Ruben Navarrette: Grow up, college kids

Ruben Navarrette: Grow up, college kids

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Before I succumb to the holiday spirit, I'm having an Ebenezer Scrooge moment.

Americans gripe about how immigrants want handouts, but the folks that I most often see panhandling appear to be native-born. They stand at intersections and hold up signs that read: "Will work for food."

I think to myself: "That's a coincidence. I do work for food."

In fact, I work 60 hours and seven days a week for food -- to feed myself, my wife and our three kids.

Lately, I've been reading a lot about how America's colleges and universities are full of starving students.

Typical is an article that ran in The New York Times in May that featured college seniors who dream about being able to start their day with breakfast, or wind up so delirious from hunger that they wander aimlessly, or take "poverty naps" rather than think about how hungry they are. It's called "food insecurity."

The story cited a Temple University survey that found that 45% of students from more than 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days.

About this, we should be immensely concerned. And, if you are, that makes you a good person. On the other hand, if you are not, you're a heartless ogre who deserves to be hunted by villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.

Since I have, in my more than three decades in the business, known more columnists who fit into the second category than into the first, I feel confident in proceeding with a dab of skepticism.

For instance, we should note upfront that these citadels of higher learning are, by definition, places of privilege -- because, while a high school diploma may not get you far in a global economy, a college degree is not what Thomas Jefferson conceived of as an unalienable right.

It does seem as if every generation feels as if it is going through something truly awful that no other generation has ever had to endure.

Right. You don't suppose the members of the World War II generation who grew up during the Great Depression knew anything about hunger pangs?

We were all starving students -- from baby boomers to Generation X to millennials. We all smuggled apples, cookies and cereal boxes back to our dorm rooms from the dining hall, or lived on ramen as we plowed through unpaid summer internships that would supposedly pay off in the future.

I spent a summer in New York before my senior year, where -- after paying rent -- I lived on $10 a day and walked home from work 60 blocks in awful humidity rather than surrender the lone subway token in my pocket.

OK, Gen X'er. That's different. Those were rites of passage. For members of so-called "Generation Z" or "iGen," empty stomachs are suddenly a matter of life and death.

I'm reminded of a funny line from the 1990s television show "Ally McBeal," where the lead character -- a narcissistic young lawyer in Boston -- is asked: "What makes your problems so much bigger than everybody else's?" Ally responds matter-of-factly: "They're mine."

Nonetheless, we are told by the media that the latest batch of starving students have it worse than anyone else has ever had it in the history of higher education. Paying exorbitant tuitions, and forced to choose between buying books or food, many students may fail out because they're famished.

Many colleges and universities now have on-campus food pantries where hungry students can drop in for a snack between classes.

That's a great idea, and a much-preferred alternative to proposed federal legislation to pay off student debt or make college free for everyone.

Still, these stories about campus starvation have left me hungry for three things that they lack: context, honesty and common sense.

It seems to me that college students who feel food insecure might think about getting a part-time job like many of us had while we were in school. Maybe they could work in the dining hall or a nearby restaurant and eat for free. Or maybe they could move back home, commute to a nearby college, and let mom and dad feed them. Or maybe they could use some of their textbook money to buy food, and check out the books they need from the library.

I mean, if it's not too much of an inconvenience.

The first thing they need to do is grow up. Life is hard. But it doesn't have to be this complicated.

Bah humbug!

Ruben Navarrette writes for the Washington Post.

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