November 17, 2013

PIERCE: A Fancy Degree Is No Guarantee

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When I first arrived at Cornell, I thought I’d made it. Coming from community college, the pomp and circumstance of the Ivy League made me feel as though every possible door of opportunity had been thrown wide open. Meticulously, I began mapping out the courses and internships and experiences that would prepare me for a top doctoral program. Or perhaps law school. Or business school. The glittering array of grad school information sessions and employer Q & As seemed to be laid out like a festive spread. If it was prestigious, I drooled over it. The only difficulty seemed to be choosing which Perfect Future™ was right for me.

Soon enough, complications began to arise that threw a wrench in my delusions. My GPA wasn’t high enough to write an honors thesis. The firm I had planned on interning with couldn’t hire me. I returned to my hometown in suburban California, defeated. A few weeks later I learned that, thanks to a financial snafu, I wouldn’t have the money to go back to school in the fall.

I watched all the precious futures I had coveted slip right through my fingers. I wanted to cut my losses and run away. Maybe a ship would let me on as a galley cook, or a hostel in Albania would let me work the counter, or a clan of wandering Bedouin would take me in as one of their own. I spent hours daydreaming I was anyone but who I was: an imperfect résumé.

Yet, sometimes failure can be fortuitous. In my scramble for an escape from the mediocrity of life at home, I managed to land an internship in DC at C-SPAN, despite the fact that I had no background in television. I worked on the founder and chairman of the network’s interview program, following a manic producer around the building all day as we pulled tapes for clips and did research on the guest for the week. In other words, it was perfect. The excitement I felt heading into the office each morning, with the Capitol building looming a few hundred yards away, was a heady buzz.

Since the position didn’t pay I had to live cheap, which meant renting a bed in a hundred-year old, two-bedroom Victorian with nearly a dozen residents. People crammed in everywhere they could, with one guy paying reduced rent for a cot in the bathroom. My first morning at the house I woke up just before dawn and turned on the light in the kitchen to discover a swarm of cockroaches, each at least the size of my thumb. It was a far cry from West Campus. But what the house lacked in luxury it made up for in the character of its residents. We were all young and driven, eager to work high-profile internships that paid nothing. Even Bathroom Man worked for Nancy Pelosi.

On election night, I went to a pub on the Hill with a few friends to watch the world’s most expensive popularity contest. After it was over we walked a dozen blocks to the White House and milled about with the rallying crowd under occasional clouds of marijuana smoke. I ended up being out after the Metro shut down, and being penniless, was forced to walk four miles back to Arlington in the wee hours of the morning only so I could go to work a few hours later. And yet, I was not bitter, and though my feet ached in my worn-out Oxfords and my tie hung slack around my neck, I was possessed with a fire for life that I had never experienced.

When I stepped onto Cornell’s campus, I was seduced by the grandeur of it all. I thought the world owed me something because I had a venerable institution vouching for my smarts, but ambition is a lot more than tacking a Yale Law School admissions flyer to your bulletin board.  Ambition is getting coffee at the office because you aren’t good for anything else when you start. Ambition is paying to have your suit dry cleaned while exhibiting symptoms of vitamin deficiency because you can’t afford anything other than pasta for dinner. Ambition is fighting off the roaches with a wooden spoon while you make your breakfast. It isn’t often very sexy, but in the brief moments of respite you’re afforded, you come to realize that the point isn’t just the end goal: The struggle itself for something you crave can be fun as hell.