Joining the real world

It was last October that I found myself signing a Facebook message to my friend with “Best regards, Catalina.” After tens of hours of interviews, numerous cover letters and a hyper-inflated phone bill, it seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. I was another Williams student trying to make it into the business world.

After studying “pure” math, “pure” art history or “pure” economics, some of us decide that we want real jobs. With the economy improving, a lot of those jobs are in consulting or finance. I am still trying to wrap my mind around how many of my classmates actually choose this path. But it is certain that by junior year some become convinced that graduate school is really not their thing and that they would much rather be working 100 plus hours a week in an investment bank or traveling the world as a consultant. They reluctantly announce their decision to classmates and professors, and a few compassionate looks, grudges, or admiring comments later they make an appointment at the Office of Career Counseling (OCC). The lucky and proactive get an internship and secure a job by the beginning of their senior year. The rest prolong their agony into “full-time recruitment.” Some end up working for top tier businesses. Others consciously choose less glamorous, yet more balanced lifestyles. The rest give in to months of frustration and settle for “something decent.” As a caveat, if you are an international student, like I am, then “something decent” is not an option. “Something decent” can’t afford to fight American bureaucracy and sponsor your work visa.

This mad search for a spot in the real world reintroduces seniors to the concept of failure. Each of us has experienced failure in one way or another while at Williams, yet seldom have our lives depended on it. Williams tries hard, with an arguable degree of success, to keep us away from failure: the entry system, peer counseling, Claiming Williams, career counseling, office hours, International Week, RASAN, you name it. In this small liberal arts bubble, Williams conveys a retouched version of reality. We are made to believe that as long as we work hard enough, anything is possible. We can all take a variety of courses and get good grades. With enough research and enough “GRE words” memorized, we will have a good graduate program waiting for us.

But the business world refuses to play by Williams’ rules and that’s where the frustration for students looking for real jobs comes from. Three hours away by train out of the bubble, Williams’ conjectures break down and the typical Williams student finds herself disoriented. Suddenly words such as “headcount,” “core school” and “business acumen” decide the lives of seniors. For the uninitiated, the process resembles Russian roulette. Getting a real job, at least in finance, usually involves countless hours on the phone with alumni, a shift from sweatpants to perfectly ironed suits and missing numerous classes due to interviews in major cities. But most of all, it requires learning a whole new vocabulary and social code since bankers and consultants do not hold office hours. Sometimes you have 30 seconds to impress and that’s a huge responsibility when you’re 21 years old. Students at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania know and train for that. For Williams students, it is a very cold shower.

Coping with this newly-discovered reality while trying to maintain a good GPA at Williams is not easy. Remembering the five-year Treasury rate becomes more important than remembering to go to class or practice. Getting a real job is part of growing up and quite difficult no matter where you go to school. But it is particularly challenging at a mental level for us here in the purple bubble because we are so isolated from that outside reality.

At the end of the day our idealism is both a barrier and an asset. What makes us different from other kids at other schools is that we think we can actually influence that Russian roulette. We think that if we work hard enough we can change the probabilities assigned to bullets and make our dreams reality. Every year, a lot of people do it. Does that imply causality? I am not sure. It implies that we are smart, determined and, as our alumni would say, “an asset to any firm.” And it also hides some other important factors. For instance, we have an OCC consistently available to us. When I was studying abroad at the London School of Economics, we had four 15-minute slots for career counseling per student per year! We also have an amazing network of Williams alumni who have been in our shoes and are able to smooth our transition into the real world. Somehow Williams students do end up influencing the Russian roulette, but the process to getting there is an uphill climb.

Catalina Stoica ’11 is an economics and math major from Focsani, Romania. She lives in Brooks.