. There were lots of meetings, mailing parties and phone banking evenings. I joked that my job was being a lefty social director — like on a cruise ship — and I was always trying to set people up on dates.

But this job wasn’t why I moved back to Baltimore. I didn’t really have a post-college plan. I graduated with $14,000 in debt (seems like nothing compared to 2013 grads saddled with an average of more than $35,000 in school debt). So I knew I needed to start paying that off. One morning as I scanned the want ads (it was the 90s, people), my dad asked why I wanted a job — not understanding the need to pay off my loans. At the time, Hampshire College was one of the most expensive schools in the country and had need-blind admissions, meaning, if you got in, the school would arrange a bundle of grants, loans, work study money and family contributions to make sure you could attend. Based on my parents’ income, my family was responsible for about $800 each semester. Even that would have been a stretch for them, given that the Jonah House community where we lived shared a bank account, held all money in common and painted houses for a living.

I worked summers to be able to pay Hampshire our family’s share. My dad had no idea how much school cost. I told him I had decided to go to Hampshire instead of a state or community college, that I knew it would entail paying back debt, that I had promised (semester after semester) to pay it back, and I was going to keep my promise. “But education should be free, Freeds,” he said. “I know, Dad. But it wasn’t. Not for me.” I told him how much debt I graduated with and he was flabbergasted. I then reminded him that he went to college on the GI Bill and got his graduate studies courtesy of the Josephite order. It was sort of free, but it was actually really costly in terms of his commitments.

Lots of Hampshire’s students came from really wealthy families. At one point, I caught a ride to New York City from Hampshire with a friend who lived in Manhattan. She told us that her mom had recently rented a parking space, for just $275 per month. That was more than we paid to rent a house that eight people lived in.

In my job search after graduation, I applied for a job as a cocktail waitress (they were willing to give me a go at it, but I could not figure out how to get there and home safely on my bike), interviewed at a temp agency (the only thing they gave me was a bad head cold), and sent in my resume to the solidarity organization — I considered it a long shot. The woman who was stepping down had been there a long time, knew everything and everyone and was leaving pretty large shoes. They weren’t going to give it to someone fresh out of college. Instead, the search committee gave it to two fresh-out-of-collegers. They told us we could both have the job if we were willing to split the salary and not work during the summer. I was down with that. I made about $400 every two weeks. It seemed like a lot of money at the time. My mom said, “You could pay off your student loans in a few years if you tried.” I just paid them off last year.

When my co-worker and I started, we found that our predecessor had left something behind. One of the drawers in her desk was full of toiletries — not just the requisite lotion or deodorant, but shampoo, toothpaste, everything one would need to live in the office. We learned that she used to make donor calls from her bathtub. We looked at each other and swore we would not follow suit.

It was a good job. There was a strong community around the organization, a sense of family that we sustained and built upon. There was a lot to learn about Central America, economic policy, neoliberalism, what solidarity really means. There was good work to be done and for a time I helped do it. I could have stayed a long time. But I left to move to New York City, intern at The Nation magazine and live with my college boyfriend. I wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I did write — on military policy, the arms trade, nuclear weapons and all sorts of other grim topics for a think tank called the Arms and Security Initiative. I made a lot more than $200 a week. And then I left, moved to the Catholic Worker ($20 a week) and then to Connecticut to get married and have a family. I am still writing, but it is obviously not for the love of money.

I could not foresee any of this the day I graduated from college 16 years ago, wearing a red dress, a blue scarf and wishing I had a sweater. The motto at Hampshire College is non satis scire; to know is not enough. I did not have big ambitions or top dollar aspirations then and I still don’t, but I do take that maxim to heart.

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