Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An "extra" post for Feb. 20

Mary has submitted a Viewpoint article for possible publication in The Tribune. Not sure if it will make it into the paper, so here it is. Comments welcome. :-)

If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere

By Mary Schiller

My final memories as an L.A. resident are not pleasant: fiery smoke, National Guard troops in tanks, and countywide curfews—all creating a post-Armageddon setting that left me wondering if it was worth it to stay.

For me, it wasn’t. The 1992 riots pushed me out of the city I had called “home” for 13 years, and I moved to San Luis Obispo in August of that year. As a single parent, I felt San Luis Obispo could provide a level of security, in all respects, that Los Angeles simply could not.

I received my first reality check when I began looking for a job here. In L.A., I was between jobs and had been working as a temporary legal secretary, earning $16/hour (yes, in 1992). After calling several temp agencies in San Luis Obispo, I realized my life here was going to be tougher than I thought. My rent for the same-sized apartment was only $100 less per month than I paid in L.A. But the pay was half—just $8/hour—for the same job.

It was time to make a decision: Should I go back to L.A., where I could make a better living but would sacrifice our quality of life? Or should I stay and figure out a strategy for making money?

I chose the latter. It has been a long, tough road to find some level of financial security here. I have been in and out of serious debt, paying for graduate school and trying to maintain some standard of living. No job I have held here—despite my now having two graduate degrees—has paid a wage equivalent to my professional experience and education. And over the past several years, I have struggled to secure some freelance or telecommuting work based outside of San Luis Obispo, simply because it pays better.

As a result, I have made a decent—not great—living, but it has come at a cost. First, since much of my work has been based elsewhere, I feel little connection to the SLO business community. Second, I have had to work so many hours to make ends meet, I haven’t had time or energy to volunteer for local nonprofits.

I don’t want to paint a picture of continual hardship. I have made some wonderful friends and worked with amazingly talented people. I met my husband here, and we managed to buy a home, as well.

But that story of home ownership doesn’t have an altogether happy ending. Facing the cost of sending our daughter to college and realizing our wages and savings won’t keep up, we have been forced to sell our home. We would love to keep it—especially since our families live close by. But we simply must move to an area where we can find better-paying jobs. So we’re sacrificing our home and using the proceeds to finance our daughter's education and a new life in a major metropolitan area.

I confess that I envy people who manage to “make it” here: entrepreneurs and others whose professional goals coincide with this area’s needs. Or perhaps they have just learned how to squeeze their goals into San Luis Obispo’s narrow opportunities for the privilege of living in such a beautiful place.

After more than 14 years of trying to fit into the SLO mold, I am exhausted. Frankly, I want to live somewhere that places a higher value on people like me and strives to keep us around.

And San Luis Obispo has changed a lot in the past 14 years. Many people have decried any growth here at all, saying SLO will become another Santa Barbara. I hate to break it to them, but it already has. How many companies have left (or refused to consider coming here) because employees can’t afford to live here? How many wonderful college students leave the area once they graduate, for the same reason? And how many people like me? My singular presence may be missed by only a few people. By my cumulative presence—everyone who cannot afford to come here, or cannot afford to stay—will definitely be missed.

Although my final memories of SLO are more pleasant than my visions of a burning Los Angeles, my answer to the question—is it worth it to stay?—is, unfortunately, the same.

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