By Scarlett Stemler
“And what do you want to do with that?” This is the question humanities and social sciences students are continuously asked when they state their degree. As a student studying an Arts degree, majoring in sociology and anthropology, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), I have experienced this question many times. I started out my university education in a Bachelor of Psychology, a hard degree to get into and one that holds a lot of prestige. But I found psychology to be cold, rigid and impersonal and I felt there was no space for my own voice. In contrast, I took elective subjects in sociology and anthropology and absolutely loved these from the start. Subjects such as ‘Rethinking the Social’ and ‘Understanding Cultural Experience’ totally captured my whole heart and mind. In each lecture, time would stop and I would be happily swept into this exciting, new world full of questions and open doors. After two years I went from semi-soft to soft, from psychology to arts.
This transition period illuminated some of the key issues that will be discussed in this paper. In a strange way I knew almost from the beginning that I would switch to sociology and anthropology. Not only in my first year of study did the elective sociology courses enthrall me, the other subjects on offer in the degree in the following years really excited me. Still, I stuck with psychology for two years due to lack of confidence in overcoming the anxiety and stigma surrounding ‘softer’ studies. Taking the arts route felt like plunging into a beautiful pool, refreshing and nourishing for my soul. However, the water was quite murky and I could not see the ladder to step out of the study phase and into more serious job prospects. Psychology had an obvious trajectory for employment. So I plodded along apathetically for two years and when it came to my third year I chose passion over certainty.
This passion for sociology and anthropology has felt like a calling. It comes from deep within me and is a way of looking and seeing the world rather than being the abstract, academic part of my life that only comes alive in a library or lecture. However, even before my switch, and all the more thereafter, I have continuously witnessed and experienced a certain type of discrimination or stigma for students studying social sciences and humanities. This relates to an uncertainty and anxiety over the foggy job prospects for social science and humanities students, felt from the inside and outside. From the outside perspective, the very physical structure of the social science and humanities buildings at UNSW are old, decrepit and pathetic standing next to the gleaming law, engineering or medicine buildings pumped with funding. The outsider perspective also extends to the media and to family and friends outside the discipline which center around a large question mark and skeptical tone when discussing this type of study. Taking a degree in the ‘softer’ subjects may become even more risky because of the price tag, where studying subjects like philosophy or English literature is seen as a waste of money and time.
Yet this stigma does not only swarm around the edges but has infiltrated those who do study these uncertain subjects. The stigma has been internalized. This is evident not only in my personal experience stated above, but exists in the fellow students who study around me. I know many friends from my selective high school, Sydney Girls High School, who were not allowed by their parents to study any of the riskier subjects in humanities or social sciences because they did not offer enough job certainty. Students who did take the plunge have to bear these uncertainties and feel passionate and confident enough to go along this rocky road.
All these experiences stayed dormant in me until I came on exchange to the University of Amsterdam and was confronted with the research project in the Youth Cultures class. Here my friendship circle almost exclusively consisted of students studying humanities and social sciences. I was aware I was studying with people who lived and breathed these subjects. This setting was the background for my motivation to choose this topic for my ethnographic research. I feel this is a highly relevant topic of study, not only to understand my personal experience but also as a useful piece of knowledge to bring into the world for educators and students alike. Understanding youth, their motivations and anxieties is a gateway to the future. I hope this study might change discussions about tertiary education and emphasize the importance and value of having people in society who are learned in the discourses of huge range of subjects within the social sciences and humanities.
The nuts and bolts of research
From these personal experiences and larger societal aspirations for this research project I set out with the following main research question; What are the passions and anxieties for students studying degrees in Social Sciences and/or Humanities and how are they reconciled? Coming from this angle, there are two overriding themes that structured my research.
The first theme concerns the elusive subject of present passions. What is the student’s motivation for studying their degree? Is it fuelled by passion/interest or ‘just something to do’? Is study shaped by dreams or practical aspirations? What do students feel they get out of the study compared to what they want education to give them? To what extent do students identify with their degree, i.e. is it an important part of their identity? What are their dreams for using the skills and knowledge acquired during their study in the real world?
