Our Burden to Bear

When Harvard students graduate, they are faced with a multitude of choices. But what’s really at stake?

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Alan C. Chiu

CORRECTION APPENDED

The students of the Class of 2007 knew they’d be leaving Harvard Yard for potentially the last time on Commencement Day, June 7, carrying a diploma, but the added weight of the world probably took at least a few of them by surprise. Bill Gates, billionaire philanthropist and one time member of the Class of 1977, delivered quite a challenge with his Commencement speech.

“When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given—in talent, privilege, and opportunity—there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us,” Gates said. “And with that awareness, you likely also have an informed conscience that will torment you if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort. You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.” The gauntlet had been thrown down: as newly-minted reservoirs of resources and education, the only way to avoid “torment” is to make good on our debt to the world, as soon and as thoroughly as possible.

The Class of 2008 has sentiments like Gates’s on their minds as they prepare to embark on their post-collegiate lives, and the pressures seem almost impossible to balance. Forget figuring out what we’re going to do with our own lives; now we have to save the planet as well. The thorny questions of morality raised in speeches like Gates’s are most readily accessible through the concern at the forefront of every senior’s mind: Where will I be working next year?


STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

Popular Harvard wisdom holds that we can either be part of the solution to injustices in the world or part of the problem, depending on the jobs we choose. However, the question of which occupations belong in which category is often oversimplified into a single Robert Frost-style fork in the road. We can go the well-worn corporate route, pursuing careers in finance or consulting and working 100 hours a week to afford apartments in Manhattan that, for new hires, are little more than crash pads between marathon workdays. The other option, equally dismal, is to devote oneself purely to the far-less-traveled path of public service and take on constant financial worry along with a set of seemingly intractable problems to solve. Depending on which camp a senior aligns herself with, either those who choose the corporate world are venal or those who don’t are naïve. The division is amusing to banter about, with the same appeal as an old-fashioned Western, before it becomes real—good and evil are starkly defined, and in theory, wearing the white hat will surely make up for having to order one drink instead of four when out on the town with financier buddies. Meanwhile, the appeal of being able to order the four drinks goes without saying.

But many recent alums have far more varied patterns of employment, and more complicated relationships with their fellow graduates, than they anticipated while still at Harvard. In metropolitan areas like New York City, where it is not uncommon for entire blocking groups to relocate together, more is at stake for groups of once-close friends than which restaurant to dine at. When two people can’t see eye to eye on what form putting one’s money—or one’s time—where one’s mouth is should take, patterns of wealth attribution and spending start to seem less like a byproduct of an arbitrary situation and more like symptoms of deeper-running moral convictions.


A MARKET WORTH INVESTING IN

It’s no wonder that finance continues to hold an irresistible allure for seniors. Just ten years after three Harvard seniors developed the technology for an online job recruitment website that soon adopted the nickname “e-recruiting”, Nina K. Kouyoumdjian ’08 explains, “I feel like everybody uses it, because it’s so easy to use; ven people who don’t necessarily want to do finance and consulting, kind of end up doing finance and consulting.”

Kouyoumdjian is weighing an offer of a two-year contract from her summer job at Citigroup, and has applied via e-recruiting to a handful of other jobs at the most prestigious firms. She has until Dec. 14 to decide what to do, and she’s not alone: “Pretty much all my friends, I would say like nine out of ten, are either pre-med or finance and consulting,” Kouyoumdjian says. “One of my friends who’s pre-med just had a Bain [& Company] interview. You see people at the presentations, and you’re like, wait a minute, I thought you were [Romance Languages and Literatures]!” The corporate path is so well-trodden that it’s almost a given Harvard students will take it, and the feeling of obligation to others also cuts both ways. “Paying for education is an investment, and you want to make good on that investment, if nothing else,” Kouyoumdjian says. “There’s definitely an underlying culture that you go to Harvard to get a good-paying job. I think that’s an assumption a lot of people have.” But Daniel Chen ’08 seems to have avoided that obligation entirely.

