Uncharted Territory

An illustration of a young woman at an easel, holding a paintbrush and tracing a path while looking out across a landscape of other people following their own path

Illustration by James Steinberg

Last winter, thinking about my impending graduation, I called my friend James Quillen ’22 to get his advice about applying to the Michael C. Rockefeller Fellowship. On the weekend we decided to speak, I had a meeting here and a deadline there, but James told me his schedule was quite free—he was on a 25-hour train ride across Kazakhstan. The only barrier to our conversation was the fact that he was crossing the Steppe, the 5,000-mile grassland belt that extends from Hungary to Manchuria, which made his cellular connection spotty. When we did talk, I was more interested in hearing about his year living with Old Believers and folklorists in Kazakhstanthan in asking my questions.

The fellowship aims to develop “an individual’s understanding of himself and his world through involvement with people of a culture not his own.” Recipients are urged to embark on an activity that doesn’t revolve around their academic pursuits or careers. Rather, students are gifted a year of “exploration, challenge, and new discovery” (fellowship vernacular for eat, pray, love?).

James is not alone in his atypical postgrad plan. Though most graduating seniors pursue consulting, finance, or tech careers, others take time off to walk the Camino, move to the Mojave Desert, or drive through South America in their van.

My ambition to do journalism after graduation statistically sets me apart from most of my classmates with more popular career plans, but I wouldn’t consider this choice particularly “off the beaten path.” The job I’ll start after I graduate, at a newsroom in New Orleans, tracks with the extracurricular activities and internships I’ve done throughout college. It even tracks with my high school extracurriculars. If anything, by pursuing journalism, I’m sticking to what I know.

This professional pursuit is very different from the Rockefeller and other postgraduate fellowships that offer Harvard seniors a fully funded year of travel immersing themselves in the unfamiliar. My former teaching fellow, Kirin Gupta ’16, spent a year living with matriarchal Hindu communities in Costa Rica before returning to Harvard for a J.D.-Ph.D. program focused on the study of female terrorists in the former British empire. Another friend, Talia Blatt ’23, will apprentice with stained glass artists in Glasgow.

Although fellowships enable students to enrich their nontraditional interests with the University support, plenty of students pursue this ambition without a Harvard cushion. Andrew de Souza ’23 will return home to Toronto to make music and DJ. Brenda Ceja ’23 will work at music festivals Bonnaroo and Electric Forest while working for a nonprofit that supports diverse students interested in entertainment careers.

It’s possible that these statistically atypical choices mean that the art of prioritizing interest and curiosity over immediate financial reward is not completely dead, though it may be ailing. Last year, The Crimson reported that 57 percent of graduating seniors took jobs in consulting, finance, or technology. Thirty percent of graduates expected to earn more than $110,000 in their first year out of college. Less than one percent were pursuing careers in education, 2 percent in media or publishing, and less than 4 percent in the arts and public service. A March New Yorker article, “The End of the English Major,” featuring an array of proud English concentrators including former Ledecky Fellow Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead ‘23 (and written by former Ledecky Fellow Nathan Heller ’06), captured both the very real decline in humanities enrollment and the cultural obsession with this decline.

Notably, this decades-long trend coincided with the increase of diversity within elite colleges like Harvard. And among students at these institutions, it is understood as common knowledge that making nontraditional professional or academic choices—pursuing the arts, taking gap years, choosing low-paying but perhaps more interesting jobs—can be an unwieldy burden to put on students who need to make money after graduating.

In the fall of 2020, the original class of 2022 had the lowest number of students enrolled, as undergraduates elected to take leaves of absences rather than study online. I was one of the students who decided to take a year off, as were many of my closest humanities or social science friends. This choice seemed, to some extent, to correlate with students’ level of privilege; while many of my peers who took time off are not rolling in trust fund money, almost all of us had some source of financial stability. The choice also seemed to depend upon racial identity to some degree. I had never been to a college party with only white people until this year, when the rest of my original class had graduated, and the remaining “super seniors” who had been able to afford a year off felt demographically homogeneous.

I wonder if the nostalgia for the bygone Harvard seniors who (supposedly) put whimsy and adventure over hustle culture and traditional jobs is also a nostalgia for a blander student body—one with the financial ability to have those priorities. The rising dismay at students going into banking and consulting is misguided if it doesn’t account for the fact that a large portion of these students didn’t grow up learning that a job is a passion or that gaining experience for personal growth is the most valuable thing you can do.