The second theme concerns a set of questions that can be grouped by the no less elusive subject of future uncertainties. Do students experience a stigma when studying social sciences or humanities? Do students live by an inherent trust or faith that it will ‘all work out’ in the end? Do students feel stress or fear over the idea of studying social sciences or humanities? Where does this feeling originate? How do personal expectations of studying relate to social expectations? Are they compatible or do they clash? Do students think of studying as a valuable use of time in this period of emerging adulthood as well as economic precarity? Do students feel prepared to face the future after study?
With these questions to guide the study, the research relied upon in-depth interviews. These enabled a life-story to be told and enabled the interviewees to relay their experience in a format that was as close to an organic, free-style conversation. My participants were a cross-section of international students on exchange for one semester at the University of Amsterdam, majoring in areas of study with varying degrees of perceived ‘softness’. The participants profile were as follows (fictional names are used in order to keep participants anonymous):
|Name||Nationality||University||Area of Study||Year||Interview location
|Clare||Australian||The University of Queensland||International Relations and Law||Third year||The Bridge (4th floor) at UvA.|
|Peter||American||Brown University||Urban and American Studies||Third year||The Bridge (4th floor) at UvA.|
|Anna||Danish||University of Copenhagen||Anthropology||Third year||Anna’s apartment.|
|Rebecca||English||University of Edinburgh||English Literature||Third year||Rebecca’s apartment|
I am aware that these participants only enable a narrow insight into this field of research. However, the focus of this paper is not to ascertain generalizable findings. Rather, it is to give voice to personal narratives and focus on in-depth analysis of the contents of the interviews in order to identify commonalities and differences between the students.
My personal experience has also informed the research. I am well aware of my personal bias in favor of studying humanities and social sciences. In light of this I tried to avoid leading questions and to adopt an interviewing technique that ensured the interviewee led and I only gently steered it initially towards my topic of study. Moreover, to ensure I could let this organic style of interview manifest itself I let the participants choose the location they preferred to have the interview. This meant I went to the apartments of two participants for a cup of tea and the interview and for the other two was at UvA on the 4th floor bridge. In both settings I had the impression that the students felt calm and at ease in their familiar environment. This resulted in free-flowing interviews in which participants could divulge personal information which added depth and authenticity to what was said.
Each interview took approximately forty-five minutes, which seemed to be the amount of time needed to discuss the topic. I was aware, from an interviewer’s perspective, of the amount of energy and concentration needed to conduct an interview so any longer than one hour would have compromised my abilities to follow the conversation and be adequately alert and interested. I recorded the interviews using an app on my iPhone, ‘AudioMemos’. I did not take notes during the interviews as I needed full concentration listening and having eye contact with the interviewee. After the interviews I transcribed the conversations. I read back over the transcripts and highlighted sections of the interview that related to themes. I used a color-coding system to ensure I could visually keep track of the themes and organize them accordingly. This system also showed me visually the frequency with which people talked about certain topics, or if one perspective was less common than another.
As I conceptualized this research project I needed a theoretical basis as a tapestry through which I would weave theory, grounded in ethnographic research, and life stories to convey the human experience in as much complexity as possible. To understand this period of youth in a more nuanced way I referred to Jeffrey Arnett’s book, Emerging Adulthood (2001). This text provided the necessary cultural and societal backdrop for this study, describing larger societal trends that influence myself as well as the students I interviewed. Arnett argues that “the rise in the ages of entering marriage and parenthood, the lengthening of higher education, and prolonged job instability during the twenties reflect the development of a new period of life for young people in the United States and other industrialized societies, lasting from the late teens through the mid-to late twenties” (2001, p. 3-4). This new phase is labeled ‘emerging adulthood’. Arnett lists five features that define this period: identity exploration, instability, self-focused, feeling in-between and the age of possibilities (Arnett, 2001, p. 8). I personally resonate with this new category and can see similar feelings in the interviewees.
This theory is complemented by the investigation of larger historical trends that Constance Flanagan describes in her article, ‘Private anxieties and public hopes’ (2008). Flanagan provides a broad overview of the movement towards neoliberalism and how the onus of responsibility for security is now focused upon the individual rather than the state: “a new social contract has been evolving, one which reflects the ascendancy of markets and the decline in government’s role in curbing their excesses and protecting citizens against their vagaries” (2008, p. 199). This new social contract comes in the form of neoliberalism, placing the onus upon the self rather than the government (Flanagan, 2008, p. 201). Therefore, contextually, this project enters at an interesting period of time in which uncertainty has become the norm.
