As of writing this, two weeks from now I’ll be sitting on a beach somewhere. Three weeks from now, I’ll be enjoying my last Reunions as a student. And four weeks from now, I’ll probably be at home, waking up and wondering if this was all a dream.
Knowing this is my last column for this paper lends it a degree of introspection and nostalgia my pieces don’t usually contain, but I hope you’ll indulge me. In thinking about what I wanted to write, what last imprint I wanted to leave on and through the 'Prince,' I naturally started getting nostalgic about the last four years, about the places, experiences, and the memories that I’m about to leave, but will never leave me.
On the whole, I have an enormously positive image of this University, of the people and ideas I have been so fortunate to engage with, and of an Orange Bubble that, for all its flaws, never didn’t and never won’t feel like home. I could spend the next 600 or so words extolling the chances that have been given to me, the trust that has been placed in me, and the chance to grow as a person and an intellectual that Princeton has provided – but I genuinely would not know where to begin, and how to possibly end. I could also spend this column on a nit-picky laundry list of small things I wish I’d known or done – taken Chinese, joined more eclectic clubs early on, made more of an effort to take service off-campus, and found all those semi-secret organizations that will send you to Austria in the middle of a school week just because – but to leave on that note would disappoint myself when there are more lasting and important things to discuss.
Others are more qualified to discuss many of the topics where a Princeton experience can be made to fall short – systematic inequalities within and without the campus, ongoing inadequacies at CPS and UHS, gaps in Princeton’s generous financial aid and out-of-pocket expense minimization efforts that leave certain experiences inaccessible, a relatively restrictive set of options for majors and study abroad, to name just a few.
But the one I hope to spend my last column discussing is the professionalized herd mentality that took me to the brink of taking time off from Princeton my junior year.
In my previous column, I alluded to the fact that Princeton’s insular campus community has at times been “suffocating,” making “junior year here … the hardest of my life in overwhelming part because there was no physical place or emotional peer group to escape to when a sense of comparative failure came to dominate my experience.”
This was a direct, and some have argued intentional, result of conscious choices and cultural norms perpetuated by the university in shaping its graduates’ post-grad destinations. Many previous columns in this paper have rightly argued that if you polled freshman about how many of them wanted to go into consulting or finance, the proportion would almost certainly be orders of magnitude lower than the roughly 30 percent who actually do.
And yet somehow, every year like clockwork, juniors, seniors, and increasingly sophomores and even freshmen, make their way to the Nassau Inn, to Triumph, and to Career Services to schmooze their way into jobs they likely didn’t know existed, and thus almost definitionally couldn’t have been what they dreamt of when they applied to this school. It’s intoxicating, to be sure. You see many of your smartest friends who are “still figuring out what I want to do in the long-term” going to these things, and you’re certainly still figuring out what you want to do in the long-term, so why wouldn’t you go? What’s the harm in just applying? This is then compounded by a set of marketing literature in which (particularly for consulting) these industries pitch themselves as the only entry-level career that won’t close any doors for you down the line, as a place and a role where you, the 22-year-old, can make “client impact” and engage in meaningful “value delivery.”
To be clear, I don’t mean to disparage those who go into these fields, which do often provide genuinely stimulating work and open doors to future career possibilities. Rather, I intend to go after the culture that has been allowed to crop up on this and peer campuses, that says these are the near-exclusive set of options for those who think themselves successful and ambitious, those who envision and hope for a longer-term career that truly might change the world.
But to answer my own question, the harm in just applying comes a few months later, when you look around and you find yourself seemingly the “only one” left empty-handed from a process you convinced yourself determines your worth, potential for future accomplishment, and value as a professional and intellectual person. If these jobs truly “don’t care about your academic background, just your skill and potential,” then doesn’t getting rejection after rejection, uniquely among your peers, mean you don’t have any?
The big-picture advice I’d like to close my time at the 'Prince' with is: It. Does. Not.
Princeton takes thousands of dollars from these companies to let them recruit on campus and actively pushes students towards these careers. I recall one friend junior year, who after attending a "Career and Life Vision Workshop” hosted by Career Services, said that “the lesson I was supposed to learn is that no matter your major and passion, there’s a job for you in consulting.” If I could change one thing about Princeton that affected my personal experience negatively to such a degree, it would be the actively created and culturally sustained mindset within the Bubble that “successful people” and “future leaders” have to work at a “bulge bracket” bank or an “MBB” consulting firm. The people who come to this school are bright because of their self-awareness, drive, and critical thinking, just as much as because of their raw intelligence and skill.
But that self-awareness, in an insular community where there is constant comparison and pressure to follow the herd, can be crushed by a mentality that narrows a definition of success so small that it can fit in a three-letter acronym that no one in your hometown will have heard of (unless, perhaps, your hometown is the Upper East Side or Palo Alto).
To those about to face this narrowing, constricting, suffocating process that in your head pits you against the friends you’d otherwise turn to, my advice is simple: go home if you can, even if for a weekend. Ground yourself in things you affirmatively decide bring you fulfillment, and would even if no one knew about them. Seek out people not stuck in the same competitions as you – even when it feels like among your friends they don’t exist. Be unashamed to seek professional help if you need it, at least until Paul Ryan finds some way of exempting it from insurance coverage. And don’t lose sight of why you came here, and what you came here to be.
Ryan Dukeman is a Wilson School major from Westwood, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.