Saxa Politica: Competitive culture presides on campus

October 9, 2014

’Tis the season of disappointment. Applications to the Corp and GUASFCU have been written, received, and rejected. Academic Council and, most recently, GUSA Senate committee chair votes have been cast, counted, and alternately celebrated or condemned. According to a project manager for the Hilltop Microfinance Initiative, which provides credit and consulting services to local small businesses, HMFI received over 200 student applications this cycle and accepted less than six percent. Hilltop Consultants—the closest thing on campus to working for Deloitte, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, or McKinsey—boasted similar numbers. General interest meetings for both were standing room only.

For newly arrived Hoyas, the carnival atmosphere of last month’s Student Activities Fair has been replaced by the realization that, statistically, it’s often easier to get into Georgetown itself than to get involved with extracurriculars on campus.

Disappointment isn’t a viewpoint common to discussing participation at Georgetown. Nevertheless, it’s a lens we need in order to clearly perceive what this campus promotes: an often damagingly pervasive, pre-professional, and politically competitive culture that prizes activity and advancement while chalking up rejection to personal failings.

The problem arises when this pre-professional culture of participation becomes a mainstay—indeed a requirement—of our collegiate environment. This culture isn’t the direct fault of student groups, though, with many interested candidates and few slots to fill. Whether because of necessary exclusivity or organizational self-importance, it creates a pressure-cooker culture of campus involvement—take part, get that position, and win that election. Otherwise, you fail. Winning a position with a student group is as much an institution on this campus as sitting on John Carroll’s lap.

What’s more, this expectation is both ubiquitous and universally reinforced. It’s alive in everything from the profusion of fliers outside Village A to the measured cadence of Blue & Gray tour guides describing their various campus commitments to wide-eyed campus visitors (but good luck getting an interview with them, no matter how practiced your backwards walking is). This expectation is not only a significant aspect of campus culture, but it’s also central to how we conceptualize, communicate, and create the pressures of student life.

Of course, this culture isn’t all bad. It’s the reason Georgetown’s branch of the NAACP tabled in Red Square in the rain on Tuesday afternoon to advertise their trip to Ferguson, Mo. this coming weekend. It’s also why Georgetown is considered a factory for producing careers in public service.

Competitive applications do have their place, and Hoyas shouldn’t eschew learning to write better cover letters or how to perform better during interviews. Successfully landing a job marks the sort of achievement that will define life after Georgetown. These are valuable skills, and practice makes perfect. And, of course, that says nothing of the numerous campus groups for which resumes and cover letters aren’t required.

But if we’re going to partake in, discuss, and perpetuate these laudable aspects of campus culture, we need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the drawbacks of the climate it creates. Plenty of pundits—most recently, William Dereciewicz in The New Republic and David Brooks in The New York Times—have argued persuasively that today’s colleges fail to live up to their moral mission of helping students “[build] an integrated self.” If Georgetown’s pre-participatory culture suggests anything, it’s that this failure isn’t just the fault of university administration. President DeGioia, Todd Olson, and U.S. News & World Report have no more influence on campus culture than they do on which of us the Corp ends up hiring. The responsibility for addressing this culture—or at least evaluating it judiciously—lies with students.

This campus is already famous for its endemic pre-professionalism, and the word is spreading. Georgetown was recently ranked alongside Yale and the University of Pennsylvania as the best institution to graduate from if you want a job in investment banking. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to claim that this issue singularly—or even disproportionately—affects Georgetown. But at a university circumscribed by slogans such as “cura personalis,” it’s worth asking how we’re impacting the students our credos purport to put first.

So what to do? Closed application cycles and expired polling periods have muted these issues of late—subtly pervasive, rather than overtly rampant. But if you’re feeling down-and-out about extracurriculars (and, more importantly, if you aren’t), remember two things. First, you’re not alone. Second, the place, role, or group on campus you’ll eventually find will empower you to either perpetuate or alleviate the pressures of this culture. But for now, it’s a bit like that old breakup line, only truer: It’s not you, it’s us.


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