Four years ago, the Class of 2015 walked through Phelps Gate into what seemed to be an existential crisis: “To be an investment banker or not to be?” That same September, Occupy Wall Street rippled through the country. From my suite on Old Campus, I could hear the chants of protesters on the New Haven Green condemning the massive levels of inequality in the United States.
That year, I remember being told that students come to Yale hoping to be journalists, activists and chemists, but graduate as consultants and bankers. This prediction didn’t seem to match up with the people I was meeting, or the idea I had of a Yale graduate. Stories of students mobilizing against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and the Law School’s progressive reputation fueled our image of Yale as a place with socially conscious students. I was inspired by the University’s track record of civic engagement, and expected these issues to be at the forefront of our college experience. So I was surprised to see that, inevitably, one of the most attended career events every year was the Boston Consulting Group info session. Career events for other prominent consulting and finance firms were just as popular. It just didn’t line up.
Steeped in these contradictions, I resolved to found Net Impact, an undergraduate organization emphasizing social entrepreneurship, to expose students to the many professional possibilities at the intersection of business, innovation and social impact. It was a space that we were certain would attract many Yalies. And it has. Net Impact surveyed the student body, and of the 354 responses we received, 58 percent of the students indicated they were “very interested” in social innovation. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they’d consider a job or internship in this field.
Entering senior year, I was eager to see if our class — one that entered New Haven at a time of nationwide protests against Wall Street and News columns decrying the “brain drain” of talented Ivy League graduates to these companies — would follow more alternative pathways after graduation. I wondered if these debates, which so clearly marked my freshman year experience, had similarly affected others’ mentality three years down the line. Would my class recognize our social responsibility, and judge careers not only for their monetary benefits but for their broader contribution to society?
Yes, this has started to happen. If you look around, you can see the effects of the backlash against Wall Street that first began in the aftermath of the Great Recession. When people talk about attending a JP Morgan info session, many do so in hushed tones. They preface it by telling you that it’s just to expand their options. They mention something about obligations. When one student announced at her Mellon Forum that she was working at Bain next year, she was met with dozens of joking head shakes and “boos.” This class-wide consciousness about “selling out” is likely new — the product of our time at Yale, post-2008 financial crisis. But has this consciousness actually altered students’ post-graduate plans?
We wouldn’t be surprised if we learned that a similar percentage of students from the class of 2015 moved to Wall Street as from prior class years. As a senior, I’m starting to understand why. I too have felt the pressures that others around me are feeling: the need to achieve what Yale has defined as “success,” an equation that doesn’t account for social impact. Indeed, at Yale, a “good” job fits a very narrow set of characteristics. When we enter the job search, it’s all about “me.” We think about professional development and skill-building opportunities. We care about how many people have heard of the company, and how fast we’ll be able to advance in the company. We care about the salary. There is a widely recognized hierarchy of jobs, as defined by these “me-centered” characteristics. In comparison to our friends who sit leisurely on a six-figure contract and a prestigious addition to their resumes, we find that some jobs suddenly seem less legitimate.
Career planning does make sense, don’t get me wrong. Introspection and skills development (and good pay) are all important considerations. But this focus on the “me” prevents another conversation from surfacing. A conversation about what we can contribute to society, or what makes us happy or where our real interests lie. With our Yale degrees in hand as a shield of insurance, surely we can afford to think more broadly about success.
So, to the class of 2015, let’s reflect on our responsibility to give back, be bold in tackling the world and take risks while we can.
Kara Sheppard-Jones is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact her at email@example.com .
Kaity Hsieh ’15 contributed to the writing of this column.