Carrying On: In search of lost experience

January 31, 2013

What I am about to say may shock you and shake your morality down to its very core, so brace yourself: We, as members of the Georgetown student body, are an extremely privileged bunch.

I’m not talking about the privilege they hammer into our heads from day one, the kind addressed in the convocation speech about multicolored dots and the infinitesimally small decimal of a percentage of people in the world with the opportunities we have as students on the Hilltop. I’m not talking about the kind that makes you swell with emotion when you overcome procrastination, enabling you to put on a gray shirt and yell “Hoya Saxa!” at the Verizon Center. This kind is a subtler, more cultural aspect, and it’s about how we spend our free time.

The first time I noticed this particular aspect of Georgetown’s student culture was upon returning to the Hilltop for my sophomore year. For the past four months I’d been living at home, working full-time as a waitress at a local country club, and hanging out with my high school friends who were all doing the same kind of low-skill, money-making work. When I told this to a casual Georgetown acquaintance of mine who asked how my summer was, he looked at me like a specimen from another world. “Wow,” he said. “It sounds so cool not to work behind a desk.”

This is the culture where Georgetown’s privilege becomes so apparent. The kind where 18- and 19-year-old college kids don’t spend their summers waiting tables or lifeguarding or stocking shelves, but at prestigious, largely unpaid internships. At least at their lowest level, these require less skill than working at Starbucks does, but look better on that all-important resume.

Unpaid internships are a privilege admitted to a tiny fraction of the population, maybe about half a purple dot. They mean that your parents are able and willing to cover your general living expenses, your housing, your food, and your beer money (these are college kids we’re talking about, after all). More than that, they’re emblematic of a culture that values professional achievement above all else, to the point that we’re willing to spend thousands of dollars on top of tuition getting a head start in the industries that 18-year-olds think they’ll want to work in after graduation.

It would be one thing if internships were branded as the domain of the privileged, like spending your summers traipsing around Europe. But their prestige is derived instead from the illusion of the intern being selected out of all possible candidates as the best and brightest, and the most worthy of the zero dollars that the company is going to spend to hire you. But the “unpaid” label alone thins the applicant pool a great deal. Think back to the college process—if a school had a $6,000 application fee, it’d be making sure that only a precious few bothered to apply.

This kind of prestige breeds one of the most epidemic and least tolerable qualities you’ll find on Georgetown’s campus: self-importance. Nothing turns a Hoya dude into a pre-professional gasbag quite like making him put on a suit and tie for work every morning at age 19. But do you know what can easily cure that king of the world syndrome, or even prevent it from starting? Wearing a uniform and an apron.

I’m not advocating for some kind of see-how-the-other-half-lives social experiment, nor am I suggesting that students let their talents and abilities go to waste by performing semi-skilled labor. I’m saying that working for money in a non-professional setting is a healthy and valuable way to spend at least a summer during college. It teaches crucial people skills and work ethic, and getting a paycheck every week is a healthy reminder of the value of your time and work.

The way I looked at it, I had my whole life to be in a career and spending some time at a job that keeps me active all day, even on weekend nights when I could be out spending my hard-earned cash, was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. This past summer, when I finally bit the bullet and took a (paid) internship in an office, I spent my days off picking up lunch shifts at the dear old country club for extra money and old time’s sake.

Of course, not applying for internships when virtually all of your peers are has its downsides. And as I apply for jobs, preparing for my inevitable lurch from college into the real world, I wonder if I might be better positioned if I’d spent those summers serving coffee for free in an office instead of for pay at a country club. But with any luck, my interviewers will realize that I’m just as qualified, if not more so, than my interning peers, and I’ll score the job of my dreams.

If not, then my club polo and black apron are still hanging in my closet at home. As long as I haven’t forgotten how to balance four plates at once, I’ll always be employable somewhere.

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As a Hoya who has just recently entered the “paid office workplace,” I assure you that this “privilege” of not actually having to work to sustain one’s lifestyle (or even survival) is as much of a curse to ambition, self-awareness and personality as it is something to be justifiably jealous of.

Jealous, because the lack of student loans makes it a lot easier (understatement of the year) to save money for the future. But also a curse, because for someone to say that they never had to plan for the future – that their family left them “everything they needed” – is to beg the question: So if you don’t actually need to worry about where your next check is coming from, why aren’t you doing something incredible with your life? Why aren’t you alleviating poverty at home or abroad, or donating to charity and “starting from zero”? “Why don’t you run for offic- Oh wait, nevermind…”

In other words, why are you manning a desk at Goldman Sachs when you hardly need the cash/are not making any money as an unpaid intern anyway?

All too often, the answer is: “Because I don’t know what else to do with my life.”

More insidiously, and what the answer above actually means: “Because my family wouldn’t accept me/respect as much if I didn’t follow a similar path of [continued accrual of wealth and prestige].”

And people ask why the rich stay rich: Because they teach their children all they know!

Now, some of the most privileged among us – and especially at Georgetown – do indeed go on to achieve incredible things for themselves and society/the world at large. But too many of them do not. And THAT is a waste of talent. That waste of young, energetic, promising lives is what makes some cleaning custodians and fast-food workers (derisively called “burger flippers” by the privileged) noble in comparison, because so many of them never even had a chance…and those that do too often end up squandering the living sh*t out of it.

Hard at work

Some of us were working 2 paid jobs to make up for those unpaid internships…pro tip: if you work extra on the weekends, it cuts down on the money you spend drinking.