Consolidating what Flanagan and Arnett hint at, Richard Sennett (1998) captures the uncertain zeitgeist which the millennial generation currently lives in: “what’s peculiar about uncertainty today is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism where instability is meant to be normal” (1998, p. 31). Thus, with regard to the uncertainty surrounding studying softer subjects, the broader backdrop in societal trends echoes this feeling. Peter, an American student I interviewed from Brown University in America, described the ramifications of this new individualized society:
“We almost have this obsession with freedom now, like you get to do whatever you want but I’ve found freedom in this society to some extent unbearable. Like the floatyness and the lack of community… (While community) bounded you and helped you and connects you.”
To remedy this angst and isolation in the unbounded freedom that youth feel today, Douglis Lummis’ theory of private and public hope offers a solution. In his article, ‘The democratic virtues’ (1996), Lummis asserts that to have private hope means to have faith that things will turn out in one’s own life, that success will arise for oneself while it might not for others. In contrast, public hope is centered upon the idea that people must work together, collectively to make change that will have widespread effect, not just for one individual. In the context of this study I have found that students can have both public and private hope. Private resolve that studying a ‘risky’ subject at university will still bring employment with their hard work, but at the same time that this endeavor will be for a cause that is larger than oneself. This is particularly true for two participants, Clare and Peter, who have explicit altruistic motivations behind their studies. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let us begin at the start.
A seemingly simple start
In all four interviews, the starting point and foundation was sheer passion – passion in relation to why students chose to study what they did and as a sustaining force that held them afloat during the moments of questioning and anxiety. Rebecca, an English Literature student on a year abroad from her university in Edinburgh, was one example of someone who chose to study something she loved over troubles about future employment. In answering why she chose her degree, Rebecca chuckled and said:
“Basically (laughs)… it sounds really simple but basically I just really like books. Like I’ve always liked readin’ and writin’, like that’s always been my main thing… I thought it was so cool that you could just study books…Yeah nothing like career… I thought I may as well be doing something I am really interested in.”
Out of all interviewees, Rebecca represented the epitome of studying for what you love, unaware there would be other valid motivations:
“I just wasn’t even aware you would enjoy something so much and then not study it or that people judged English Lit till I got to uni.”
The simplicity inherent within Rebecca’s responses was touching and made me realize that the root of what I was studying was about following intuition and things that moved you in some way.
Anna, a Danish student on exchange at UvA from the University of Copenhagen, was also motivated by her current interest in anthropology rather than studying in relation to long-term career goals. In contrast to Rebecca, however, Anna was not as clear and certain of her passion for the subject from the beginning:
“First of all I was very confused about what I wanted to do… I’ve never been sure of what I wanted”.
Anna went on to describe how her sister studied anthropology and how discussion about the topic sparked her interest and ultimately led to a discovery that really suited her. In the end Anna’s story had a similar sound to Rebecca’s:
“So I didn’t have like anything long-term in mind, it was very like this is interesting, I’m going to do that… I always feel motivated when I wake up in the morning and for me that is the most important feeling to have when you’re studying something.”
This positive sentiment was also echoed by Peter, a student on exchange at UvA from Brown University in the United States, studying urban and American studies. Like Rebecca and Anna’s description of the intuitive decision to choose to study something that you loved, Peter conjured up the idea that university was not separate from life:
“I never thought, hmmm I’m going to study a social science, which one. It was: this is what I dig, what is it? That’s why I like that what I’m studying is what I love. Because I’m always studying and I’m never studying. I just have to live my life.”
While these responses seem homogeneous and fit within the confines of my research question, a new aspect of motivation became apparent in the interview with Peter, a kind of altruism I had not expected. Peter’s approach to university reflected his general attitude towards life as a whole:
“It’s not so much about the degree but its been about studying the things that I think are important to my life goals and figuring out a degree that lets me make that work”.
Uncovering what those life goals were was when it turned interesting:
“So I don’t worry so much about me taking care of myself, I can get a job somewhere, somehow. That’s not the problem. But if I am going to be that privileged person sitting in that classroom when like not everybody gets the chance. What am I going to gamble that on, my own job security or this thing we are all doing.”