“I feel like the reason I’m going into real estate was because of an experience I had working on a design for a building in San Francisco,” Chen says of his summer at an architecture firm between high school and college, “when the client said, ‘I don’t like your design, I’m going to switch over to another firm’. Just like that. That’s what drove me to be on the owner’s side.” Money talks, as the class of 1967 discovered (see sidebar), and for most careers, whoever controls the money controls the project to be accomplished. Chen connects the contract he just signed last week for Morgan Stanley’s real estate division with no feeling of duty but to his eventual dream to make buildings. “I see my two years at Morgan Stanley as a training ground for me to understand all the financial aspects of real estate so I can go and build my beautiful buildings. I don’t feel like I’m selling out.” As far as Mr. Gates’s challenge to give back to the world? “One day, I’d like to be able to combine doing well financially with making beautiful spaces to live in. That’s what I’d like to contribute.”

Chiki E. Gupta ’08, who signed recently with Goldman Sachs, also doesn’t see finance as an evil profession by definition. She plans to bank for a few years, and then pursue work in microfinance. “A lot of my family is from rural India. Beyond just putting money there, actually going out and doing things there would be really helpful. I think it’s something my family would very much support, and it’s something I’ve always been told is kind of a responsibility.” [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]


ARROGANCE AND IGNORANCE

Other seniors who have committed to service work after college don’t necessarily agree that finance or pre-professional education is a reliable road to service—or that the fate of the world is Harvard’s to determine. “I’m skeptical of the Harvard idea that because of our ‘excellence’ we are destined to save the world in ways that less privileged people aren’t,” says Adaner Usmani ’08, PBHA devotee and member of the New Students for a Democratic Society, “Harvard students do need to realize that it’s not your place to transform the world. It’s your place to participate in the process, but it’s not your place to lead or instigate it. You need to participate in a way that’s always skeptical that you know more than others.”

Usmani, a native of Pakistan, has also traveled abroad in Nicaragua, and discovered difficulties in applying his Harvard education that make even domestic service challenging. “That type of mentality, that you can do i-banking and then do microfinance, that’s to me the exactly wrong approach to your own privilege. I found that a lot of what I thought would be useful wasn’t useful in the way I thought it would be. These people didn’t need someone with a Harvard degree, they need someone who would commit to them. I thought a Harvard degree would be useful in ways that weren’t that.” Ideally, he says, students would plunge right into service on an equal level with those they are helping, and address issues like salary as a secondary concern.

But Usmani has an advantage that some Harvard students, in an era of extensive financial aid, don’t have. “I come from a very, very privileged background. Sometimes I feel very, very guilty telling people they can’t work in the financial sector, because I myself don’t have these kinds of issues,” he says, of peers with loans to repay and families to help support. “Hypothetically, I could do something without having to worry about how to support myself. I know you can only play the hand you’ve been dealt.” Family wealth is a reliable safety net; those who have never personally known poverty find it much easier to dismiss as a hardship. It is much easier to talk about overthrowing the system when one has never had to use it to climb to the top.

Alex M. Hubbell ’08 came to Harvard and became an economics concentrator, with his path to business seemingly confirmed. Instead, he discovered after a summer internship that finance was not for him, and is now finishing pre-medical requirements to eventually work in public health. “We all could just be very comfortable and very successful,” Hubbell says, considering the responsibilty he felt toward service. “But it takes a little more to sacrifice something.”

But Hubbell isn’t worried about losing common ground with the financier friends he’s made once he graduates. “I mean, I hope not. Thing is, I feel like there are certain attitudes associated with it. Some people really are just in it solely to make a lot of money,” he says. “If you get into to it too much, it can affect you a little bit, but I hope that the friendships I have with these people wouldn’t be overshadowed by it. But you can never be certain about anything, I guess.”

None of the future bankers ever mentioned a high salary as a reason to pursue a job; the reason most often supplied was ease of application and a reasonable amount of personal interest. But it would hardly be realistic to assume money plays no part, as the benefits to starting out with a six-figure plus bonus salary (or wealthy parents) make themselves almost immediately apparent. Many students who already have banking jobs are blasé about their housing prospects, while their peers are already obsessively poring over Craigslist and calculating the least they can possibly spend on rent and still live in coveted metropolitan areas like New York City. “To be honest, I’m not too familiar with how much living in New York would cost,” says Gupta. She knows she’ll be making enough to cover it.


