…is the facile but succinct question that’s on a lot of college students’ minds as the real world looms on the other side of graduation.
Wesleyan is ostensibly all about being a well-rounded individual and helping out the greater world, but college is mad expensive and cashing in with high-paying jobs after graduation is not only tempting, but necessary for a lot of debt-saddled new alums.
As the NY Times noted today, the dilemma of choosing between big money and public service after graduation, or at least putting off the big money in favor of something noble for a little while, seems increasingly pronounced as Obama’s play for the White House (and our hearts and minds) grows stronger. As you might remember:
In his commencement speech last month at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, voiced a similar theme when he sounded an impassioned call to public service, and warned that the pursuit of narrow self-interest — “the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy … betrays a poverty of ambition.”
So what’s a well-educated but financially-strapped idealist to do?
The article mentions approaches that different colleges are taking to encourage graduates along the public service path without having to worry about the finance issue. A Harvard education professor is leading seminars to light a public service fire under Ivy League asses. Amherst and UPenn are expanding public service fellowships and internships. Tufts is going to start paying off the college loans of graduates who choose public service jobs. And a lot of schools, including Wesleyan, are making great efforts to decrease the costs of higher education, so students don’t have to worry about paying off loans.
Wesleyan isn’t lacking in efforts to encourage students to pursue public service opportunities – this is clearly an issue that President Roth feels strongly about, and certainly a significant amount of Wes graduates go on to participate in nonprofit programs like Teach for America, or work in jobs related to public service.
But many are insecure enough about their financial ambitions without the additional guilt of lacking a full-time public service commitment.
The NYTimes touched on post-graduation job insecurities in another article this past weekend, about fresh college grads getting used to gainful employment, citing Kai Johnson ’08 as someone who seems to have found at least a temporary balance between public service and apprehension about the future:
Kai Johnson, 22, who graduated from Wesleyan University in May, is working at the Greater New York chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a nonprofit, for the summer, and will begin teaching English in France in the fall. “I’m really excited to move on to the next chapter of my life,” he said, “although it’s hard to graduate from college and leave that behind.”
Still, his summer job is part time, so he does not feel trapped, he said, at least not yet. “I’m looking at having a couple of different careers in different areas, with a couple years of commitment,” he said. “I’m not looking to having a 30- or 40-year plan.”
So are we on the verge of a new Obama-ushered era of socially conscious graduates, sacrificing personal wealth for the greater good of society? Is public service reaching a tipping point, from being easily written off as a fringe manifestation of progressive guilt, to a universally-appealing American civic movement?