The Importance of Self-Reliance

`Polo Jeans Company. How can I help you?" This is how Meghan answers the phone, even when she's not at work. She started working for the executive assistant to the CEO at Polo Jeans Company only last week, and already she talks differently and wears tons of black. Who said you take your Harvard degree everywhere you go after graduation? Meghan almost didn't get this job because Ralph Lauren thought she was overqualified.

I know, I know. Rough life. But Meghan is actually one of the lucky ones. And I'm not talking about her Harvard education. I'm not even talking about her swank office, complete with a brand-new fridge and walls that were custom-built according to her specifications. Meghan is lucky because she's thinking about quitting, after only a week. See, she hates her boss.

If only we could all be that lucky.

Actually, Meghan's success story starts much earlier. When she decided against attending Cambridge University this fall, she also turned down an attractive offer to teach math at a NY prep school. She decided to see what else was out there.

So she began her job search. Having graduated in 1997, Meghan probably didn't even think about contacting OCS to see what help they could offer to a recent grad like herself. Instead, she started with resources closer at hand. On Saturday nights she picked up the early edition of the Sunday Times, and spent the next day combing through the Help Wanted section. She interviewed in fields that ranged from publishing to financial services to fashion. She called two placement agencies and even a temp agency. After being educated at Harvard, Meghan had to take a typing test and learn how to make spreadsheets on Excel to qualify for her new job.


And now Meghan thinks about quitting her new job every day. But then again, it has to cross everyone's mind now and again. Sitting in a cubicle doing entry-level work can feel demeaning whether you're down on Wall Street or working in Detroit.

Going to Harvard is one of the things I've accomplished that I'm most proud of. I learned how to live proactively, making choices about what was more and less important to me. This meant skipping that party on a Saturday night to finally finish Middlemarch, or going out for a Bellhaven the night before the "Matter in the Universe" midterm. At Harvard, I learned that being good to myself meant balancing academic priorities against the other things going on in my life.

That may not sound like a big deal, but I find that it defines the person I've become. Humans are supposedly superior to other creatures because they have the ability to reason and make rational decisions. But I think that we, too, often fall into the path of least resistance.

I know I did. When senior year rolled around, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I had already ruled out med school and I didn't really know what business school was about. Law school was the obvious choice according to my family. But that wasn't quite right, either. The next place to look was Dunster Street. I had heard miracles of philosophy majors working in financial services, having outstanding learning experiences, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I figured the Harvard path to least resistance couldn't be bad. OCS had an impressive recruiting program, representing outstanding firms that were actually interested in us inexperienced undergraduates. But, although I was told it would be easy to get a job with little or no financial experience, I didn't get any offers.

Looking back, it makes sense. How could I have gotten a job with Saloman SmithBarney when, the morning of my interview, I called my Ec10 TF in a panic, asking him to explain to me what an investment bank does? (I still don't get it.)

But I count myself with Meghan as one of the lucky ones. My friend Steve was a pre-med in college, and wanted to take a year off after college to take his MCATs and apply to med school. But faced with the prospect of a year off, he turned to OCS to find something meaningful to do. He should have gone into the Peace Corps.

What he ended up with was a two-year contract at a high-powered investment bank with free fancy dinners and no time after-hours to fill out his applications to medical school. Now Steve says he may never go to medical school. When I ask him if he likes his job, he doesn't really have an answer.

Of course, you can choose whether or not to participate in the recruiting program. And, the recruiting program is certainly a valuable resource. But it should serve as one of many options in the undergraduate job search. There's other stuff out there. And as much as it's fun to dress up in the interview suit, it's also fun to take off that Harvard ring and convince someone that you are the best filer they'll ever have.

The recruiting program can be too easy. Sounds funny from someone who couldn't even snag an offer, doesn't it? But the recruiting program means you don't know what it's like to miss the flight to your first interview, and to arrive late, sweaty and exhausted, only to be told you're overqualified, or underqualified, or perfectly qualified, except that the position has already been filled because the president of the company has a nephew who decided to drop out of college after his first semester and needs something to do.

Looking for a job meant Meghan had to think about her responsibility to herself. It meant leaving a strange building in an unfamiliar neighborhood with genuine doubts about her ability to handle that state-of-the-art copy machine. I think she would agree with me when I say looking for a job is the most debilitating thing I've ever done. Harvard has amazing resources and its students should certainly take advantage of them. But four years go by quickly and soon you'll be looking for an apartment and cooking your own meals.

Dorm crew no more, I recently had to learn how to use a plunger for the first time. I figured it out, because I'm smart (and called my father for advice). The best resource Harvard offers is ourselves. Sure, taking responsibility for yourself can be burdensome, but the rewards are outstanding. At least, that's what people tell me. I'm still working on it. And so is Meghan.

Alison Kim '98 was an english concentrator in Leverett house. She is currently employed at an advertising firm in Manhattan.

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