NOT IN THIS TOWN

In 1999, a handful of Harvard students tried to convince their colleagues to sign a pledge upon graduation: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.” Fewer than one in five did so.

Today, the same reluctance to commit in deed to service as well as in word lingers. “I had a conversation with a few seniors after I graduated, and there was a split,” says John Z. Fang ’07, now working in the fixed-income department at Merrill Lynch. After Bill Gates’s speech, some seniors found it difficult to listen to a billionaire demand that they embark on careers that almost universally result in economic privation. Others admired the bold sentiment and were empowered by the call to action. “It’s—I wouldn’t say hypocritical, but maybe ironic, that he didn’t start giving back until later. It’s that hindsight is 20/20 phenomenon. He can say what he wants to say, and he’s a living example of what he’s saying now, but he wasn’t for the last 30 years when he was looking to build that empire,” says Fang. Harvard’s lack of pre-professional concentrations allowed Fang to study history as an undergraduate and still keep an eye out for finance opportunities. A summer job at Merrill Lynch led to an offer from the firm in his senior year. “I got into my thesis and didn’t have time to think about e-recruiting, so I took it. And, you know, it’s not actually been that bad. I might stick around.”

For Fang, at first it seems his social milieu hasn’t been greatly affected by money; “I don’t think it’s been a problem. We all sort of keep everyone’s situation in mind. I think people come from families who are pretty well off, so people doing jobs that aren’t as lucrative get a little support from their families. There is one person I know who’s not doing finance,” he says, of a friend who did not go to Harvard. “She’s a party planner, but she gets support from her parents, who are rich.” Missing from the equation are those neither in finance nor children of wealthy parents.

College graduates today also have to consider a factor that Bill Gates and his classmates did not; the gap between the average salaries for corporate and non-corporate jobs is widening at an astronomical rate. “In 1972, starting salaries at Manhattan firms were up to $16,000 while the federal government offered its newly minted lawyers $13,300 and Legal Aid of New York paid $12,500,” David Brook writes in his book “The Trap.” “Since then, the salary gap has widened, accelerating most rapidly in the 1980s and 90s. Today, it is not uncommon for top law firms to pay recent grads $100,000 more than public interest employers pay theirs.” Finance salaries, including bonuses, fall on the higher end of the spectrum; service, arts, and media jobs are on the lower end.

Recent graduates have just begun to feel the effects of these disparities beyond a superficial level. While the range of socioeconomic levels represented at Harvard is wide, it is also mostly unspoken—virtually all Harvard undergraduates live in one of the twelve Houses, eat in the dining halls, and take the same classes. Even final clubs, stereotypical bastions of old-fashioned privilege, have fallen in line in their own way with the University’s financial aid initiatives by reducing the dues of members who cannot pay them. But in any major city, there are neighborhoods simply out of reach for those below a certain income threshold. There’s no grant to apply for that comes with an apartment, which makes taking the risk of trying to survive on a service salary daunting—but not impossible.

“New York itself is increasingly real-estate-obsessed, and kind of class-obsessed, because everyone who doesn’t do finance is kind of being driven out of Manhattan,” says Andrew H. Golis ’06, a political blogger based in the city. “Essentially, everyone I know who does non-corporate jobs lives in Brooklyn or Queens, and everyone I know who does finance jobs lives in Manhattan.” Unlike many Harvard graduates, when Golis graduated, he received no financial help from his parents, even though he had not yet found a job—and when he did, he wasn’t making anything close to investment-banker money. Politics welcomes far fewer Harvard alums than it once did.

Like many young alums, Golis understands the nearly impossible choice graduating seniors face, but stresses that it is not an impossible one. “You don’t want to exempt people from making moral choices, because the market shouldn’t determine how you live your life, but you can’t put all of the weight on individual choices,” he says. “It’s important that we understand the way in which the structure of our society has made these choices harder and harder.” There are lines to be drawn below which sacrifice is unacceptable, but some are more valid than others. For one student it might be at giving up health insurance, and for another it might be merely at the prospect of moving to Queens, or out of New York City altogether. Matthew W. Mahan ’05, in his second year in the Teach for America program in California, specifies: “To talk about college grads, looking for a first job out of school, I don’t think there should be an excuse for passing over teaching as an option,” he says, referring to those not supporting families of their own. “People become accustomed to life in the Square, as it is now, and expect to be able to pay $10 for a martini, and that’s going to be difficult. I personally find that one can be frugal.”


