An AEM major recently instructed me that, when informed by someone that they spent their summer interning at a nonprofit, the preferred response is: “That must’ve been so rewarding for you.” (And to please refrain from scoffing until well out of earshot).
And I may never live down the fact that I was rejected by an unpaid internship the summer after my freshman year. My friends love to joke that I wasn’t even good enough to be a volunteer.
Thus, it might seem improper for me to speak on the subject of internships, having never possessed one myself that was worthy of being considered good by Cornell standards. In fact, this past summer I labored at a public relations agency specializing in the cannabis industry, of all things (undoubtedly contributing to the deterioration of American values, and all that for minimum wage). I’m afraid that I’ve already doomed myself to a life of failure, and so I will only report what little I have heard from my more successful peers.
Someone I know that made $15.83 an hour this summer (“hardly success,” many Cornellians mutter under their breath) feels unworthy. They don’t like to talk about the work they did because the monetary value attached to it is shameful to mention.
But $18.50 an hour was still not enough for another student. Initial joy at an internship offer was followed by a perceived need to keep quiet and the idea that perhaps their parents’ pride was misplaced. After all, $18.50 was nothing to celebrate at Cornell.
And at $21.00 an hour, the situation wasn’t much improved. As this person notes: “I constantly hear people that made more than me complaining about how little they made.”
A fellow student even warned me against bringing up internships with someone who made well over $50 an hour because they had yet to receive their return offer, and therefore it was still “a sore subject.” How, then, was I supposed to be able to carry out the obligatory “So how was your summer?” conversation? By asking them what they did for fun? Or if they grew as a person? Underachieving though I may be, I still know enough not to mention such foolish questions as those.
But there is still something I don’t understand, and please excuse my feeble stoner mind when I ask: What even is a good internship at Cornell? Is it a full-time internship at a major company and a subsequent return offer? Is it sending Snapchats of a steak dinner from one of your company outings? Is it the ability to put the words “Goldman Sachs” on your resume?
Cornellians are a highly talented, motivated group of individuals, but we can also be repulsively toxic to each other. And I don’t know who convinced us that there is only one path to success and that it is paved with pay stubs, but it simply isn’t true.
My little group of failures to whom I spoke all have a confession that would be shameful to publicize: they actually liked their internships. Against all odds and expectations, they had fun. They learned a lot — new sets of skills, new things about themselves, new future career paths. They met exciting people and worked on projects that they were passionate about. But the entity we know as Cornell is quick to whisper doubts into our ears — What is passion without a return offer? What is the value of new knowledge if it doesn’t lead to $50 an hour?
I have earnestly endeavored to ignore these questions, and at times over the summer when I was busy enjoying myself, they were no longer menacing. But I’m afraid that upon my return to Ithaca they’ve become a constant ringing in my ears. I’m a senior who interned at a place nobody even recognizes (patronizing smile). What’s more, I didn’t get a return offer (guarded surprise and a quick excuse to leave the conversation, or worse: “at least you had fun”). I have learned once more to despise anything that cannot be described as stressful or hard work.
Cornell culture has created a warped conception of success that isn’t attainable for most of us. And I’d argue that even those of us with those coveted big-name internships question the extent of their own success, because what we are given at Cornell is an inexplicable compulsion to achieve as much as we can and yet remain dissatisfied with ourselves. We don’t allow ourselves the gift of self-acceptance — there is always another mountain to climb, and of course we must be the first and the fastest to climb it.
But it’s okay to be a loser. When you graduate from Cornell, perhaps the most significant interaction you will have with the majority of your current acquaintances will be an occasional like on Instagram. Or you might even half-heartedly suggest that you catch up sometime. And the things that will matter most then — I’m shouting over the sound of Cornell ringing in my ear — are what you’ve learned and what you’ve enjoyed.
Maybe you’ll find (this is, of course, a pothead’s pure conjecture) that there are other trails to success than the one that Cornell seemingly paved for you. You might find something out there that you actually enjoy, irrespective of its salary — you might even learn to call it success against everything you’ve been forced to learn here.
And maybe you’ll realize that Goldman Sachs is overrated after all. That you can intern at a weed agency and somehow, against all odds, have had a successful summer.
Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.