Students steered away from public service

From the sounds of it, Harvard’s getting angsty, as are many other big brand schools. The reason for this is that apparently an overly large member of the wide-eyed and idealistic youth passing through their doors are exiting as investment bankers or financial consultants, hugging Wall Street close to their hearts. This is actually similar to the situations in many schools across the nation, including UCLA.

The steady stream flowing into financial careers is diverting the oh-so-bright minds needed for effective public service and turning them into number crunchers – wealthy number crunchers. And while schools with deeper coffers than ours can offer debt forgiveness or extra grants for students who choose to save the world, UCLA, with its already strained budget, has to find something else to offer up as an incentive.

So why are universities worried about this? After all, this just means that many students are leaping from their tasseled hats and black robes into piles of money and stimulating and competitive work that requires intelligence, while adding prestige to their alma maters. As great as this may sound, the theory is that for every kid that gets lured away by the shiny promises of McKinsey, there will be one fewer promising politician, one fewer person who could cure the common cold and one less underpaid, but supposedly very appreciated, public school teacher.

While on the surface this may seem to be the case, the process may not actually work like this. Picking careers is not some sort of strange cosmic distributive negotiation where the loss of one is the automatic gain of another. Maybe Steve Jobs would have been a great teacher, but the very fact that he freely chose to make iPods instead validates his career.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, worried about the constant shuffle away from public service careers toward Wall Street, has started leading seminars at Harvard, Amherst and Colby on the topic of careers.

Most students have no idea what a hedge fund is or what BCG stands for before coming to college, but by the time they reach their third year, most have heard plenty of rumors about the kind of money investment bankers and consultants make right out of college.

Thinking about making a salary of $110,000 a year the minute one steps out of college, with the added prestige of a stable and established job, has the potential to make anyone turn away from their bacteria cultures, forget about whatever happens to be going on that day in the Senate and start spending some serious time on the Merrill Lynch Web site.

Fourth-year business economics student Neeraj Berry is interning at an investment banking firm this summer and expects to make $120,000 as soon as he has his diploma in hand.

“The economy has been terrible for quite a while,” he said, adding that hopefully it will not affect his chosen field.

Ally Benas, another fourth-year business economics student who has an auditing internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers, described the recruiting process.

“If you are applying to work in an office outside of Los Angeles, the firm will fly you out and put you up in a hotel. The firm also usually provides both a pre-interview dinner the night before the interview, as well as a lunch after the interview,” she said. “The whole process is actually pretty fun. I worked for environmental lawyers last summer; I interviewed over the phone and once, half-way through the internship, my boss bought me fish and chips. It was awesome.”

The problem here is not that students are being lured away by all that glitters. Rather, the problem is that often students are confused and really have no idea what career to choose when the time comes to make that decision. A seminar on how to find out what you want to do would be more helpful and more effective than ones on how baby boomers really want us to save the world, whether we like it or not.

Moreover, as difficult as it may sound, we have to look past the dollar value of the jobs we are considering and figure out what would make us happier. UCLA is not going to give out checks to do-gooder grads, but students should not need to be bribed to go into public service.

Somewhere between working 90 hours a week in dubious departments like “transaction service” and saving the world while starving in an apartment where the kitchen has a bathtub lies the answer.

Rashmi Joshi is a columnist for the Daily Bruin at the University of California, Los Angeles, where this column originally ran on June 30.