The Missing Link

Oct. 24, 2013, 10:04 p.m.

What matters to you and why? This is our newest admissions question, the gatekeeper to Stanford’s privileged world and a testament to this institution’s desire to attract and support motivated students who posses sincere passions.

Presumably, successful answers involve stories of personal discovery, empathy for others, care about a specific challenge and how that individual has or plans to solve it.

What really does matter to us, current Stanford students? The Pew Research Center’s survey of the millennial generation demonstrated that we care about social impact, in some form or another.

Fifty-seven percent of 18-29 year olds have volunteered in the last 12 months. Twenty-one percent say “helping other people who are in need” is one of the most important things in their lives, and 60 percent say it is among the most important. Sixty-six percent say it is likely that they will switch careers sometime in their work lives. Fifteen percent prioritize having a high-paying career.

Regardless of what we say matters to us, whether in a Stanford application or a research study, ultimately our job placements are not aligning with our stated priorities. A recent article by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller noted this phenomenon and reiterated statistics to this end, most notably at Princeton where 46 percent of their 2006 graduating class entered jobs in financial services.

I am, of course, not the first to be asking the question of why there exists such a drastic disconnect between millennials who want to create positive impact in their careers and the organizations that severely need their talent to successfully create change; nor is this a question that is constricted to just one institution.

In February 2012, professor Robert Reich posted a question on Facebook to Stanford students and recent grads: “Why do so many students enter finance or management consulting?” The responding 58 comments highlighted that this was a heated debate with many opinions and little supporting research to back it up or provide answers, and there was confusion as to how earnest students could sincerely pursue work in a sector that created social impact.

That is why Stanford alumni Jonny Dorsey and Fagan Harris founded the Impact Careers Initiative (ICI) at the Aspen Institute in June 2012. It was clear that both the desire of young people to serve and the need of organizations for their talents are high … but where is the connection?

Today, it does not exist. Want to be an investment banker? A consultant? There is a pathway you can follow. I believe that if that is what you want to do, you should act on that desire. But if it isn’t, prepare yourself.

Getting a social impact career is a hard fight. Just a few barriers noted by the ICI research are the fact that visualizing a social impact career path is difficult because we lack archetypes, on-campus recruiting is almost nonexistent and respect for social impact jobs is far below those in the private sector. Bottom line? The connection is not there and finding a meaningful job opportunity will be an uphill battle.

This is why I took issue with Kevin Carey’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I agree that when freshmen arrive at Stanford and sit in the Main Quad listening to praising convocation speeches, they do not deserve to be here.

Carey cleverly reminded us that the word deserve derives from the Latin “de,” which translates to “completely” and “servire,” which translates to “to serve”, and they have not yet served adequately to be honored with the use of that word.

But are they being given the chance to? When they leave Palm Drive after graduation to begin their first job, have they been supported adequately to fulfill whatever passion they said mattered to them on their Stanford application essay?

I think my opinion on this question is clear: They are not… yet.

We have an exciting opportunity right now — Farouk Dey of the Career Development Center and Tom Schnaubelt of the Haas Center understand this challenge and want to build a successful connector between Stanford’s talent and jobs of positive social impact.

Over the past two weeks, 74 students attended three lunch discussions on social impact careers to design the ideal process for finding the jobs they seek.

President Hennessy’s column in the most recent issue of the Stanford Magazine, “Doing Well by Going Good,” is another testament to the fact that supporting students’ energies to create positive impact is a current priority.

By the time I graduate in June of 2015, I am excited to be one of a significant percentage of my classmates heading to jobs that will empower us to connect our interests and talents to creating positive social impact in the world.

We will be able to look back on our “What Matters Most” essay, and instead of being unrecognizable with our current passions and aims, the two will match. And when we return to campus for reunions, we will be able to feel that we do, in fact, deserve to be here.

Contact Elizabeth Woodson at ewoodson ‘at’ stanford.edu

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