Armed with a Georgetown University diploma, Beth Hanley embarked in her 20s on a path hoping to become a professional world-saver. First she worked at nonprofit Bread for the World. Then she taught middle school English in central Africa with the Peace Corps. Finally, to certify her idealism, she graduated last spring with a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.
But now the 29-year-old faces a predicament shared by many young strivers in Washington's public interest field. After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for. Hanley, a think tank temp who dreams of aiding the impoverished and reducing gender discrimination in developing countries, is stuck.
"I knew this would be difficult," said Hanley, an Illinois native who lives in Adams Morgan. "A lot of people say, 'At some point, you're going to have to decide to explore other options,' and I guess I would start applying for jobs in other fields I don't care so much about. But I haven't gotten at all to that point."
She will, when the student loan debt that she accumulated getting her degrees starts to weigh on her.
It is a predicament though. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of kids graduate from high school/college/graduate programs every year, fully intending to engage in a life of public service. Only a minority will make it, because the field doesn't pay well and there aren't nearly as many paying jobs as there are kids who would take those jobs. The market for these jobs is super competitive, so students will rack up student loan debt to make good grades at good schools so they'll even have a chance at a job like this, only to find that for all their qualifications the best they can hope for is a volunteer position that doesn't pay the bills. There's nothing wrong with smart young people going to work to make money, but it's a waste of their idealism, their youth, their patriotism and their natural talents to not have public service positions available for them, when everyday in America we need more people doing more jobs like this, not less. That's why we need a more comprehensive national service program, to put the energy and talent of these kids to use in a way that still allows them to pay the bills. These young men and women have something to offer America, and we should take it.