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Candace Martin: Feminism relevant, valuable for millennials

UPDATED: Thu., March 30, 2017, 7:55 a.m.

In a March 12 op-ed, “Campus feminism a disservice to millennials,” Mary Clare Reim claims that feminism doesn’t empower millennial women and that majors like women’s and gender studies have a low return on investment, with women taking on more student loan debt than men. Her overarching message seems to be that feminism, women’s and gender studies – and possibly even a college education – aren’t worth pursuing for millennial women.

A feminist is someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. A national survey conducted in 2015 finds that 60 percent of women and 33 percent of men identify as feminists. Of women ages 18-34, the generation known as millennials, 63 percent identify as feminists. I am one of them.

For me, a college education was never a question. Neither of my parents had college degrees. I watched them struggle to make ends meet throughout my childhood and wanted a different life. I graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, with degrees in English, psychology and women’s and gender studies. As a millennial, a woman, and someone whose parents couldn’t contribute to her education, I was very aware of the realities of student loan debt prior to attending college.

A study by Padilla CRT, a public relations and communications company, found that women have more college debt than men. This makes sense, as more women attend college than men. Women account for 55 percent of undergraduates enrolled at four-year colleges in the United States as of 2014. The Census Bureau numbers state that, of those 25-34, 37.5 percent of women have bachelor’s degrees or higher, while only 29.5 percent of men do. I believe these statistics account for much of the disparity in debt between men and women.

To add to the student loan debate, millennials tend to take out student loans. Forty-two percent of millennials report that they have student loan debt. The same study by Padilla CRT states that one in four millennials have $30,000 or more in student loan debt. As a millennial and as a woman, I knew that I was likely to take on student loan debt, and I wanted to make sure it was worth it.

Women’s and gender studies, like my other majors, might be considered by some to be a major with a “low return on investment.” I’d like to explore that a little further.

Women’s and gender studies is an interdisciplinary examination of women’s contributions, histories and experiences, as well as a critical study of gender structures. When I took my first class, my eyes were opened. I understood the world in a different way. Furthermore, my major developed my critical thinking, writing and speaking skills. I gained the tools to work in fields that I find meaningful and to make a difference.

Do I have student loan debt? As the statistics imply, I do. Thanks to scholarships and financial aid, however, my debt is less than the price of one year of tuition at my undergraduate institution. Do I think that my bachelor’s degree, women’s and gender studies background, or commitment to feminism were a waste of time or money? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I couldn’t be doing what I do now without them.

During college, I worked at my university’s Center for Women, a feminist organization that taught me how to plan events. I paid on my student loans, pursued my passions, and gained invaluable experience that I continue to use in my career today. I used these skills recently as chair of Spokane’s International Women’s Day planning committee.

Growing up, I was often told what I couldn’t do. Feminism and women’s and gender studies opened my eyes to what I could do. Feminism empowered me to pursue my hopes and dreams, and my field of study gave me the tools to do so.

I have worked as a teacher on a reservation through AmeriCorps/Teach For America, as an event coordinator and now as a program coordinator. I volunteer for a nonprofit that works to end domestic violence. I am well on my way to paying off my student loan debt, and I am doing work that is meaningful and important.

I don’t believe my accomplishments would have been possible without my undergraduate experience. I’m forever grateful to feminism for serving this millennial well in college and beyond.

Candace Martin is a women’s and gender studies program coordinator.