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Where Passion Goes to Die

By Jasmine J. Mahmoud

The flickering Boston skyline and calming nighttime air should have set a relaxing tone for the night. Out to a spirited piano bar on Boston’s clubby Landsdowne Street, my friends and I were ready to celebrate the end of finals, our common past and our assorted futures. But when our cab-ride conversation turned to the latter subject, one of my friends became embittered, questioning his forthcoming years in the workforce as an investment banker. “How long will I have to put future gain in front of my happiness?” he fretfully asked, probably more to himself more than to us. I was so struck that this accomplished academic, Phi Beta Kappa and soon-to-be graduate could be unhappy with his accomplishments. That his highly desirable i-banking job and six figure salary in one hand came with a denial of his true passions and grief in the other shook me as one un-pretty truth of Harvard’s curricular and occupational system.

During my four years here little talk has been devoted to the happiness of students once they graduate. And from all appearances, little resources have been, too; the Office of Career Services (OCS)—with its creaky floors and overbooked counselors—appears painfully under-funded, without the means to fully advise and support the undergraduate student body, which has the potential to excel in a diverse collection of careers.

The inadequate bursary of OCS accompanies the pervasive academic rhetoric against occupational training of Harvard students. Harvard is not a trade school. Not that it should be—as the leading research university in the United States, if not the world, one of Harvard’s most apparent missions is to engage its students in the intellectual pursuit of excellence.

But University rhetoric against undergraduate professional training denies that Harvard, however dignified its academic programs are, ultimately prepares its students for certain career paths, such as medical school, fellowship work or consulting. To this the College’s Admissions webpage attests: “Although Harvard’s academic programs are not ‘pre-professional’ in the sense that they provide vocational training, Harvard students are very well prepared for admission to professional schools (business, law, medicine) and graduate programs.” Despite the rhetoric, certain Harvard students are given adequate academic and occupational support to pursue their lifework.

Those who aren’t are often left with minimal occupational support from the college. OCS advises those interested in media and the arts to independently land unpaid internships (for which Harvard does not grant academic credit) or to find programs associated with their desired fields at other schools in the Boston area. That Harvard directs the pursuit of these fields off campus seems often has career-path-altering effects for those wishing to pursue fields not academically cherished by this university.

Sure, Harvard students are independent self-starters, and yet that the wealth of diverse interests expressed by first-years inevitably whittles down to only a handful of channels seems to suggest that the lack of institutional support for certain paths drives many students into fields better supported by Harvard’s academic and career network. The lack of institutional support also suggests that those unsupported fields are inherently wanting, even though such fields can be and are intellectually pursued at other top schools such as Yale and New York University.

Without Harvard’s implicit institutional support, students graduate unprepared for work in their desired fields—during my recent job interviews potential employers badgered me on my choice of academic work and its relevance to my future. And without institutional support, professional fields such as drama and music are left deficient of Harvard graduates as students like me have to make the choice between struggling to learn the ropes on my own or pursuing a cookie-cutter, college-supported career path. This is particularly problematic because the ability to excel in a professional environment often comes with the energy and interest associated with following a passion.

Furthermore, this lack of support fuels the unhappiness of many Harvard graduates. A recent exhibit at the Harvard Club of Boston showcased George Valliant’s latest book The Class of ’75: Reflections on the Last Quarter of the 20th Century by Harvard Graduates. The book contained excerpts from over five hundred graduates, many of whom expressed overwhelming discontent with their accomplished, yet unfulfilling career paths. Harvard did not authorize Valliant’s book.

But Harvard should push to authorize its implication. Others do—when celebrated music producer and composer Quincy Jones visited Harvard this past February, he admonished Harvard’s lack of academic devotion to contemporary music and the arts as foolishly traditional and stifling to progress in creative fields. This just goes to show that encouraging students to realize their passions and interests via their post-college life can take many forms. Whether the College decides to enrich existing concentrations with courses more contemporary in focus, vigorously bring in a broader and more diverse set of companies to recruit on campus or improve the often criticized advising system with the goal of improving academic choices and post-college paths, administrators must do something to improve the current occupational landscape. Forcing students to reach outside the post-college paths expected of them here and to reach for paths that align with their interests ensures that Harvard’s mission, pursuit of excellence, will continue to thrive.

Until they do something, however, the bittersweet sensation I associate with Thursday’s Commencement will be less about those I will never see again and more about the many in the Class of 2004 who will never be able to pursue, and excel, in their passions.

Jasmine J. Mahmoud ’04, a government concentrator in Winthrop House, was an associate editorial chair of The Crimson in 2003.

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