The Pursuit of Passion is a Privilege

Who knew that beekeeping could count as a Common App-worthy extracurricular activity? I certainly didn’t. Beekeeping had never crossed my mind as a feasible passion for a high school student to pursue—that is, until I arrived at Pomona College and President David Oxtoby, in one of his orientation speeches, publicly extolled the anonymous beekeeping member of the Class of 2019 for “doing what they love.”

“Do what you love.” The unofficial work mantra of the twenty-first century. Today, prestigious institutions, including colleges and firms, place increasing emphasis on not only competence, but passion. Productivity websites, advice columns, and professional magazines laud “following your passion” as a key determinant of career success, a way to stand out amidst a pool of already competent job-seeking candidates.

Applicants then strive to demonstrate passion through participation in extracurricular activities—like beekeeping. They understand that colleges and firms recruit the student who can manage a thriving beekeeping business while simultaneously maintaining a stellar academic record.

But who can enter these pursuits of passion? Jovani Azpeitia PO ’19, a Quest Scholar, has been playing the bass clarinet for eight years and qualified for All-State Band as well as State Solo/Ensemble during his high school musical career. As a junior, Jovani considered joining the Seattle Youth Symphony, a prestigious youth music organization with an annual participation fee greater than $1,000. Jovani admits that for low-income students like himself, advice to follow their passions outside the classroom presents limitations—particularly, insurmountable financial obstacles. Even private lessons required expensive fees he could not afford. Jovani’s story, among others, thus reveals that passion—be it in the form of volunteering at a third world country, going on missionary trips, or engaging in club activities—is less accessible to low-income students.

Miya Tokumitsu, after studying the importance of passion in American work culture, asserts that such a mantra “is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.” She further elaborates that this way of thinking promotes labor as “something one does not for compensation, but as an act of self-love.” It makes sense, then, that those who can rely on larger safety nets in pursuing careers for the sake of self-love tend to belong to the upper middle class.

A recently released book called “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs” traces the disadvantages of low-income students when applying for colleges, and ultimately, jobs. Lauren Rivera, the author, argues that working class kids end up with working class jobs, because they study too hard: They were less likely to participate in the structured extracurricular activities that their upper-middle-class counterparts could afford to partake in. This tendency, in turn, hurts their chances in elite college admissions processes such as those of the Claremont Colleges, which embrace the holistic approach to viewing applications—where the depth and breadth of extracurricular activities that demonstrate “passion” contribute to the resulting admissions decision.

Consequently, working class students’ chances for elite jobs decrease, especially since employers at elite firms tend to hail from elite colleges themselves and turn to elite colleges for talented employees through alumni and legacy networks. Hence, working class students who attend lower-ranked universities go unheeded, their talents overlooked.

For those of us who possess the privilege to pursue our passions, it is even more imperative that we seize the opportunities that enable us to do what we love. And we must do so fearlessly, for we have the sufficient safety net to be able to take risks, delve into discomfort and explore alternatives. But most importantly, we must work to extend our privilege to those who don’t have it, because the world benefits from the daring pursuits of all.

Justina Wu PO ’19 hails from Bellevue, WA and intends to major in Public Policy Analysis and Sociology.

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