When I asked what this “thing” was Peter replied:
“That’s the big question… If making a tonne of money is your priority and like having it really easy, to me that comes in second to trying to make a difference, I still kind of believe in that. Not in some like swoop-down and help everybody kind of way but in like a job where you can make a meaningful contribution more than anything else.”
From these responses, another aspect to passion becomes apparent that studying social sciences might lend itself to not just being an interesting topic but also a tool for societal change. Peter seemed to live and breathe this altruistic mentality which I found very inspiring:
“I’m still not so jaded as to think that capitalism, that this thing that we’re doing which has so many crisis built into it is just what is going to happen. I still believe in the sub-alternative and all of our alternatives… and she said (his lecturer) you can actually try for that.”
Clare, a student studying law and international relations, on exchange at UvA from the University of Queensland in Australia, shared a similar philanthropic motivation. Doing a double degree she chose international relations in a similar vein to Rebecca and Anna:
“International relations is literally like my passion. My father always talked to me about politics and it was always the class that I excelled in without trying. It’s super interesting.”
Clare’s reasons for studying law however echoed Peter’s global consciousness and awareness of privilege:
“I wanted to educate myself to the furthest extent that I could and I could get into law so I thought this is as far as I could take my academic career… and then use it for people who don’t have the opportunity to take it… The other reason was that at 18, I considered law to be this huge big avenue to make wide spread long-lasting change.”
To complete this picture Clare then adds:
“But also I think I realized the other day that I’m an anarchist and I think its really important to educate [yourself] about the system that you want to smash or destroy, you actually need to know the enemy that you’re fighting or the complexities of the system that your critiquing.”
Peter and Clare thus shared a new motivation for studying social sciences and humanities that I was unaware of before this research, one that goes beyond individual interest. I consider this new element to be driven by a sense of a calling, a need to go beyond oneself and engage in issues and avenues for change that can affect large numbers of people. This broadens the lens of looking at university education in the narrow sense of fulfilling the intellectual needs of one individual. It seems more fitting to consider these two students as young political activists in the terms that Flanagan describes:
“Young political activists are aware that opportunities and resources are becoming scarce and that individuals have to be creative and use their imaginations to resolve problems. However… they do not expect individuals to resolve the tensions alone and they do not accept that a neo-liberal social contract is a given. As the slogan of the World Social Forum suggests, they believe that ‘another world is possible’” (Flanagan, 2008, p. 202).
Indeed, being educated in the social sciences allows “political action helps to make public the private fears associated with uncertainty” and from studying the political and economic roots of social issues, “young people develop a political consciousness that helps them deal with personal experiences of oppression” (Watts, Griffith, and Abdul-Adil, 1999). I believe Peter and Clare are perfect examples of this new activism within the intellectual realm.
The rose-colored glasses are lifted
So one is left to wonder, from studying humanities and social sciences with these positive motivations rooted in love for a subject and altruistic drives, where are the parts of the story that are not so glamorous? As Arnett describes, the period of emerging adulthood is not only characterized by exploration and excitement, it is also marked by uncertainty, confusion and the burden of freedom (2001, p. 3). Does anxiety play a part and if so, where does it come from? Through the interviews it was evident that students went through a process of constant questioning and re-evaluation of their choices in study and their path in life. The extent of this uncertainty was greater or lesser depending on the student. Indeed, the origin of this questioning was not just internal, questioning of whether their study fed their interests and lived up to expectations, but also came externally from family, friends and strangers asking about future plans and internal hierarchies existing within different faculties of the University.
Firstly, Rebecca made clear that when choosing a more risky subject like English Literature (risky in terms of limited job opportunities) there is a heightened need for studies to fulfill ones passion as this is the basis upon which the study was selected. Rebecca was the most anxious out of all the respondents and admitted that “it’s an ongoing concern about where it (her degree) is going to take me”. Rebecca reminisced about her first year at university and how obscure, mandatory subjects knocked her resolve:
“Definitely at the start there were a lot of crisis because they forced you to study things that like didn’t seem relevant to yerr… I did this degree because it was something I was passionate about not because of any job prospects and so when I was doing this (Medieval poetry) and I wasn’t even enjoying it…I was like why did I even take it!”.
Her comments here demonstrate that when job certainty is not a fall back option, ones interest in subjects is the ultimate pillar upon which contentment and resolve rests.
