Reporting the Future: Debt, Art School, and the American Dream

By February 19, 2021 February 20th, 2021 No Comments

By Di-Ay Battad
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

I am a terrible Pilipinx immigrant. When I was seventeen, I decided it would be perfectly fine for me and my already-financially-strapped family if I took out student loans so I could major in art at a school that cost $55k per year. My parents were incredibly supportive. Even though our family once lived in a small, dusty house outside Manila, with an outhouse instead of a bathroom, and where we put buckets under the places our corrugated-tin roof perpetually leaked. There were flies everywhere, and stray dogs and cats. We made rattly, rudimentary musical instruments out of beer bottle caps, wire, sticks and nails. And yet, my parents never let me and my brothers know that we were poor. They focused on our learning. Not just on school learning, but on pursuing our curiosities and interests in ways that made us want to learn.

When I was in high school and deciding my course of study, I saw college not as an investment but a gateway into a wider world of ideas. I chose to study art because it was an area in which I felt unrestricted. I wanted to learn to observe the world, process information and communicate in the most impactful ways. So many parents found ways to take out loans to pay for a $55k-a-year education for me to see my dreams through, and I got into debt. Upon graduating, I couldn’t bring myself to borrow more money for an MFA as some of my peers were doing. I’d watched as some of the other art and humanities graduates from previous years moved to larger

Di-Ay Battad

cities, only to boomerang back to Pittsburgh for a few more years until they could find the direction and courage to leave again. As for me, the more I scanned the “qualifications” sections in hundreds of open-position postings, both in Pittsburgh and everywhere else, the more sorry I felt about my chosen course of study. I eventually became a full-time teaching artist, and my income barely rose above $15 an hour after five years. While I was able to make my student loan payments, I struggled, relying on food stamps and pantries at times, and I constantly needed to figure out how to continue making rent. The first thing I had to cut from my budget was going to music and art shows – the things that I had once found so much intellectual freedom in had become restrictive; excessive.

While I was materially uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have racked up feelings of guilt and regret if I also, as a Pilipinx, didn’t inherently have a sense of familial duty. My mother once told me that in her family, the oldest child would go to college first, make enough money to help get the second-oldest through college, who would then support the next in line, and so on. “That’s the Filipino way,” she explained. And as supportive as my parents had been of my pursuit of my own interests, they are still Pilipinx parents and did hope that I would be able to help the family out when I’m able to. When my cousin, who I don’t know at all, graduated from college, my dad asked me if I could spare her any money. When my younger sibling wasn’t able to financially support himself, I was asked if I could afford to make a monthly contribution indefinitely. The asks always upset me, but not with my family. I was upset with my college-years-old self for not having the foresight to invest my borrowed, high-interest money in skills that were a little more marketable than “can write a barely-passable paper on the queer aesthetics of noise the morning after VJing all night and then crashing from Ritalin juice.” The pursuit of my own interests? What was I thinking?

My parents had lovingly worked to bring me to the United States, which enticed them with the promises of higher education for their children. Their hope for me was to have a rich, fulfilling college experience which would then lead to a life abundant with curiosity about the world unhindered by finances, and the resources to pursue what interests while allowing me to give back to my communities. Yet, after finding myself under the strain of financial insecurity after college, I became bitter towards not only my parents but also myself for so eagerly adopting the American ideals of individualism and freedom to pursue what I want. It took a while for me to admit to myself that my resentment was misdirected. Lower-income parents should not be punished for encouraging their children to maintain and follow their sense of wonder about the world through higher education. College should not be a for-profit industry that betrays those like my parents who are well-meaning and full of hope for their children. Young people should have the freedom to pursue what intellectually motivates them; we can advance fiercely as a society that way.

Eventually, I started freelancing in video production with a tremendous amount of help from friends who either were already in the field and taught me those skills or trusted me enough to lend me cash. I’ve been lucky. Now I’m relatively comfortable – I still never have enough money to save, but I don’t have to default on my loans, and I can eat healthful, home-cooked meals and take actual breaks from work instead of using my vacation days to work a second or third job. At the same time, I’m still burdened with familial guilt and regret. My grandmother today cleans hotel rooms for a living, while I enjoy a job that doesn’t allow me to give back to my family because of the less-than-ideal paycheck, but nonetheless gives me a sense of purpose.

Being able to fend for yourself and provide for your loved ones is empowering, no doubt. It is also empowering to be able to pursue what you are interested in, and for those of us who choose the latter in a world in which art and profit are often contradictory, it’s nice to be reminded of the value in what we’re pursuing. There is much we can do to remedy the state of higher education in America, and we can still save future college students from the traumas of either financial insecurity or lack of personal fulfillment inflicted by the student loan crisis. For those of us already deep in it, reminders of what motivated our more idealistic past selves can go a long way in keeping us mentally afloat.

Amanda Gorman’s work at this year’s presidential inauguration was moving. I don’t know how intentional this was, but her performance was framed in the most saturated blocks of blue, red, and yellow – the primary colors, invoking for me a return to youth, clarity, and potential. The performance, the colors surrounding it, the meaning of the right words arranged in just the right way, and spoken in just the right time, were all striking against Biden’s almost-grandfatherly speech. I could focus again.

I remembered art, and I wanted more. I visited poets’ social media pages to scan for links to buy their books. Along the way, I noticed the designers and illustrators that the writers and their publishers commissioned for their book covers. I have so many tabs open for when I’m ready to finalize my fevered shopping spree; I really do feel like I’ve been missing out, and I guess all it took for me was seeing a piece performed on a real or metaphorical stage, supported by those who have the power to, after four years of getting used to hearing numbingly shocking news every single day. And it was a creative piece in a world that was not asking it to justify its own existence – art is not just a luxury, but a fulfillment of my parents’ promise for me, and that is clear again.

Di-ay Battad makes videos for and studies part-time at the University of Pittsburgh. They lived in the Philippines, Singapore, and Connecticut before moving to Pittsburgh to study electronic and time-based art at Carnegie Mellon University, and became an American citizen at age 20. They’re for hire as a freelance videographer.

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