March 28, 2013

The Sociological Imagination and Personal Crises

SternheimerBy Karen SternheimerC._Wright_Mills_Image

C. Wright Mills famously described how “personal troubles” and “public issues” are related; understanding this relationship is essential for developing a sociological imagination

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a handful of students to encounter serious “personal troubles” during the course of a semester. These are not simply excuses to try and get an extension on an assignment, but serious crises that may prevent them from continuing in my class—or with their education entirely. Let’s consider how these “personal troubles” might be linked with “public issues.”

One semester, I noticed that a student who had been very interested in my class virtually stopped attending. She was completing the major course assignments, but the quality of the work had declined since she hadn’t been to class.

It’s really tempting to imagine that this student was simply irresponsible, maybe a partier, or someone who didn’t take her education seriously. But I later found out that something bigger was going on, more than just her personal failure.

She eventually came to my office, practically in tears. She was close to graduating and wanted to do well in my class. She would be the first in her family to graduate from college, and wanted to be a role model for her younger siblings. Then I found out why: she was trying to raise them on her own. She had been raised in foster care, had “aged out” of the system, and was trying to keep the family together.  With no parents or older family members available, she had no emotional or financial support.

She was panicking because once she was no longer a student she would no longer be able to live in student housing and was facing the prospect of becoming homeless at the end of the semester. In her words, she was “freaking out.” On top of her very realistic fear of being homeless, the one thing in life that she took pride in, that offered her a chance at a better life, her education, seemed to become overwhelming.

Of course, for this student, these were very personal troubles, one she felt embarrassed about and tried to keep private until she needed to ask for help.

But they also reflect serious public issues. For one, many minors go through the foster care system and turn 18 only to find minimal if any support from pubic resources. According to this report, as many as 30,000 young people a year may find themselves in similar situations, and many struggle to find a place to live. While many of other 18-year-olds live on their own, they usually have the option of moving back in with their family if necessary, or at least receive the occasional loan or care package, if not just someone to provide advice and support in tough times.

Living in an expensive urban area is also a public issue, one where housing can be difficult to obtain, and is very expensive. The median rent for Los Angeles county is about $1050. (A student earning California’s minimum wage of $8 an hour and working 20 hours a week is likely to earn just under $700 a month before taxes and would likely need two roommates to rent a one bedroom apartment at this price.)  When the “housing bubble” burst, many people lost their homes or condominiums, leading them to flood the rental market, driving up prices and competition in an already tight housing market. This public issue weighed mightily on my student.

Moving to another lower-priced city might seem like a solution to her private trouble, but understanding public issues would help us understand why this might not be a good idea. First, her limited family ties are in this area, as are her contacts for social services like case workers she might still have from foster care. Moving to another city would also uproot her from any friendship network she might have for support too.

Other students over the years have had other personal troubles that are clearly linked with public issues: a student whose father lost his job and due to poor health and medical bills became homeless, another first generation college student whose single mother juggled multiple jobs and needed her to continue caring for younger siblings which affected her ability to continue with school.

Experiencing the death of a family member, especially a grandparent, is not uncommon for traditional-aged college students, but the difficulty is compounded if the grandparent is in another country and the student is unable to participate in their culture’s traditional mourning rituals. With the large number of international students studying in the U.S., this creates added pressure for students who may already be struggling with being a foreign student.

If you are a college student, you or people you know are likely going through personal troubles linked with public issues, whether it is struggling with the rising cost of tuition and accumulating debt or wondering how you will fit into the broader labor market. Using your sociological imagination will help you better understand why personal crises are often rooted in social circumstances.


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This story is a sad reminder of how a persons life can be changed very quickly by an event that is out of there control. It is good to keep this perspective in mind and not be quick to judge someone's actions before fully understanding the full context of their life.

I could understand how hard life can be sometimes, and how it can interfere with your education. I will do my best to focus in school and keep a sociological imagination.

I myself can relate to this article being that I myself is currently experiencing a very had time juggling work and school, So I definitely understand how hard it can get being a student with no help but wants to succeed.

I too can relate to this article as I am an out-of-state student halfway across the country from my hometown. Nothing is harder than a birthday or death of someone close to you altering the way I traditionally am forcing me to cultivate new coping mechanisms.

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