When I was 22, I graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education/Voice.
I’m gonna brag for a minute: I got it from the School of Music at Ithaca College, one of most prestigious classical music conservatories in the country. Their music education program in particular is often lauded as #1 in the country. I worked hard – sometimes doing well, sometimes getting my ass kicked- through their extremely rigorous program, and graduated magna cum laude with 146 credits after three years. I gave my all through the juries, the recitals, the endless coursework, the two years of student teaching, and the New York State teacher certification process, all of which I passed. I then went on to become (some of you already know this punch line)…a chef.
The job placement rate for graduates of Ithaca College’s (IC) Music Education program is virtually flawless; even amidst tough economies and vicious budget cuts to school arts programs, just about all IC Music Education graduates end up getting snatched up into teaching jobs after graduation. Virtually all of the people I graduated with are now teaching music, and I’m over here calling out things like, “That Bolognese sauce needs to be blended more please!” over screeching ticket printers and busy knives on cutting boards.
People talk about it – my family, the people I went to school with, my former professors. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Behind my back: “Why, after all that work…?”, “Why, after all that money…?”, “Was she not able to land a teaching job?” To my face: “So do you ever plan to go back to teaching?” To be fair, I did get a few teaching job offers after I graduated. I initially had every intention of working in the field in which I’d been training so intensely. But then, as it so often does, life happened.
I moved from New York to North Carolina after graduation (another story for another time), I actively applied for teaching jobs, but it was the middle of the school year (the majority of people in my program had December graduations), when districts generally aren’t hiring teachers. Knowing that I desperately needed a job and didn’t know anyone in the area, I was introduced by my friend Google to the name of a lauded vegan chef in the area. I emailed him to ask if he needed any prep cooks, servers, anything. I had some culinary experience, I was dedicated to the vegan movement and I loved cooking as a hobby, but the thought of cooking professionally had never entered my mind. I just needed a job. The chef brought me in for a series of interviews and ultimately hired me. I was so grateful, but I fully planned for this whole thing to be temporary.
During the period when I was starting my teaching job interviews, I was promoted to line cook status. Then just as the results of my teaching job interviews started to come back positive, I was promoted to sous chef. The chef I worked for was phenomenal and went out of his way to help me finish my culinary training. Overall, I was realizing by accident how head-over-heels in love I was with cooking for a living. Of course, the restaurant industry is a circus at best, but it fit me well and I couldn’t deny that I felt happier and more in my element doing this work than I did while I was teaching. It just felt right.
In addition to finding all this passion, also on my mind was the fact that North Carolina is one of the worst states in America for teachers. And the fact that the current state of public education in the U.S. is abysmal for students, families and teachers. After some serious deliberation, I turned down the teaching job offers and accepted the sous chef promotion. But even then, I planned for it to be temporary, telling myself, “I’ll go back to teaching in the fall… or next year.”
…I was realizing by accident how head-over-heels in love I was with cooking for a living.
When the kitchen was slow, I’d think about the kind of music teacher I wanted to be. I slowly realized that while I loved the idea of teaching music, the ways I wanted to teach music were not what principals or school districts were looking for – they clashed too much with the status quo. I can go into more detail about the culture and standard practices of the music education field and why these realities make this field and I so poorly suited for one another (here’s that, if you’re curious), but the short version is that my values don’t fit in with the surprisingly conservative industry standard, and neither do I.
At first I felt a little weird about choosing to work outside my field of study, especially from a financial perspective. I was in no way removed from how much my degree cost. In order to make tuition payments, I’d worked up to 40 hours a week during the school year and up to 80 hours a week during breaks. There was a semester after freshman year when I couldn’t afford to be in school, so I gave up having enough food and a consistent place to live until I had saved enough money to go back. Once I returned to school, I worked my ass off to keep my grades up to maintain my scholarships (let me just say: simultaneously working full time and being in school full time is unbelievably difficult.) Then since graduating, I’ve been working up to 98 hours a week in order to pay my student loan bills alongside all the other cost-of-living bills. I worked for that degree, paid for that degree, and Lord knows I’ll continue to for a long time.
Out of a sense of obligation, I decided to have a last hoorah with teaching: I taught English for a company in Italy and Austria for a while. It felt like teaching always felt to me: sometimes joyful, sometimes really rewarding, often really draining. But I also cooked during that time abroad, catering dinners and executing pop-ups, and that felt as fulfilling as ever. So when I came back to the U.S. and the chef I’d been working for offered me the opportunity to work with him as an equal, I stopped kidding myself. I wasn’t about to go looking for any teaching jobs.
We ended up starting a culinary business, which I eventually went on to run by myself. I did that until I was offered the head chef position at a restaurant I absolutely love, and that’s where I am today. No matter what other chaos is going on in my life, there is never the slightest question in my mind of whether or not I’m in the right career.
In some small ways, I have been using my degree: I’ve taught ballet classes here and there, I taught in a Montessori early childhood school on the side of personal chef contracts, and you could say that I teach every time I train a member of my kitchen team on how to do a particular task. And of course, music still is a deeply important part of my life, even though it’s not part of my career. But while I don’t claim to be able to tell the future, it looks very likely that I’ll continue to leave my degree largely unused.
People seem to expect me to feel guilty or somewhat regretful about this, and I just don’t. I have endless respect for music teachers and all teachers; I don’t feel in any way like I left an inferior profession for a superior one. But if someone stumbles accidentally onto a path that feels completely right for them, why should they waste time and energy regretting the fact that they initially started out on a different path? So many people go through their entire lives not knowing what sort of path they want to pursue, and many stay by choice or necessity in work that is miserable and unfulfilling for them. I’ve woken up every day since I was 22 knowing that I’m doing exactly what I want to do, so Goddamn, I’m nothing but grateful.
For those who argue that my degree was wasted, I disagree. I deeply valued my academic and non-academic undergraduate experiences at the time, and I value them just as much in retrospect. I treasured my time at the School of Music. As cliché as it is, I learned and experienced and grew so much in college, and Alhamdulillah/Baruch HaShem I wouldn’t change a thing.
While not an unprecedented phenomenon, it is a quintessentially millennial experience to spend $150,000 for a piece of paper certifying your competence in a field you’ll never end up working in. While millennials are by no means fully to blame for this, the blame game is beside the point. Everyone will inevitably, at least once in their life, end up on a path that completely diverges from the ones they intended to follow. The more you try to plan out your future and hold it within your control, the more chaos you will experience when it refuses to cooperate. Life will take you to unexpected places and will disrupt the plans that you make for yourself; the sooner you can learn and embrace that, the easier your life will be. My college and degree program were exactly where I needed to be at the time. The noisy, crowded kitchen of this restaurant is exactly where I need to be right now.