An appeal to the senior class

Dear Seniors,

If you’re anything like me, the start to this year has ignited a complex cocktail of emotions in you, some of which are good, but some of which – like career-related anxiety – can be consuming in a way that threatens to detract from our ability to enjoy this final year at the College. 

It is important, we are told, to be proactive, to start networking, to tweak, hone, personalize and perfect cover letters. Application deadlines are streaming in from McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Goldman Sachs, Teach for America. And we, up to our eyes in Chaucer, piecewise continuous functions and the Hegelian dialectic, are left to make sense of it all. We have sports, friends, extracurricular activities and the ever-important human need to sleep. The real challenge, however, is none of these.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), in a 2003 interview with ZDFmediathek, a German television network, pointed out that one of the biggest paradoxes of the American educational system is that often, students graduating from elite liberal arts schools go on to work in high-powered jobs that, while they may be financially rewarding, have nothing to do with what we’re taught, quite convincingly, is important.

DFW was right.

Why is it that so many of us will, upon graduating from the College, trade in our caps and gowns for well-tailored pant suits? Our copies of Paradise Lost for 50 Shades of Gray? Our paintbrushes for InDesign Pro? You’ve all felt it in your various jobs and internships: months of tedium, your brain slowly atrophying in front of an ancient desktop computer, as you re-learn Excel shortcuts that will enable you to log the number of Internet coupons your customers have redeemed more expediently, all so that at the end of your summer you can add “exceptional organizational skills, proficient in Microsoft Office” to the “Special Skills” section of your résumé. This cannot possibly be the future our parents and benefactors envisioned for us when they cut those hefty checks to the Williams College bursar’s office.

The real project of senior year, then, is not to perfect the balancing act – we’ve done that already, and done it well – but rather to start thinking rigorously about what matters. What are the stakes for us? What about this education differentiates us from the multitudes of seniors soon to graduate alongside us into the professional world? What do we want – and I mean really want – from our lives after Williams?

These, I submit to you, are the questions that deserve the most consideration. Not, “How do I maximize my GPA while also putting in face time at all the important campus social events?” or “How do I make myself appealing to a diverse group of potential employers?”  But rather, “How do I begin to build for myself a future that will satisfy my deepest, most authentic interests and ask me to reach my full potential?” If you are one of the lucky few for whom tax returns set your heart ablaze with an eternal burning passion, that’s great. But if you’re not, and you’re applying to Ernst and Young just because you haven’t taken the time to figure out what it is that actually makes you happy, I would urge you to reconsider.

This is not to say that I think every senior should know exactly what he or she wants to do at this point. Nor do I want to malign the characters of those of you who intend to pursue high-income corporate jobs. I’m under no illusions about the importance of making a good living. Moreover, it is not entirely necessary that the first job you land after college delivers the satisfaction and fulfillment that I hope you’ll eventually find in your careers. But if the reason you don’t know what you want is simply because you haven’t given it any thought, you have a serious problem.

One of the biggest dangers we face in leaving the college community is the risk of sliding into a state of perpetual autopilot, trading in the pursuit of genuine fulfillment for corporeal pleasures and fiscal comfort. I would argue that this is a massive cop out.

The hard, uncomfortable truth of post-collegiate life is that there is no rubric for professional fulfillment. There is no syllabus for successful relationships, cohesive family life or fiscal triumph. Nobody is going to tell us how to be good at life. That is to say, true satisfaction doesn’t come cheap.

It comes from being smart about the person you choose to become, how you choose to get there and the kinds of people you choose to surround yourself with on the way. It comes from taking your mistakes in stride, being flexible, resourceful and willing to want something out of this life, rather than letting the burdens of ambition and desire fall to someone else.

It comes, in short, from taking the ideologies you’ve spent the past three-plus years consuming and making them a fixture in your life. Don’t abandon your liberal arts education. Let it inform who you become, regardless of what you want to do. And most importantly, use this year as well and as fully as you possibly can.


Emily Gowen ’13 is an English and studio art double major from Chadds Ford, Penn. She lives on Hoxsey Street.

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