I recently found myself at an ice cream shop with a UC Berkeley student named Javier. Javier’s mother was just 14 years old when he was born, and he spent his early years in a poor neighborhood in El Salvador. At age 15, Javier moved to the United States and began school with a very limited knowledge of the English language. In a few years, he was not only able to pick up English from sitting in his classes, but excelled in the classroom and on the soccer team while many of his peers dropped out of his dangerous high school in Oakland, Calif.
Javier is truly an inspirational person. Javier is a social welfare major at Berkeley and is currently working on a research project on the quality of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program in high schools. I naturally assumed he wanted to pursue some sort of public service or advocacy career in the future. When I asked him his future aspirations, though, I was surprised at his answer. In reality, Javier plans to go into finance.
As soon as I heard the word “finance,” the clouds darkened. Lightning struck. The child sitting at the table next to me, laughing only minutes before, emitted a high-pitched scream.
I stood up to leave, disillusioned at what I had just heard.
My conversation with Javier reminded me of the recent column written by Andrew Lohse concerning careers in the corporate world (“A Corporate Stranglehold,” Aug. 2). Truth be told, I loved the column. I thought it was a masterpiece and agree wholeheartedly that students should pursue meaningful public service careers over financial careers. However, I think the issue is more complicated than it seems.
To state the obvious, public service generally doesn’t pay well. While funding may be available to pursue short-term community service projects after college, only a select few will be able to independently sustain themselves with this sort of lifestyle. This is particularly true for students who have student debt or wish to pursue expensive advanced degrees. While “posing the hard questions about power, equality and history” is all well and good, the truth is that after Dartmouth, philosophizing in coffee shops for hours on end is a privilege that only the rich will have.
This is not to say that students shouldn’t attempt to pursue public service at all, because I think they should and many do. But not everyone will be able to go into public service without first gaining a solid financial foundation. It would be unfair to judge others for pursuing high paying but morally unfulfilling jobs when we don’t know the extraneous circumstances, like high debt, that may be motivating their career choices.
I don’t think we can generalize that a person who pursues finance over public service is not at all concerned with the problems of the world. Oftentimes we tend to judge a person’s character based on their career, but careers can be misleading. A recent college graduate may work at a non-profit in New York City for the sole purpose of living in the big city with her sorority sisters, and may have no vested interest in the organization at all. On the opposite side of the spectrum, an investment banker may spend long days with Excel sheets, but his free time might be devoted to raising money to support cancer research.
I often find myself thinking of things in black and white terms, and I think a lot of idealists do this as well people are either all good or all bad, you either save the world or sell your soul for money. As I grow older though, I increasingly find fault in this way of thinking.
I don’t think that once in the financial world, Javier will lose his conviction to improve the experience of immigrants entering the country. In fact, I later learned that he hopes to use his experience in the financial sector to someday start his own non-profit organization.
Like Javier, we should “make the world’s problems our own” and simultaneously remember to be practical and understand the limits of our idealism. I don’t think joining the corporate world for a few years after graduation is the worst choice to make, as long as you don’t lose yourself in it. And as for the Dartmouth students who will join the financial world solely for self-serving purposes well, the world needs all types.