Another internal source of questioning came from Clare and her relationship with studying law. After admitting that she questioned her degree “like everyday that I’ve done it” I asked her to speak more about this uncertainty. It was multilayered:
“The first three years were horrible and I turned into a person that I really didn’t like… Because I chose it (law) to make change and I realized I wasn’t making change and I was surrounded by privileged people who weren’t making change and I lost what was important for me.”
Like Rebecca, whether your study feeds your interest and passion or lives up to expectations can be a source of internal anxiety and questioning.
Another layer was that Clare had to negotiate how she aligned her values – morally, ethically and politically – with what she studied:
“I never want to put my moral values on hold to work for something, especially not to work for money.” This becomes an even harder when it is split between two subjects. This is denoted when Clare admitted to feeling “caught between two worlds sometimes”.
Her way of resolving was to take a year to go abroad and then defer her study “to think about why I chose to do it and to find myself.” We can see here how students go through a process of constant questioning and justification, positioning oneself to align with what one learns in the classroom. Arnett speaks to this instability and argues that while it is exhausting and daunting at times, it makes this phase of life rich, intense and contributes towards clarity of character: “With each revision in the Plan, they learn something about themselves and hopefully take a step toward clarifying the kind of future they want” (2001, p. 11).
The utility of one’s degree was another point of internal angst. One source of this questioning comes from stereotypes surrounding humanities and social sciences that portray them in a degrading light. Rebecca explains:
“It is like a bit of a stereotype for like humanities students that university is just like a doss. You just get up really late, or you just read a bit”.
These dismissive attitudes towards humanities are hierarchical, with some subjects attracting more derogatory connotations than others:
“People get even worse shit for (studying philosophy)…. I always thought like wow philosophy is like so complex and like so much respect for people who do it. And then like got to uni and people just take the piss”.
This skeptical attitude destabilizes a student’s conception of the worth of their degree:
“Also like use of it, I’ve definitely questioned that. Like I’m not doing something that like… like transferable skills to help people. I just can’t imagine that like law and medicine students question it as much. And probably when they do, they’re like, this is so much work, like just the work load not like it’s useless. Cause like its clearly not useless.”
We see from Rebecca’s comments comparing her study to medicine and law, that external forces also play a part in provoking anxiety. Although external, this pressure from the outside is not that far removed from the academy. Anna spoke about the job insecurity in anthropology and how this fear was perpetuated amongst her teachers:
“I feel like there is a lot of stigma around anthropology and I feel like it becomes really obvious when your own teachers are telling you that you won’t get a job in the other end.”
Indeed, Rebecca experienced this stigma over English Literature leading to no jobs acutely:
“I didn’t have any idea that people would like look down on humanities or English…But then I got to uni and people would ask what you study and they would literally be so rude about it, like, ‘well your not gonna get a job well are ya’… I met someone and I was like ‘what do you do’ and he was like ‘umm, Law, so its basically you but I’m going to get a job at the end of it.’”
While these anecdotes may seem small, they had a profound effect upon Rebecca’s resolve and heightened doubt over her degree:
“In the first year…I was a bit like, do I even want to study this, because like oh other people don’t think it’s worth anything… When I have had reservations or questioned my degree it’s half like other peoples reactions to it… cause then that can really knock your confidence.”
Clare also offered an interesting perspective on these external pressures, providing both an insider and outside perspective from her vantage point as an arts law student. When asked whether she felt any stigma around studying law or social sciences, Clare said:
“Even the response to you get doing a dual arts law degree, that’s looked down upon to like a science law degree or an economics law degree. (And) then I see the stigma from arts students who say, oh I’m not going to get a job.”
Hence the worry about job security does not come from the practical experience of being denied jobs, but a more abstract idea or presupposition that subjects like international relations, English or anthropology are not overtly useful and geared towards the labor force.
Resilience and resolve
Despite these internal and external pressures, the resounding message from my participants was a sense of resolve in their study. This resolve came from internal and external sources once again. What was most apparent was the idea that it would all work out in the end. Anna described that when she finished her degree:
“It’s not like, it’s not scaring me anymore, I’m more like, bring it and I’ll figure out how its going to be. Cause it’s going to work out in some sort of way.”
