Yuan: Dreaming or Settling?

by Ziqin Yuan | 8/14/17 12:10am

This article was featured in the 2017 Freshman Issue.

The summer between high school and college, I dreamed of studying neuroscience and becoming a doctor. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life except make a positive impact in other people’s lives, and I thought that medicine was the most surefire — and predictable — way to do so.

I took Honors Chemistry my freshman fall and thought the skills that got me through a competitive public high school would also get me through college. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite translate, and on my first midterm I got the lowest score in the class. Though I ended the class with a decent grade, this unexpected taste of failure so early on in my college career gave me my first taste of true fear that I wouldn’t be able to complete my carefully laid track.

I became a Government major my freshman spring, switching out of the pre-med track and leaving the security it brought. In the pre-med track, you take specified classes to get to one end goal, medical school, after which you can start saving lives. As a Government major, I still wanted to do good, but I now had to create my own path to do so. I set my sights on getting a good job.

This end goal, a “good job,” became increasingly important to me as college progressed. It also became increasingly vague. As sophomore summer came and went, it was no longer just a job that would help me help others — it also had to be a job that paid well. As junior year passed, it also had to be a job at a brand-name company, because what was the point of getting a job if nobody knew where you worked?

I had spent an incredible amount of time and energy my sophomore year looking for an internship, and by the time I was looking for junior summer internships, I was not just overwhelmed but also drained. When I received an offer from a respected company, I jumped on it. It was the first and only company I had applied for at the time, and I was so relieved to have a summer prospect that I didn’t care about the job description.

Nine weeks into my internship, I realized that while I loved my coworkers, I didn’t ultimately love the work I was doing. As I found myself imagining what it would be like to stay in this role after college, all I could think about was how much time it would take before I could transfer. But talking to full-time workers helped me realize how increasingly difficult it is to move once you’ve settled. Fortunately, internships end and allow you to decide whether to stay or to leave. After entering a company, doing your best to learn the job and mesh with the people, you hopefully come out with a better sense of the person you want to become.

Dartmouth can breed a culture of settling. While on campus, we might not see it — everyone knows someone at a Fortune 500 company or a top graduate school, and just about everyone is working incredibly hard for their future. But as I made my way through I realized I was starting to settle for the Dartmouth dream, not my own dream. This school is built on close-knit communities of ambitious students, but it can also make it easy to conform to what everyone else is doing. As the terms went by, the path of least resistance was to follow the track Dartmouth provided for me, not to pave a path I genuinely wanted to go down.

The Dartmouth track emphasizes job security, whether that be securing placement at a top school or getting an offer from a top company. Its appeal lies in its safety and prestige — you may not be doing what you really want to do, but at least you’re proud to put it on your LinkedIn. The rationale is that you’ll work there while searching for something better, which can work. But seeing people who had been working for years, unsatisfied with their job but afraid to lose the security it brings, made me realize that now — while we’re young, skilled and generally free of dependents — is the time to make those difficult decisions.

I understand that the luxury to take risks is not something that everyone can afford. But to everyone with the privilege of being able to do so, the best way to not settle for a safe but ultimately unsatisfying option is to eliminate that option to begin with, to pull out the safety net from under. The right amount of fear in the right direction can be necessary to push you toward what you really want — not what you think is easy to achieve.