Class and Careers

Four years ago, I was a senior at Harvard, and for most of that year, I was preoccupied with the question of what I would do after I graduated. For me, that question was overwhelming. At the time, I felt like it was my fault that I was struggling to visualize the job I wanted, apply confidently, and get it (if, perhaps, a fault some of my friends shared).

Now, three years after graduating, I look back on my senior year and see my situation differently. It is now clear to me that part of my confusion came from the fact that my paths out of Harvard led to a very different place than where I came from.

I went to high school in San Bernardino County, California, where my friends’ parents were teachers, physical therapists, contractors, and military officers. My friends matriculated into local colleges that prepared them for these same jobs or more professional ones, like medical researchers, that the community also needed. At the end of college, their schools’ alumni networks and career services connected them to local companies, and, as a result, most of them are now happily employed in Southern California. Their universities did exactly what universities are supposed to do: Educate young people to take their parents’ places in their community and make that community stronger.

Harvard does exactly the same thing, but for an entirely different community: The East Coast upper class. Just like Cal State San Bernardino or UCLA, Harvard offers concentrations, resources, and alumni networks that prepare the young people who go there to fill professional and social roles in that society, but as bankers, for instance, or professors, lawyers, or curators, living mostly in big East Coast cities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this: Harvard is only doing what a university is supposed to do. But Harvard’s active effort to make its student body more geographically and socioeconomically diverse complicates the situation.

I was part of that effort. The first person from my high school to be accepted to an Ivy League school, I received an incredibly generous financial aid offer that made Harvard more affordable for me than a California public university. I came to Harvard and contributed to the diversity of student life here by bringing a different perspective. In that way, Harvard’s diversity initiative did exactly what it intended.

But then what? By the end of my time at Harvard, two things had inevitably happened. First, my trajectory had been altered so that I was no longer positioned to reenter the southern California community I came from; instead, the education I had received prepared for a completely different world. Second, I was entering this new community without the resources of my classmates who came from it. My parents couldn’t offer me career advice, professional connections, or a home to stay in while I looked for a job. I lacked models for what my post-college life would be like—almost no one in my family, for instance, had earned a graduate degree, which was now an essential but extremely daunting requisite for my own career. The foreignness of my new future was paralyzing.

I’m not sure the right response to this problem is better, or more, career advising. Rather, I think it begins with asking the question: What do we intend to be the benefit of bringing more socio-economic diversity to a college that has historically served our country’s wealthy and elite?

The benefit to Harvard is obvious: Diversity brings incredible richness to the school’s social and intellectual life. But the benefit to students and communities is less guaranteed. I fear that right now, Harvard is acting as a catapult that shoots people from lower classes into the upper one, leaving them in an unfamiliar (and perhaps unwanted) new territory and robbing their communities of value. We shouldn’t accept that situation, because it means that Harvard is failing to perform the social function we expect from a university.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved administratively. In fact, it may be that we—underrepresented students on campus—have unwittingly signed ourselves up for doing that task ourselves. To realize the value of Harvard’s diversity initiative, we’ll have to live with one foot in each world, deciding what responsibilities we want to have to the old community we came from and to the new one we’ve entered into, and bring value to both. We’ll need to reconcile the life we had before with the life we have now—one with so much opportunity and privilege and so little familiarity—and cultivate ourselves the unique perspective that a diverse personal experience promises.

Harvard’s role is to better prepare us do this, and it can prepare us best by giving far more attention to the education and development of personal values and a worldview. We need the space, time, and guidance to think about what we believe in and what matters to us, instead of simply assuming the ways and values of our adoptive home—dislocated as we are from the values and culture that we grew up with. We need an education of morals and character, not just critical thinking, so that we’ll have the courage and wisdom to make decisions about our complicated futures and discern what we want to take from our time spent ‘studying abroad’ at Harvard, and what we’d rather leave behind.

Sophie L. Angelis ’13 is an architectural researcher at the Center for Design Research.