By the time I was a junior, I was told I had to start thinking about college and beyond, which in retrospect is really an impossible task. To ask a 16-year-old child from a disadvantaged background what he wants to be when he grows up could elicit a variety of answers, many of which are likely to revolve around vague concepts like having fun, making money, accumulating power, or the like.
When I started my own college search, CMC fitted across my radar due to its economics program and extremely rich alumni network. The thoughts of sports cars and nice houses was becoming more attractive; by my senior year of high school, reading over the local news had become troublesome: an old basketball teammate had been convicted of a triple homicide, friends were dropping out of high school. I have always been blessed with a middle-class family, a stable household, and parents who pushed me towards higher education and beyond. I never even really considered that my experiences within my own community were indicators of a problem that I had yet to fully comprehend.
My first introduction to CMC was the Wilderness Outdoor Adventure (WOA) trip. The experience was and still is a defining time in my CMC experience. All three WOA leaders, who are also expected to act as mentors, had either already taken or were planning on taking jobs in consulting and finance after college. At the time, this was awesome. I was already building a network to go out and make money as soon as I graduated. And the culture on campus perpetuated my first impression of the college. With the focus on career services, as well as the fact that 60 percent of the class of 2014 went into either accounting, finance, consulting, investment banking or business, as compared to just 9 percent that went into government or public policy, we CMC students are not really given other options.
Maybe it’s part of maturing or all the economics classes made it finally sink in, but at some point during my time here at the Claremont Colleges, I found myself questioning the value of our institutions. Obviously, there is a very important place in society for higher education and for a knowledgeable population. But at the same time, the value of a college degree outside of simple earnings potential became quite abstract in my mind.
To translate this problem into simple economic terms, my time at CMC has endowed me with a fair amount of human capital. In highly developed countries, human capital is necessary to be a part of the labor market, because for the most part the dominant industries demand this type of capital. When searching for jobs, having a college degree—especially from a liberal arts college—is quite useful. But even now I still don’t feel prepared to enter this job hunt. I have been left questioning the actual point of the knowledge that has been passed down to me. What if the institutions which we depend on break down? What actual skills do I have beyond my degree? Do those translate into abilities beyond the workplace?
CMC creates such a focus on earnings, on alumni donations, and the prestige of a job title, which can lead us to forget that a larger society exists. Given the institutions we attend, there are many jobs that we will be overqualified for. But that does not mean we are unable to care about those who cannot attend these institutions as well. CMC can and should do more to help the local community and the communities of support staff on campus have access to the colleges and the intellectual capital they develop.
What I’ve come to realize is that I made a choice when I came to college. The fact that I had a choice is a blessing. I chose to go to a school that would exercise my mind more than my hands or my ability on a manufacturing line. And I had that choice. But the question now becomes what I do with my next choice. The concept of paying it forward is one that has come up in conversation, but it’s one that I think college students need to be reminded of. It doesn’t take much to change someone’s life, and it doesn’t take much to be willing to mentor and look after a young student in the local community.
We have been given an immense blessing with our acceptances into these elite colleges, but without any desire to pass on the knowledge and experiences that we have had here, the value of our education decreases. This is not to say that the value ever disappears, but we do have a social duty to the rest of society to see what’s happening and to give as much as we can, more in terms of our time and effort to really try and sincerely help those who are less fortunate.
We sit at a crossroads, both in our lives and at a time where there has been a major disruption in society. We need to take the time to reflect on what we are doing, and what it means for society. At a place where even before I stood on campus I knew that the motto meant that the school pushed people towards profitable jobs, we need to decide if this is the culture we want to perpetuate. Because at the end of the day, if the system breaks, what sort of society and country do we want to live in? What sort of people do we want to be? There are many ways to try and solve the problems that plague this earth. I may never agree with everyone about that, but what is important is that we push ourselves to solve these problems, not simply ignore them and move on. That’s not what educated leaders do. And it’s not what we should ever stand for.
J. Camilo Vilaseca CMC '16 is from Berkeley, CA and is an International Relations and Economics major.