Creating Space to Contemplate Success

“Rich lives include continuing internal conversations about who we are, what we want to achieve, where we are successful, and where we are falling short,” Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner and his coauthors write in Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet. Yet these conversations—both internal and among friends—seem to happen less frequently for today’s undergraduates than for previous generations. Members of the Millennial Generation “plan every single moment of every day,” says dean of freshmen Thomas A. Dingman. “I think all of us who work with them are struck by how purposeful they are.” Students and administrators alike worry that in the absence of introspection, material success becomes the focus by default.

Students’ busy schedules are crowding out the proverbial 2 a.m. philosophical discussions in a dorm room—but that is only part of the problem, says Sheila Reindl ’80, M.Ed. ’88, Ed.D. ’95, a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC). Especially at Harvard, she says, “There is this pressure to be prematurely polished, to look as though you know where you’re going.”

The moral-reasoning component of the Core curriculum aims to get students to mull and elaborate their personal moral codes, but for many, the experience falls short. And striking up a conversation with friends over dinner about how concepts from class might apply to one’s own life is practically a faux pas, says Lois Beckett ’09. “There’s this sense that it’s somehow embarrassing. It’s like walking into dinner with your fly unzipped.”

Disappointed with this aspect of her freshman year, Beckett approached Dingman. The seed was planted for an optional, extracurricular discussion series; around the same time, Gale professor of education Richard J. Light, author of Making the Most of College (see “The Storyteller,” January-February 2001, page 32), was hearing similar complaints in his survey of the classes of 2006 and 2007. Dingman and Light assembled a working group of three students (including Beckett), director of freshman programming Katherine Steele, and Gardner (who had led similar efforts at Amherst and Colby) to help design Harvard’s discussions. The group selected faculty members and administrators to lead discussions and then invited the entire class of 2011 to participate. About 8 percent of the class—130 students—took part in “Reflecting on Your Life.”

Each group met a minimum of three times for 90 minutes last spring. Leaders could decide how to structure the meetings, but, Steele says, one widely used exercise that proved “illuminating” was asking the first-years to state their core values, then account for how they spent their time in a given week, and see how closely their everyday pursuits and values corresponded.

Judith Kidd, who oversees student life and activities as associate dean of the College, explains that today’s students “are used to having their activities planned for them.” This is the play-date generation; its members feel more comfortable airing young-adult angst in an officially sanctioned forum. “It’s sad that if they are going to have these conversations, we need to arrange them,” she says, “but I think we need to do it.”

In the “Reflecting” program for first-years (which will be repeated this year) and in “The Big Question,” a dinner discussion series arranged by student members of the Phillips Brooks House Association, undergraduates can say what they think without worrying that it will affect their grades, says Jessica Ranucci ’10, one of the “Big Question” organizers this year. In its three years, the series has explored such topics as whether pursuing a career in business necessarily means “selling out,” and whether popular spring-break-week community-service trips really help, or are better summed up as “service tourism.”

Of course, a major reason for articulating one’s morals and values is to make it possible to choose a career that fits those beliefs. President Drew Faust gave graduating seniors one last nudge in that direction during her baccalaureate address in June: “A liberal education demands that you live self-consciously. It prepares you to seek and define the meaning inherent in all you do.”

Faust began that speech by noting that numerous students and recent graduates had expressed concern to her about the number of Harvard alumni going into consulting and finance. Reiterating this message before alumni at the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus anniversary in September (see “Coming Out at Harvard,” page 70), Faust said she got the impression that some students felt their career choices were not entirely voluntary: “I felt they were asking permission to do something different.”

Efforts abound to introduce students to that “something different.” The Office of Career Services (OCS) has launched a campaign to “turn up the volume” on career options other than investment banking and consulting. (“We didn’t want to turn down the volume on opportunities in consulting and finance,” explains OCS interim director Robin Mount. “We have one of the top programs in the country, and we’re really proud of that.”) The OCS fall schedule of events includes sessions on fields ranging from fashion design, museum administration, and social work to the ministry, fiction writing, culinary arts, and the military. The schedule also includes new events that invite students to discuss financial careers frankly (“Banking and Consulting: Myths and Realities”). And there is now a “career reflection” category (sessions include “Finding a Meaningful Path: What’s Your Story?”).

The number of graduates who take jobs in banking and consulting is not well established. A Crimson survey found that those fields drew 58 percent of male 2008 graduates who were starting work right away (as opposed to attending graduate school, for instance). Mount thinks this figure is distorted upward by selection bias, and notes that an OCS tally found that only slightly more than one-fifth of 2008 graduates found their first job (of any type) through on-campus recruiting. Whatever the numbers, joining the finance sector “is not necessarily choosing the dark path,” Kidd and others note—plenty of investment bankers give generously of their money or time, and a public-service job does not automatically make one a good person.

More troubling is the idea that students may rush headlong into a job because they feel it is what they are somehow expected to do—or because it’s what they see all their friends doing. “It’s hard not to” consider finance and consulting, says Philip Parham ’09. “When you see the amount of money made in that field, it becomes very attractive.” (Current trends in the financial sector may attenuate this appeal.) Parham and Dhaval Chadha ’08 are the founders of the Career Diversity Awareness Group, a student group that arranged an “alternative” career fair last February to highlight opportunities in fields including government, the arts, media, and education.

Parham had summer internships at both OCS and the Center for Public Interest Careers at Harvard (CPIC;, an office of the College that also receives funding from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, from individuals, and from foundations. Founded in 2001, CPIC matches students with public-service jobs and internships and serves as a clearinghouse for undergraduates interested in those paths. During his internships, Parham—who hopes to work for an educational nonprofit next year—helped recruit companies from fields besides finance and consulting to appear at the annual OCS career forum held late in September. The forum’s roster ultimately included nearly even numbers of companies in banking and consulting (79) and other fields (70); Parham notes slyly that in configuring the career forum’s set-up, he assigned berths so that students had to walk past tables of nonprofits and public-sector employers to get to the financial-sector booths.

Parham doesn’t fault his friends who choose finance. He does, however, ask them to explain the reason for their choice—and he doesn’t take “making money” for an answer. “I keep telling people, money is a means to an end,” he says. “So what is the end that you’re trying to achieve?”

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