Pursuing passion, alums break job mold

The real world in this economy is not so pretty, and we’re all feeling its effects – especially seniors who must venture into its wild landscape in mere weeks. However, as numerous alums can testify, the real world doesn’t always involve LSATs, GMATs, MCATs and formal interviews. From cartooning to teaching scuba lessons to building tree houses for celebrities, Williams College graduates have pursued a vibrant variety of paths, and learned surprising lessons in the process.

Kate McCurdy ’09 graduated in the same recession that plagues seniors this year, and used it as rationale to do what she always loved doing as a kid: scuba diving. Originally planning to major in biology, McCurdy decided it wasn’t for her and switched to philosophy, but realized that she could maintain her connection with diving through the hospitality industry. “I wanted to be a diving instructor at resorts around the world, where I’d get to meet probably some obnoxious people but also some really cool people,” McCurdy said.

When she got her scuba instructor’s license in the Florida Keys, however, she discovered that the world she was entering was not all she had expected. “I learned a lot about the scuba culture. It was a culture in which you really had to fend for yourself. It wasn’t college anymore.” So McCurdy returned to her Rochester, N.Y., hometown and joined a band. Nik and the Nice Guys, a full band with 15 people, not only performs at weddings but has also played at the Super Bowl. While McCurdy plans to teach scuba lessons this summer in Honduras, after a “full year of searching into life” she has decided to take the LSATs. “I never thought that I would be a wedding singer or go to law school,” she said.

A year of soul-searching also helped Chris Yorke ’06, whose artistic skills conveniently won him a lucrative Hutchinson Memorial Prize upon graduation. Yorke decided to follow every artistic lead that interested him. First, he helped develop the Virtual Architecture Project with the Gross brothers, digitally capturing buildings like the Pantheon to produce the new nifty zoom-in images that recent students in Art History 101 likely recall. Then, after building entrances to cave drawings in the Dominican Republic for an archeological project in the winter of 2006-07, Yorke moved to Seattle to help Pete Nelson, author of Tree Houses of the World, build tree houses. “These were for people who already had like five houses around the world. The Hollywood crowd got interested at the end,” Yorke said. “If you’re a Microsoft executive and you have oodles of money everywhere and you want to build a hot tub pavilion in your trees with a zipline coming down from it and stuff, or you want a spare bedroom or office in a tree, you’d get one of these tree houses.”

Regardless of the additional money, which let him travel all over the place, this artist initially had no plans of following the traditional grad school route. However, in 2008 Yorke decided to attend Princeton graduate school in architecture. “My time off and these projects I engaged in led me to reconsider what I wanted to do with my life,” Yorke said.

David Sipress ’68 had to make a much more pivotal decision about graduate school: If he chose to be an artist after college, he faced the threat of being drafted in the Vietnam War. Sipress also faced pressure from his parents, Jewish immigrants who had a very clear idea of the successful, prestigious man they wanted Sipress to become. Going to Williams, majoring in history with his nose to the grindstone and then entering Harvard for graduate school in Soviet studies, Sipress looked around one day and saw that life outside school was much more fun.

“When I seriously asked myself what I wanted to do, I realized I wanted to be a cartoonist – I had drawn cartoons my whole life, starting when I was a kid and got The New Yorker,” Sipress said. “So I thought, ‘What the hell.’ I dropped out of school and started drawing.” While his career had some financial drawbacks, he got published almost immediately in a weekly newspaper called The Boston Phoenix and has been published in it every week since. Moreover, his work regularly appears in The New Yorker, he has eight published cartoon books and he’s delving into writing short stories. “What I wanted more than anything else was freedom of how to use my time how I wished,” Sipress said. “Admittedly, I do the 8 to 5 thing every day, but it’s what I love.”

For Tom Costley ’82, graduate school was out of the question after spending the summer of ’81 in Glacier National Park, Mont., where he decided that after college he would ride his bike across the country. Costley faced perhaps a friendlier “real world” than we do today: “In ’82 the economy had just started to boom,” Costley said. “At the OCC, there were 300 separate employer visits. If you wanted a job, you could just fall into one, and some of my friends did just fall into banking jobs. Exciting, in a way, but more exciting to find a new way.”

The fateful bike trip, which was so clearly focused on a goal, met all his expectations and inspired him to develop Overland, a company that offers outdoor and academic programs to kids across the world in attempt to help them “embrace the world” as he did on his trip. Launching the business from scratch, with no guidance other than his parents’ advice to “have a plan,” was no easy task. “When I started the business in ’85 I didn’t know what I was doing. I was a total punk,” Costley said. “I had to get children from all across the country, produce a beautiful catalogue and understand what kids wanted and what parents wanted and combine the two. All those years getting experience were my grad school.”