Generic Inspiration

Ask tough questions, get vague answers

Every so often I receive an email from the Office of Career Services inquiring as to whether I’d be interested in joining the Marine Corps. At first glance, their outreach makes sense; after all, I’m a military age male with unusually short hair. Moreover, I’ve discussed military strategy with virtually everyone I’ve met, so it’s no surprise that my advisors know I’m interested in pursuing a military career. There’s just one problem: I’m already contracted with the Army.

For the Marines reading this: I’m not admitting the Army’s alleged inferiority (that debate was settled during Sunday’s football match—Go Army, beat Navy!). Instead, I’d like to discuss Harvard’s strange relationship with cadets in terms of career advice. For starters, I dislike wasting time; the government already commandeers a large chunk of my life, so the last thing I need is another bureaucratic force attempting to influence my decisions. Enter Harvard’s advising system.

College advisors at OCS and beyond are generally kind, sympathetic people. Their warm smiles, perky demeanor, and insistence on buying you coffee can sometimes prove a bit too heartening—even creepy, in my opinion—but they’re certainly not the worst individuals to converse with on campus. However, in my experience, the advice they provide for the most part proves irrelevant.

First, most College advisors that I’ve interacted with seem to have no idea how the military functions. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no military expert. I don’t descend from a long line of servicemen, nor do I come from a community steeped in military tradition. As my friends from summer training can attest, my soldier senses remain under construction, and to this day I struggle with land navigation.

However, Harvard’s taught me one thing well: the art of detecting (and producing) eloquent nonsense. Unfortunately, I think our advising community often offers our students nothing more than beautifully worded, unhelpful advice. When presenting potential plans to advisors, I’m regularly faced with passive nods, followed by a short speech of sorts outlining how I should pursue my professional dreams.


However, questions pertaining to military service are separate from the typical philosophical college struggles regarding individual purpose and the meaning of life. The decisions I make over these next few semesters will determine the location and manner in which I serve, thereby impacting my loved ones and the relationships I share with them. As such, vague answers are the last thing I need when shaping the next four to eight years of my life.

When I seek advice from professional counselors, I want strong answers. I dislike the look-within-yourself approach that most advisors seem to have adopted these days. If I knew the answer all along, why would I ask for your help in the first place? I’m not some padawan on his way to becoming a Jedi (if only); I’m a cadet who wants some strong, opinionated, and harsh advice on whether to accrue additional years of military service in exchange for graduate school. I want unfiltered answers, not a pat on the back or another consolatory sandwich from some OCS event.

I know Harvard counselors have wise opinions; after all, they’re smart, capable individuals with decades of experience between them. And yet, for reasons unknown, I feel as though they consistently spew cheesy one-liners and motivational quotes. Perhaps they fear the accountability that comes with providing someone with tough advice. Perhaps they fear telling Harvard students that their plans are ill-fated. Perhaps they’re afraid of admitting that arbitrary events, rather than skill, play the largest role in determining our fate.

Another counseling session ends. I’m handed yet another pamphlet regarding Officer Candidate School (OCS—life’s coincidences sure tend to humor me), a program that, as an ROTC cadet, proves nothing but redundant and irrelevant. I fake a smile and kindly accept the pamphlet, pretending to have learned something new over the past hour. All in all, I’m no closer to understanding what I want to do in the Army, or for how long.

But who knows? Maybe I’m too harsh. Perhaps Harvard will one day discover that Army cadets aren’t interested in also joining the Marine Corps.

Nathan L. Williams ’18 ,a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Recommended Articles