Clare echoes this faith that things will fall into place, drawing upon her secure place in society and her family background:
“I mean I come from a place of privilege, I’ve never really had to worry about money, I just make it work and my family has always just made it work. And so I’ve just gotta make it work.”
Peter also draws upon the same faith, but from a more practical lens:
“I have a lot of technical skills, I can build a house, I can grow food, I can look after myself and for my age I know how to navigate kind of the world pretty well. So I don’t worry so much about me taking care of myself, I can get a job somewhere, somehow.”
This idea of a baseline where everyone can get a job or at least be settled and content in life has been linked to the principle the American dream in which financial success and independence is achieved largely by individual determination and hard work (Hochschild, 1995).
But it does not all come from individual effort as respondents commented upon their family support base that ensured students felt confident in their decisions and prioritized their interests over societal pressures to do prestigious, career oriented degrees. Anna reflected that she had grown up within a family where “the motto has always been, don’t look too much into the future just what makes you happy right now and then do that.” Indeed, Rebecca comes from a similar ground:
“It was never like a thing like ‘you might not want to study that’ cause I was considering drama as well, English was like the option like ‘oh that’s a really steady one that will get you a job at the end of it’. But also even if I had wanted to do drama by comparison they would never have questioned it. Like the fact that you go to uni is great, you know what I mean!”
Indeed, knowing that your future is not solely determined by your degree but also through your connections was another way out of the quagmire of worry for these students. Anna was particularly aware of the importance of her connections, feeling very confident about her strong support base that would secure her in the future:
“I feel like I’ve been building my own network and my own CV so I know when I get out on the other side I have something to contribute with. And if you have something to contribute with there will be a place for you to contribute. I’m pretty sure of that.”
This confidence in connections is also apparent in Peter’s narrative, reflecting on the reputation of Brown University as an Ivy League institution:
“It is one of these institutions that has these connections and kind of like a clout. So once I said I was going to this school I could see that I had a little more freedom and I could do really what I wanted to do.”
Rebecca raised another source of resolve, although this was more unique to her studies in English literature:
“I think some people literally like never question it and feel completely entitled to do a degree which isn’t going to guarantee them a job at the end. It comes down to how much value you place on your own interests and its kind of like an entitlement thing. Like how entitled do you feel to like study something which is just based on you, it’s just all your opinions and interpretations. Or whether you view that as quite self-indulgent which I guess is the thing and that’s when I’ve had reservations.”
Self-belief can thus be both a source of strength but also a source of concern in certain situations due to external opinions that do not align with one’s own.
In sum, this has been a heart-warming and inspiring study. The students I interviewed started their university education with passion as the driving force. For some it was also intertwined with altruistic intentions. After a time, external and internal pressures seemed to test the students’ resolve, whether it was dismissive stereotypes, periods when subjects did not nourish one’s interests or do not align with one’s moral compass. But despite these fallbacks, their overall confidence stood strong. The four students I interviewed seemed to be thriving in this phase of uncertainty, exploration and excitement. In this regard I could slot my personal narrative into theirs, placing my own stories into a larger tapestry. I feel a certain solidarity with fellow students in social sciences and humanities.
While there were many positives to this study, there were elements that limited its depth and scope. Firstly, my participants were all Caucasian, white, from Western countries, privileged and wealthy. This narrowed the study down and did not allow for contrasting opinions from students from, for example, Asian countries who might be more driven by career prospects and parental expectations. Also, I did not interview any mature age students (25 and above). Moreover, I was friends with all my interviewees so I am not sure to what extent this may have tainted their answers and opinions; whether their responses were more lucid and open or whether they played into what they thought I might expect them to say.
Despite these limitations, what we must take from this small study is an insight into the genuine intentions of students who study social sciences and humanities and how these are unjustly shaken by arbitrary evaluations of what degrees might be more worthy or useful in society. A new spotlight needs to be shone on the demise of subjects like English literature, anthropology or even philosophy, to uncover why they have lost the respect and value they rightfully deserve. To have a population with only scientists, engineers and doctors would create an efficient but soulless society. Without the genuine conviction evinced and exercised by young people like Clare, Peter, Anna, Rebecca and so many other students who still choose passion and ideals over career prospects and profit, what future do we have for humanity? I just know that I have no regrets.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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