phi beta kappa key pin

The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

phi beta kappa key pin

I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Advertisements

A look back

Tonight I stumbled across a New York Times story about the increasing competitiveness of college admissions. Universities such as Tulane, UCLA and Georgetown saw record applicants, tens of thousands of them, for so few spots that they began to wonder whether having so many applicants to choose from was a blessing or a curse.

Accompanying the article was a blog post on how high school seniors should prepare for interviews with admissions departments and alumni at the schools to which they’ve applied.

These two pieces got me thinking about my own college application experience. I struggle to remember specific details of the process–it was only five years ago, yet the whole thing is just a blur of stress, confusion and raging emotion–but I soon realized two things. One was that if college admissions continue to increase in competitiveness, Stanford and Harvard will soon be home to young cyborgs, underrepresented minorities and not much else. (OK, I kid.)

The other was that in 2005, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was apparently grossly underprepared to apply for and interview at some of the more competitive schools I’d set my sights on.

The one specific admissions-era memory I have is an interview I took at Whitman College. I remember staring out the window of the admissions dean’s office, in awe of the fall colors in the trees. I remember stumbling over my words overeagerly as I tried to explain to her what a passionate and well-rounded person I was, struggling to stay on topic and wondering how long my diatribe should last. Most of all, I remember how young, naive, unprofessional and unintelligent I felt sitting in that antique chair, facing the woman in the cashmere sweater and the window with a view of the fall leaves and the main quad, where far superior people (or so I imagined) walked along the pathways.

In the New York Times post, the author advises prospective students to dress in business casual attire; I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.  In the comments section, a schoolteacher advises students to bring a resume with them to interviews; at 17, I had no such thing.

David Kogler, a college admissions officer, said, “I’m surprised at the number of students who can’t easily articulate why they drove six hours to visit our campus”  and how they’d take advantage of their time there should they be accepted.

I’m not. Most of these teenagers haven’t taken speech and communications classes, haven’t experienced professional job interviews (minimum-wage retail and food service jobs don’t count) and haven’t yet figured out their identities or future goals. How can they be expected to talk about their ambitions with certainty when they haven’t yet entered the stage in their lives where they actually start discovering those ambitions?

On that fall afternoon at Whitman College five years ago, I had no idea where I was headed. Vague ideas of art history classes, stacks of classical Greek literature and busy choir schedules floated through my head. If the admissions officer was looking for someone who was certain, focused and as articulate as a college graduate, she certainly didn’t get it–and why should she? It should be high school seniors’ enthusiasm, passion and curiosity that gets them into their colleges of choice. They shouldn’t worry about getting a polished business-casual wardrobe and credentials that are perfectly in order until they’ve lived a little.

Though applications have only continued to increase since 2005–and even then, college admissions were more competitive than ever–high school seniors shouldn’t have to put on a show in which they become someone else entirely when they interview at colleges. If they do, my cyborg theory may actually become reality.

(Oh, and in case you wondered…I was waitlisted and then invited to join Whitman College’s class of 2010 on the condition that I start in the spring. I declined and went to the University of Oregon in September. I’ve never regretted it.)