BY AMY MROTEK
As the ties get folded back into drawers and resume papers cool from the printer, students across campus settle in for the long and anxious wait. The name of the game is the internship, with every student at some point or another rolling the dice for that resume-building prize.
That professional staple has grown to be a necessary yet daunting task nagging a college student’s peripherals. What sets you apart from the masses? Perhaps a double major, foreign-language proficiency, service work in corners of the globe, a rack of leadership positions or undergraduate research papers stamped on your record. More than likely it’s a combination of these things, a good-natured attempt to pay your dues in all the right places, networking with all the right people, tip-toeing your way down the right path.
Yet “right” in this sense is a lethal word, one that’s come to signify a dry, tapered and ultimately judgmental trajectory of success. College students have become caricatures of education, more intent on hopscotching their way down socially acceptable job tracks than exploring the boundaries of themselves.
Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz summed the situation up seamlessly in an article published this past summer, one in which he critically discussed the state of higher education and its modern dysfunction: “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
His words are ripe with truth. Even in my own bubble, I’ve spent hours obsessing over what I’m going to do with this upcoming summer, venting with friends who feel just as restless. Very rarely do these conversations begin with what we actually want to do, what makes us tick. Rather, they run down a list of logical processes we feel we must entertain, a balancing act of which internship to apply for or what job will make us the most money versus actual interests or enriching experiences.
Peeling back the internship obsession reveals another, arguably bigger, problem: The stark and steady pressure we place on students to be productive, to excel, to contribute in the long run to the thrums of a preordained, professional society. All this must come at a cost and in this case the cost is quite literal. Some stats show nearly 60 percent of internships today are unpaid, stacking ever more pressure on already pinched students to devote time and energy to unpaid work simply because they have no other choice. That’s just the way things are.
Even SNC, a liberal arts institution that prides itself on churning out lifelong learners rather than waged robots, dedicates large amounts of resources to keeping students on this business trajectory. We employ an entire office dedicated to perfecting students’ LinkedIn profiles and interviewing techniques, reviewing resumes and hosting career and internship fairs. Not to say there’s anything inherently evil in its focus on post-grad preparation. You’d be hard-pressed to find an institution that doesn’t contain some sort of Career Services arming their students with advice and outlets. Yet it perpetuates this student-manufacturing mold of the modern day, reflecting the values of the white-collar working world we now live in. There’s an emphasis on motion, on students as producing engines, not on what we burn as fuel.
Ask me what I’m doing this summer and I’d respond in shoulder shrugs. Ask me my future career goals or objectives and I’d answer in a similarly lame fashion. It’s undoubtedly a personal conundrum, but one that can’t be disassociated from the setting we’re immersed in. The fact I’ve been virtually sleepwalking through my educational life, aware I must do something but not quite sure what that something is, speaks volumes. More telling, however, is that I know I’m not alone.