Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

October 12, 2016

Cornell Students Critique Culture of Careerism

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“You’re a classics major? Oh, it’s your money. Well, have fun not having a job.”

These are the comments that Erial Zheng ’18 has grown accustomed to hearing since she switched from a biology major to classics in her sophomore year.

With the emergence of the College of Business and Cornell Tech in New York City, many students say they feel an attitude of careerism is growing among Cornell’s undergraduates. Critics might say Cornell is becoming more vocational, according to Prof. Charles Van Loan, computer science.

Even within the College of Arts and Sciences, the liberal arts college, the two most popular majors — economics and biological sciences — are pre-professional majors, noted Jen Maclaughlin, assistant dean and director for Arts and Sciences career development center.

For a growing number of students at Cornell, the undergraduate experience has become defined by attaining a prestigious career after graduation.

For Prof. Michael Fontaine, classics, however, called the path to academia something he stumbled into, and not a track he consciously planned as an undergraduate.  Because of the requirements set by his college and a freedom to explore his academic interests, Fontaine chose a class called “Greek Sacrifice,” thinking the class would center on human sacrifice.

Although his prior thoughts were incorrect, as the Greeks never actually practiced human sacrifice, Fontaine cites the class as shaping his undergraduate experience — a class he had taken simply because of the title and his mild interest for Greek mythology.

“I just fell in love with the ideas and the literature. I had never read any of that before. And at the end of the semester, the professor said ‘If you like this stuff, I’m going to be teaching beginning Greek in the spring,’” he said. “I thought ‘why not take Greek.’ I will never forget that.”

Fontaine began his undergraduate education considering a pre-medical track, but said he never felt the expectation or obligation to adhere to this course of study, particularly because of the support he received from his parents to follow his interests wherever they led. He also credits the culture of the 1990s for his ability to explore, without experiencing the economic pressures that can daunt today’s students.

Van Loan agreed with Fontaine, saying the current economy and the effect of the Great Recession greatly impact the way undergraduate students at Cornell view their education.

“There’s so much instability in the world now and nervousness about unemployment,” Van Loan said. “I think it’s really pronounced now. I would say that in my day, we had it much easier than [today’s] generation.”

The cost of a Cornell education certainly plays a role in these economic pressures. An emphasis on the return in investment, particularly from parents, often shapes the undergraduate experience.

“I’ve had many students sit in that chair and tell me that they would love to study more classics, for example, but their parents won’t pay their tuition unless they do engineering or pre-med,” Fontaine said. “Or their parents will say you cannot go to Cornell if you’re not going to study something practical.”

The combination of parental pressure and the cost of Cornell were both factors compelling Zheng to initially decide to pursue a pre-med track.

“I never really went into pre-med because I had this burning desire to be a doctor. I can’t even stand the sight of my own blood,” she said. “I just did it because it was the expectations of my parents and my parents’ friends and everyone else who was saying ‘I’m doing pre-med,’ so I thought I had to do pre-med too.”

Zheng ultimately left the major after feeling apathy in many of her classes — taking required classes to “get [them] over with” — and fueled by concerns about her GPA. Since then, she said she “switched to classics and never looked back.”

“Maybe I just don’t have the scientific mind or the medical drive to finish this,” Zheng said. “That’s something I’ve accepted for who I am: I am not meant to be a doctor, but it’s ok.”

Arlinda Shehu ’18 also said she understood the profound role parental pressure can play in choosing a major, particularly as an immigrant to the United States.

“My parents put all their dreams on me. For them, it’s to be able to pick a career or a job that will support not just them later on, but also my sister. Something that’s practical,” Shehu said. “We didn’t come all the way to the United States just for me to become an artist or for something that’s not as practical: that doesn’t get you a good job.”

Shehu is currently a philosophy and psychology double major, planning to attend law school after she graduates. Although she is interested in becoming a professor, Shehu said she is planning on pursuing something “practical” immediately after she graduates, and possibly chasing a career in academia later in life.

Economic pressure has also changed the way students view the very concept of a major. Instead of being simply “your major subject of study,” as Fontaine defines the focus, a major has become a means to employment, an expression of a student’s ultimate career ambition.

“There’s the misconception that students are thinking that they have to do the major in order to get the career path,” Maclaughlin said. “Any time that you ask employers, they are looking for skill sets, not certain classes.”

These skill sets, which Maclaughlin says can be attained in pursuing a liberal arts education, will serve millennials best in the future, when it is “critical to think about the skills need[ed] in my career — not just my job immediately after graduation two, five years out,” she said.

Maclaughlin refers to the fluid nature of the job market and the variable patterns of this generation of students as indicators demonstrating why she values a liberal arts education.

“Millennials are switching jobs so much more,” she said. “Baby-boomers would start a job and stay in the company for their whole career. Millennials are just not doing that.”

Van Loan also emphasized the uncertainty and volitality of the job market, urging students to pursue their interests rather than being governed by transient employment trends.

“Whatever interests you, just go after it. That’s one way of helping to guarantee your success in the job market,” Van Loan said. “If you come across as broad, articulate, you know the big picture — these things work to your advantage.”

Despite these admonitions of careerism and encouragement urging students to follow their true passions, Fontaine said that unless economic pressures relax, it is unlikely that professional trends will reverse in the near future.