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'Class' author Stephanie Land on the realities of college when living in poverty


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Stephanie Land's 2019 memoir "Maid" recounted her struggles as a single mother, cleaning houses to earn money and wrestling with the rules of government assistance programs. It was a New York Times best seller and the basis of a hit Netflix series.

Her new book "Class" A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger and Higher Education" picks up where made left off, she and her young daughter moved to a new state and a new city so land can pursue a college degree. But her new life had the same old problems compounded by navigating the strange new world of college and by tens of thousands dollars in student loans.

Stephanie Land is in St. Louis, where her book tour is and Stephanie thanks so much for being here. In the acknowledgments you say this is the book you've always wanted to write why?

Stephanie Land: Well, I think it's the part of my story that I am the most proud of. And I guess, the most climactic part of it, I escaped a toxic place and found us a community that we could grow and thrive in. And then I went on to graduate college.

John Yang: I wandered off there was sort of a motivation to tell this story to expose the life that you were living, you were struggling with little jobs, cleaning jobs to put food on the table. Sometimes you went hungry, were you trying to sort of show this life to maybe upper class or upper middle class readers who may have no idea what this is like?

Stephanie Land: Absolutely. I mean, that was part of my motivation for both books for made and for class. But, you know, my main motivation in talking about what it's like to live under the poverty level, especially as a single mom is so that other people who live that experience won't feel so isolated and alone.

John Yang: You caught Australian comic and writer Hannah Gadsby saying what I would have done to have heard a story like mine

Stephanie Land: Class, you know, it wasn't very easy story to write. And my reason for it is, is really, because that's the story that I needed when I was going through it.

John Yang: And you were doing so much to get a college degree. What did you see a college degree giving you?

Stephanie Land: You know, I really saw it as kind of a magical piece of paper that would somehow lift me out of poverty, but in reality was sinking me further into poverty by taking out student loans. And in order to stay in school, I just I kind of had to keep this hope alive, that it was going to magically do something for me.

John Yang: And you also talked about how government assistance programs made it hard for someone like you, someone paying your own tuition in college to get that degree that could make it so you wouldn't have to be on a government assistance program.

Stephanie Land: Yes, absolutely. The work requirements, especially for food stamps. The classes that I went to, the time that I spent there, the time that I spent doing homework was not included in those work requirements. So, it was kind of a battle between, you know, am I more valuable as a worker? Or am I more valuable as someone who is trying to better my life through education?

John Yang: In college, you'd write about how there were certain sort of unwritten codes you didn't understand about office hours, about the value of networking. Even when you were in college? Did you feel like you were sort of not part of the elite that you still had your, your nose pressed up against the window?

Stephanie Land: Yeah, in a sense. Yeah. I mean, not just me being like, 10 years older than everybody. And, you know, I sometimes had a kindergartener with me in class. But it very much felt like I wasn't in on the joke, you know, or it kind of a language that I didn't understand or an ease in feeling comfortable there. I felt very out of place pretty constantly.

John Yang: And you also said had harsh judgments about higher education. You're right that I had forgotten the part of the game where no one's education mattered more, more than the money the university could make from your opportunity to soak up all that learning. God forbid they would make it affordable or easy.

Stephanie Land: I experimented with being a little angry in this book. And it shows through. I got very frustrated in in the core classes that I was required to take. I mean, and I took a lot of them online, so that means that I took like, PE, like physical education online, which was just basically lying about exercising. That's funny now.

But like at the time, I was spending a lot of resources on that. So it was just frustrating to me that in order to be seen as this well rounded student that you had to spend thousands of dollars on classes to get there.

John Yang: The book ends before you get the advanced for made before made becomes a Netflix series a lot of people think well that probably solve everything. Did it?

Stephanie Land: No. I mean, the trauma that I experienced from being food insecure from being housing insecure, you know, there's a lot of lasting PTSD you know, there's a lot of stuff that I'm still going to carry with me from those years and my children well to. There was a lot of digging out to do you know, after you've been under the poverty line for a long time.

John Yang: Is there any sort of, I don't know, success, guilt that some of your friends, some of people who were in, in your situation, may still be in that situation.

Stephanie Land: It took me a long time to figure out how to enjoy the success. And what I ended up doing was, you know, I travel a lot as a public speaker, and now being on book tour. And the way that I enjoy success is by leaving really, really huge tips.

John Yang: I like that. Are there things about your life now that the college senior Stephanie Land would just find incomprehensible?

Stephanie Land: No one's ever asked me that before probably the amount of toilet paper that's in my house. I mean, that's something that I used to steal. Or just that I have like, extra shampoo and toiletries like those things. Just they still boggle my mind that like I just now I have them in quantities, you know, instead of stressing over oh, my goodness, I'm running out of shampoo.

John Yang: Are there lessons you think that people going through this can pick up from the book?

Stephanie Land: I would hope so. I mean, for me, it's always been about fighting back on a lot of stigmas that surround especially mothers who live in poverty, and who are single moms, and to help people maybe not pass as much judgment and to be more empathetic and hopefully show some compassion.

John Yang: The book is Class. The author is Stephanie Land. Stephanie, thank you very much.

Stephanie Land: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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