September 19, 2012

Answering the Dreaded Question

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I don’t deal well with change. Growing up, my teachers always told my parents that I had a hard time “transitioning” from one activity to the next. I am a creature of habit and I like to know what’s next on my agenda, where I’m going and why. So, for me, arriving on campus in August after a semester abroad and a summer away was startling: Johnny Fro’s had officially opened, the Hotel School got a new sleek student lounge, CTP up and moved across the street and Wegmans instituted new traffic control rules in its parking lot. While all of these “transitions” (as my loving preschool teachers might call them) were hard for me to process all at once, nothing was as upsetting as the first time I was asked by a peer the oh-so-dreaded question: “So, do you know what you want to do after graduation?”

The kindhearted yet meaningless small talk we are all guilty of engaging in has, by senior year, changed in tone. The painless but dependable conversation starter “what’s your major?” has become an intimidating “what do you want to do for the next forty years?” This “transition” had me floored (even more so than Stella’s new menu) because here’s the truth: I don’t know what I want to do. I know I want to do something I enjoy, something that does good for others and hopefully something that will allow me to pay my rent. I do not know what career I am best suited for, nor do I know what career best suits me. I’m sure there’s some perfect “doing” out there, I just haven’t yet found it. Given that, I am forced to answer my peers with, “I don’t know.” Enter: judgment and / or pity from the opposite party. For those who have spent the last three years preparing to “do” something, my indecision is both pathetic and scary. They then return with “Aw, well, good for you. You have time,” secretly thinking “thank God that’s not me!” Even though I feel like a loser every time I have to tell them I have no direction, I don’t blame my peers for trying to start a conversation with that-question-that-I-dread; it’s appropriate, especially at this school where plenty of seniors know exactly what they want to do, next year and for the next forty years.

As a senior at Cornell University, there exists an implicit assumption that a) I am getting a job after graduation and b) it will be well-suited for who I am and what I want to “do.” With pre-professional programs of study in CALS, ILR, engineering and hotel schools, hundreds of students in my class are — lucky for them — on a path towards a career that, presumably, interests them. They aren’t just on a path for a first job, they are trained to look at their field as a career — a lifetime commitment. Because of this culture that assumes education leads to a job, and a job leads to a career, the question is not “are you getting a job?” but rather, “what job are you getting, and is it something that will turn into a career? And, oh, is it impressive that you got it?” We live in a distorted, self-inflated bubble within a nation that is struggling to find jobs — let alone careers. I remember as a senior in high school realizing halfway through my college admissions process that I became so used to asking “where do you want to go to college?” instead of “are you going to college?” In the same way that college was the assumed next step after graduating from my private high school, a high-paying job (or prestigious graduate school) is the assumed next step after graduating from Cornell.

And God bless the souls of the students who are interested in the fields Cornell harvests careers in — they are the lucky ones! I wish I had a passion for finance or hotel management, but I can’t help feeling that students like me, the liberal arts kid wandering through CCNet, worried about not only getting my first job, but also nervous about committing to something even remotely resembling a “career” get left in the dust of this fast track to success. We are forced to take the roads less traveled and apply for jobs that don’t have formal recruitment processes, mass waves of on-campus interviews or job postings on CCNet. And, more than that, we are constantly reminded of our choice when forced to reply to THE question with “I don’t know.”

Last week when what felt like half of the population walked through Barton Hall in suits, pulling resumes from notefolios shopping for careers, I cursed myself for feeling zero interest in corporate finance. I want a job, but I am not yet ready to commit to a career. I imagine I will have many jobs, all of which will somehow help me make an informed decision about what I want “to do.” As a senior, I am ready for a job fair, not yet prepared for a career fair. And I’m okay with that. And, I stand by my choice to pursue a liberal arts education, even if it’s inconvenient right now. Certainly it would have been opportune to have an innate interest in hotel operations or chemical engineering, but I don’t. My liberal arts education is not intended to land me my first job (or my first career). Instead, it is intended to help me compose some kind of a life.

So, you heard it here first: This weekend, when alumni return and ask that dreaded question, instead of hesitating before sputtering out a defeated “I don’t know,” I promise myself I will stand strong on my road less traveled and respond with a triumphant and proud “I have no fucking idea.”

And I rest assured knowing that next year when what I am “doing” is sleeping on the streets of New York City, my friends will pass me on their way home from big-name investment banks and drop a quarter in my change cup. Until then, I’ll keep struggling to compose a life.

Hannah Deixler is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler

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