Reporting on the Future: Debt, Artwork Faculty, and the American Dream

From Di-Ay Battad
Especially for the Pittsburgh Current
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

I am a terrible pilipinx immigrant. When I was seventeen I decided that it would be perfectly fine for me and my already financially troubled family to take out student loans so I could study arts at a school that costs $ 55,000 a year. My parents gave me incredible support. Although our family once lived in a small, dusty house outside of Manila with an outbuilding instead of a bathroom, and where we put buckets under the spots, our corrugated iron roof kept leaking. There were flies and stray dogs and cats everywhere. We made rickety, rudimentary musical instruments out of beer bottle caps, wire, sticks, and nails. Yet my parents never let me and my brothers know that we were poor. They focused on our learning. Not just in studying in school, but also in pursuing our curiosity and interests in a way that made us want to learn.

When I was in high school and choosing my degree, I didn’t see college as an investment but as a gateway to a larger world of ideas. I decided to study art because I felt unrestricted in this area. I wanted to learn to observe the world, process information and communicate in the most effective way possible. So many parents found ways to borrow money to pay for a 55 year education to help me achieve my dreams, and I got into debt. After graduation, I couldn’t bring myself to borrowing more money for an MFA like some of my coworkers did. I had watched some of the other arts and humanities graduates from previous years transition to larger ones

Di-Ay Battad

Cities only to return to Pittsburgh for a few more years before they found the direction and the courage to go again. The more I scanned the “Qualifications” sections of hundreds of job openings, both in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the more sorry I was about my chosen course. Eventually I 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 to rely on grocery stamps and pantries at times, and constantly had to figure out how to keep getting rent. The first thing I had to cut off my budget was going to music and art shows – the things I had once found so much spiritual freedom in had become restrictive; excessively.

Although I felt materially uncomfortable, I would not have felt guilty or regret if, as a Pilipinx, I had not inherently felt a sense of family duty. My mom once told me that in her family, the oldest child would go to college first, make enough money to get the second oldest through college, which would support the next in line, and so on. “This is the Filipino way,” she explained. And as supportive as my parents were in pursuing my own interests, they are still Pilipinx parents, hoping that if I can, I can help the family. When my cousin, whom I don’t know at all, graduated from college, my father asked me if I could save her money. When my younger sibling was unable to support themselves financially, I was asked if I could afford to make a monthly contribution indefinitely. The questions always upset me, but not with my family. I was upset with my college year old myself for not having the foresight to invest my borrowed, high-yielding money in skills that were slightly more marketable than “writing a barely passable paper in the morning about the strange aesthetics of noise VJing all night and then crashed out of ritalin juice. “Pursuing my own interests? What did i think

My parents had worked lovingly to bring me to the United States, which seduced them with the promises of higher education for their children. Her hope for me was to have a rich, fulfilling college experience that would then lead to a life full of curiosity about the world, unhindered by the finances and resources to pursue interests and at the same time my communities to give something back. After finding myself under the strain of financial insecurity after college, I became bitter not only against my parents but also against myself for so eagerly adopting the American ideals of individualism and the freedom to do what I want . It took me a while to admit that my grudges were being misdirected. Lower-income parents should not be punished for encouraging their children to maintain and pursue their sense of wonder of the world through higher education. College shouldn’t be a for-profit industry that betrays people like my parents who are benevolent and hopeful for their children. Young people should have the freedom to pursue whatever motivates them intellectually. In this way we can make huge progress as a society.

Eventually, with tremendous help from friends who were either already on site teaching me these skills or trusted me enough to loan me money, I started freelancing video production. I was lucky. I’m relatively comfortable now – I still don’t have enough money to save, but I don’t have to default my loans, and I can eat healthy, home-cooked meals and actual work breaks instead of taking a second or a second vacation third job to work. At the same time, I am still burdened with family guilt and regret. My grandmother now cleans hotel rooms to make a living while I enjoy a job where I can’t give anything back to my family because of the sub-ideal paycheck, but which still gives me meaning.

Being able to take care of yourself and your loved ones is undoubtedly empowering. It’s also a way to keep track of what you’re interested in, and for those of us who choose the latter in a world where art and profit are often contradictory, it’s nice to be reminded of the value of that what we’re tracking. There is much we can do to improve the state of higher education in America, and yet we can save future college students from the trauma of financial insecurity or lack of personal fulfillment caused by the student loan crisis. For those of us who are already deep in it, memories of what motivated our more idealistic past selves can go a long way in keeping us afloat.

Amanda Gorman’s work on the President’s inauguration this year was moving. I don’t know how this was intended, but her performance was framed in the most saturated blocks of blue, red, and yellow – the primary colors that brought me back to youth, clarity, and potential. The performance, the colors that surrounded it, the meaning of the right words, arranged just right and spoken at the right time, all came across Biden’s almost grandfather speech. I could concentrate again.

I remembered art and wanted more. I visited the poets’ social media pages to look for links to buy their books. Along the way, I noticed the designers and illustrators that the authors and their publishers commissioned for their book covers. I have so many tabs open when I’m ready to end my feverish shopping spree. I really feel like I’ve missed something, and I think all I needed was to see a play on a real or metaphorical stage, supported by those who have the power to do it after four years of myself got used to hearing deafening news every day. And it was a creative piece in a world where it wasn’t asked to justify its own existence – art is not just a luxury, but a fulfillment of my parents’ promise to 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 arts at Carnegie Mellon University. They became American citizens at the age of 20. You can be hired as a freelance videographer.

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