AN EDUCATED GAP

Mahan knows something about battling intractable powers-that-be, as former Undergraduate Council president. His first step toward autonomy came when he stopped studying for the LSATs the summer after his junior year. “My feeling at the time was that everything in my life had been external goals that were just a path to being a well-paid professional,” he recalls. “It just seemed like they were these steps that weren’t something I’d chosen out of my interests.” He changed his thesis topic to discuss the careers Harvard students choose after they graduate, and remembers his shock at his discovery of the low numbers of students entering academia, politics, or anything at all but finance and consulting. “Start-ups seem to be the most risk that Harvard students are willing to take,” he said. Many students enter graduate school with the intention of using the skills acquired there to more deeply inform some later service projects, and the plans of this year’s seniors are no different; but Mahan, now entering his third year out of Harvard, is watching his peers as the two- and three-year commitments of grad schools and banking contracts are expiring, and sees a different trend. “I think it’s possible, but I think that unfortunately that is not a reality for a vast majority of people who go into grad school. I don’t think that’s a big enough part of the grad culture. I feel like it’s growing, but I don’t think it’s a reality for most people who are there,” he says. “Part of that’s just the financial reality, and part of it’s the status thing. People with a professional degree don’t want to go into jobs that are perceived as having a low impact, or being beneath their education.” Mahan himself eventually plans to attend graduate school, but is proceeding with caution.

“I see a lot of jobs that are removed from real communities, yet they have a lot of impact on those communities,” he says. “I feel like when you get that grad school degree, you are often a few levels removed from communities—really diverse communities, not the little professional community you find in your law firm. And that’s a trade-off in my mind.” The choice is harder now than it’s ever been, but it is no an excuse not to make it.


REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS

Perhaps the answer to the economic question is to move out to areas where the cost of living is low, and the potentials for growth are many. Maybe non-financiers just can’t live anymore in cities like New York, that are in the process of pricing the activists, writers, and artists that comprise a considerable part of their personalities out of their own borders. The Class of 2008, and every other class, reaches Harvard and is told there are no limits to the doors that can be opened with a Harvard degree; they graduate and learn that this is true, but not all doors can be opened at once.

Golis is reluctant to overstate the conflict created by the differing occupations in his social circle, but admits feeling a certain disconnect when in conversation with some of his peers in the financial sector. “There are the people who get really excited about it and try to talk about it. They have a lingo, and everything. I don’t know where their enthusiasm comes from, because what they’re doing doesn’t seem to be particularly meaningful.” Mahan says, “I personally do feel called to serve, and I want that service to be productive. I want to do that work in a partnership. I don’t want to simply make a lot of money and have some organization spend it well on my behalf.” Certainly, there are selfish graduates who feel no obligation to develop or sustain a social consciousness at all, though few would ever admit it. But they are undoubtedly the exception; regardless of career choices, good intentions abound, though their value remains to be seen. If anything, the varied and often uxexpected experiences of Harvard students on both sides of the imaginary dichotomy of good and evil, money and morals, stand as proof that there are many shades of grey.

It is Fang, Merrill Lynch investment banker and denizen of what idealistic sophomores call “the dark side,” who makes the most black-and-white statement of all; of his plans to somehow give back despite the practical obstacles that give people reasons not to every day, Fang simply explains: “Eventually, I have to. To not be a terrible person, you have to.”

—Kirsten Slungaard and Samantha Connolly contributed to the reporting of this story.

CORRECTION: The Nov. 8 magazine cover story "Our Burden to Bear" incorrectly stated that Chiki E. Gupta '08 intended to work in microfinance. In fact, Gupta does not plan to enter the field. In addition, the story incorrectly quoted Gupta. Gupta said, "My family is from India. Beyond just putting money into rural India, actually going out there and doing work would be really helpful. I think it's something my family would very much support, and it's something I've always been encouraged to do."

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