 

Sometimes when I tell people here that I’m planning to pursue journalism or media, they immediately pigeonhole me as saintly or frivolous. A recent article in The Crimson, “How Harvard Careerism Killed the Classroom,” referenced two divergent ideologies on higher education—the poetic or the utilitarian—and how they connect to postgraduate career choices. The standard of consulting, finance, and tech can make all other professional options (even if they are stable, even if they are exclusive, even if their cultural capital to some extent substitutes for capital capital) seem unambiguously poetic. A couple of months ago, I told an acquaintance that I didn’t know my postgrad plans. I could tell he felt bad for me, so I started to feel bad for myself. When I explained to him that this uncertainty was the standard for the jobs I was looking for, he nodded with a sense of gravity, as if I were doing the Lord’s work and not simply applying to things that interested me.

Last year, I mentioned to another acquaintance that I would spend that summer working on the set of a late-night talk show. When I asked what he was doing, he got defensive; he said he was consulting because he had to support himself after college (I didn’t say that I assumed the need to support oneself was standard for everyone). Snarky comments notwithstanding, I understand I occupy a relatively privileged position in choosing a first job out of college based on some combination of curiosity, creativity, a desire to do good, and a focus on long- rather than short-term success.

Although nontraditional postgrad choices often follow privilege, this trend is not true for everyone. The Crimson article about Harvard careerism also revealed that, based on the data from its 2020 senior survey, the aggregate rate of “selling out” (defined as going into finance, tech, or consulting) hovers around 60 percent across all income brackets. This means that there are children of oligarchs whose low six-figure consulting salaries become negligible as soon as their inheritance kicks in, but there are also people whose unstable postgrad choices are legitimately risky; the 40 percent of low-income students who don’t “sell out” are more likely to lack material support if their professional plans don’t succeed.

Still, the dichotomy between tradition or adventure, following the path or diverting, is not always clearly defined. My friend Sophia Liang ’23 will spend the summer being a health journalist in rural Kentucky, but medical school is not out of the question. When she came to Harvard, she planned to proceed to M.D.-Ph.D. studies immediately after graduating. But she loved her English and creative writing classes, so she pivoted from her planned biomedical engineering concentration and settled on an English and neuroscience double concentration—a way to challenge the two sides of her brain in equal measure. Now her goal is to be a physician-writer: to pursue journalism, writing, and healthcare-related public service work for a few years and then apply to medical school if it feels like the right fit.

Sophia’s diversion from her original mainstream path toward journalism feels like the opposite trajectory of many of my peers. I remember sitting in Annenberg Hall during our pre-matriculation visit for admitted students and talking to fellow 18-year-olds about marching band and calculus and Brexit and why they were all interconnected. My impression of my classmates through rose-colored glasses was not that everyone was a prodigy or a genius but that everyone was fascinating. They all took their interests seriously. I can’t help but feel disheartened at the collective consolidation away from the interests that made us strange or eclectic, and toward cookie-cutter (albeit comfortable) adult lives.

I know that the first thing students do after graduation is hardly the final statement on the rest of their lives. You can walk the Camino and then work at a bank. You can go to grad school and DJ while you’re there. You can become a doctor and voraciously read novels. You can go into consulting, like Laura Delaney ’19, and then leave to be a dancer in the West End. She took the job with a consulting firm after graduating because she had interned there the summer before her junior year but lost interest during the pandemic. So she applied to training programs in musical theater, enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music, and now she’s performing in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club in London.

Maybe the statistics that depress me also act as a kind of salve. (Even English concentrators have six-figure incomes 10 years after graduation! Thank God!) I’m trying to remember that whatever I do—or don’t do—in the next five years does not send me hurtling down some path without the motor skills or eyesight to stop or reroute. I’m trying to remember that straying from the most stable and lucrative jobs does not really mean I’m straying at all.

Sophia surprised herself when she decided to work as a journalist in rural Kentucky. She considers herself risk-averse, a category she thinks describes most Harvard students. But she pushed herself to lean into her fear; and, upon reflecting, she said she’s convinced that attending school nonstop from age five to 30 would have been damaging on a spiritual level.

Sometimes, I surprise myself when I remember I’m pursuing a career that is comparatively uncertain and unstable and low-paying. Sometimes I’m shocked that I am not in the 57 percent of my peers who pursue careers that are definite, contractual, and high-paying enough to responsibly justify a luxe gym membership (which I would like very badly).

Sophia says she doesn’t consider herself fundamentally changed from her striving high school self—or different from her friends proceeding to graduate school or jobs in technology or consulting. I’d say I’m more frivolous than saintly and, despite my various sources of support, still terrified of what it means to become untethered from an institution like Harvard: a free-floating agent facing what feels like, but isn’t, uncharted territory.  

Josie Abugov ’23 is one of this year’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows.

Read more articles by: Josie Abugov

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