Come June, hordes of Harvard students and recent graduates will descend upon New York City. Their reasons for settling there will vary widely. Those ambitious pre-bankers who hope to land that coveted position at [insert financial firm with head above water here] will gleefully devote 90-hour weeks to their firms, returning to their apartments only to shower and sleeping under their desks for approximately 90 minutes per 24 hours. Budding musicians and aspiring journalists will set up camp in Williamsburg or at NYU housing, hoping to work up enough hipster cred to create a cleverly named tumblr that people might actually read. Finally, there is the PBHA wunderkind-turned-activist. These heroes of the summer score public-service fellowships that allow them to live in the city for three months and devote time and energy to the type of things that make the world a better place.
As a member of the second bracket two summers ago, I experienced simultaneous waves of horror and jealousy toward my investment-banking cohorts so strong that, for a moment, I wondered what it would be like to be an exhausted but well-paid shell of my former self. I also had such sudden feelings of moral inadequacy compared to the wunderkind that I would glance at my $15 well drink and ask whomever was around (sometimes a stranger, sometimes to myself): “What am I doing in New York?”
As a senior on the verge of graduation, I feel like much of my world is simply going to be uprooted and transplanted to New York City after June 4. NYC is the Mecca of the social and economic lives of Harvard students in the real world: Not only is it perceived as being the natural—often default—next stop in the lives of the young graduates of elite colleges, but New York’s glossiness also indicates a sort of ultimate achievement of the cosmopolitan refinement and worldliness that Harvard students work so hard to cultivate and realize.
Whether it’s for the summer or forever, the magnetic pull to New York City—like that exerted on energetic bugs by a sophisticated flame—has long been undeniable. But an undercurrent of dissent is beginning to appear, as the collapse of the financial market has thrown some of the pitfalls of this high lifestyle into high relief for young people. There is, believe it or not, life outside of New York City. And, although it might be different, it’s probably not as terrible as you think.
My decision to live somewhere other than New York or another East Coast outpost next year seems to confound people. It’s hard to convince folks that I’m living in Mississippi by choice and not under duress. Yet I’m not alone in my decision to eschew the New York life. My friends from Harvard are settling in places as diverse as Louisiana, Illinois, and Oregon next year. Most are living in cities, although a few are opting for the suburban and rural life. And why not? While some might see forsaking the opportunity to gallivant around the Big Apple during young adulthood as being unadventurous or provincial, I interpret it as the opposite. Choosing to move to the rural South is not a retreat, but a venture into a world that is far less familiar to me than the streets of New York. I could easily see myself settling in the city, working in Manhattan, and coming to view a road trip as a drive to Queens. This terrifies me.
The feeling of necessity over the Harvard-to-New York relocation can manifest itself for any number of reasons. Some students simply like New York and want to live there, and some favor the city because of the concentration of jobs in the metropolis. Others say that their desire to move to New York stems from an inability to see themselves elsewhere: They’ve always assumed they would live in New York, and so they limit their searches for jobs and graduate schools to the city in their crystal ball. But that sort of logic—and the mass migration that results from it—is flawed because of the chicken-or-egg scenario it presents: Graduates go to New York because it’s the only place they see themselves, but it’s the only place they see themselves because everyone up and moves there in Life After Harvard. It’s a vicious cycle, only in that it often encourages people to follow the path of least resistance and mature without a diversity of geographic experience.
My roommate that summer in New York had gone to college in the city and was then writing for a lesbian magazine. She spoke often about the importance of queer journalism; she wrote, she said, for “that lesbian in Wisconsin”—the heartland-dweller who relies on New York publications as her outlets and sources of information. Remembering that these people exist outside of the city is crucial: For this young journalist, the battle was halfway won. But why didn’t she pack her bags and try living in Milwaukee or Madison, Montgomery or Mobile? Perhaps those places, and not New York, could be alternative, logical next steps.
Emma M. Lind ’09, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.