This column was published as part of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2015.
As I summon the courage to begin packing up my life at Yale, I linger on the artifacts that have decorated the shelves and walls of my dorm room over the past few years: my favorite New Yorker covers, a heavily-underlined version of Joan Didion’s Why I Write, a copy of the News from the day my feature made the front page. My decorations convey my identity — she likes to read other people’s good writing and she tries to emulate it in her own. Yet a few months ago, it was in this very same room that I, surrounded by proof of the person I’m striving to become, was frantically working on applications for jobs that have nothing to do with writing. Although there were multiple reasons behind my decision, I want to talk about one in particular that I suspect may have affected other seniors as well.
At Yale, we share a sense of camaraderie that allows us, a bunch of smart twentysomethings, to talk openly about our aspirations, our successes, and — though we choose to share these more rarely — our failures. But if you find yourself, as I have, within a circle of friends taking similar paths post-graduation, this camaraderie can lead to questions that someone who has always known the answer to “What to do want to be when you grow up?” should never have to ask: Am I making the right choices? Should I, like my friends, be applying to jobs that guarantee both an above-average salary and proximity to my classmates? Am I still making the most out of my Yale degree — can I still consider myself successful — if I choose a riskier option?
Being surrounded by people who will lead similar lifestyles in the same location made it difficult for me to separate my notion of success from theirs, particularly since theirs has recently prevailed on many university campuses. As pressure mounts to satisfy a few universally accepted standards of success, which often include the amount of money we’ll be making and the structured opportunities we’ll receive to get ahead, some of us may find ourselves forgoing our interests in favor of material comfort and job security. The sum of our striving — with the promise of an immediate future in which we continue to live with our best college friends in cozy New York City apartments — can override long-term personal ambition, which may require an entirely different, and perhaps more unpredictable, path.
We all have distinct — and equally valid — considerations when weighing our post-graduation options. Many of my classmates pursued certain types of jobs because of the domino effect: they are not sure what they want to do and turn to their peers for guidance. Some of my friends are international students like myself, a group that faces additional pressure because we can consider only companies that are able to sponsor our work visas (hint: it’s the rich ones) if we want to stay in the U.S. And some of my peers who share my interest in more uncertain career options have not shared my struggles, whether due to a family that can support them financially while they pursue the road less traveled, a U.S. citizenship, or simply an unshakable strength of conviction. Though I am often accused of idealism, I constantly mull over a few important realities: living expenses, my visa status, the wish to be able to buy my parents’ plane tickets when they want to visit me. I, too, have made compromises for the sake of my future prospects, choosing to major in Ethics, Politics and Economics and take English courses on the side because I felt the need to grapple with the concrete and practical as well as the abstract and philosophical.
Yet when I found myself interviewing for positions I did not want before returning to a dorm room that testified to what I had always wanted, I knew I was crossing an invisible line drawn by my sense of personal integrity. Although we are still young and allowed to make (a few) mistakes, I somehow can’t shake the nagging feeling that the decisions I make now will define the adult I am growing into. And my vision for this adult requires a daily dose of introspection — did I wake up today respecting my choices, respecting my profession? My favorite literary character, Selden from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, captures my idealism when he describes his idea of success as “personal freedom… From everything — from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit — that’s what I call success.” Another personal hero of mine, Kanye West, reinforced Selden’s message just last week when he tweeted that he wants to “steer clear of ‘opportunities’ and focus on dreams.”
For me, maintaining a republic of the spirit and focusing on my dreams translates into trying my best to become a journalist before I try anything else, even if that means I won’t live with my friends in New York or even stay in the U.S. In a strange way, Yale has made me doubt my dreams while still inspiring me to pursue them — and somewhere in the midst of this struggle, I grew up.
Aleksandra Gjorgievska is a senior in Pierson College. She was a culture editor on the Managing Board of 2015.