Fall semester is in full swing, and with it come the career fairs, involvement fairs and recruitment processes. As I scroll through my email only to be met with countless emails about “exploring internship opportunities” from the Career Center, I can’t help but think about how different my college experience is from how I had always imagined it would be.
I have distinct memories of my dad telling me about his college summers. He would always joke about how he worked at a dog food factory and spent a few lazy summers painting houses. He would say he didn’t decide to be a political science major until his senior year. Influenced by my family, I grew to view the college experience more as a transitory period in life — a period for balancing maturation with intellectual growth rather than an endless job hunt. In my naiveté, I thought that clubs were meant for personal enjoyment, not for bulking up a resume. I thought that these summers that my family always spoke of were for savoring the last years of youth, not skyrocketing directly into the professional world.
However, once I got to USC, I began to understand the reality of attending a top-tier university in the 21st century. One word, one that had rarely been a part of my vocabulary prior to my experience at USC, began coming up more and more frequently in conversation: internships. It wasn’t long until I learned that the recruitment process for some summer internships began all the way in August the year before. Then came spring semester. While I was enjoying my time as an undecided student and taking exploratory courses that I really enjoyed, some of my friends already had internships. During the summer, while I was working at a local pizza shop in my hometown of Seattle, my peers were working as paid interns for Facebook, Amazon and the like. I couldn’t help but think: Am I missing something?
The truth is, I was missing something. My whole definition of college as a time for personal growth and learning was lacking a critical component and was in severe need of an update. The balance between personal and professional growth has become markedly skewed toward the professional end. Today, the workforce is considerably more competitive than it was in my parents’ time. Thus, students need to be increasingly focused on gaining experience. We millennials are growing up in a work-obsessed culture. During my parents’ time, internships were not available or necessary the same way they are now.
As I have grown to understand from my experience thus far at USC, this ideology has penetrated and shaped our higher education system. It is no longer enough just to be involved in a campus organization. In order to truly be taken seriously, students must achieve a position on the executive board. And to gain experience and secure a worthwhile internship, students must already have an impressive resume. To get a steady job, they must ideally already have internship experience.
And experience is important — but not to the point where extracurriculars are taking precedence over one’s school work. You could imagine my shock when my roommate told me about her friend who had to drop a class because rushing for a business fraternity was taking up so much of her time and energy. Or when my friend mentioned that two seniors in his fraternity already had banking jobs lined up after graduation and thus were free to slack off for all of senior year — lucky them! I have to wonder: When did the goal become about monetary success and status rather than intellectual engagement and critical thinking?
What makes this culture all the more frustrating is that it is far more accessible for some students over others. I can’t help but think about those who fall through the cracks somewhere on this high-powered course. For example, an unpaid internship simply isn’t financially possible for a student who needs an income to support their academic career. Paid internships are hard to come by. Many USC students are able to land prestigious internships because they have parents who have connections. How are first-generation or lower-income students supposed to compete with those who already have a foot in the door at competitive internships?
Perhaps my longing for the academic environment my parents spoke of is ridiculous in this day and age. But I do hope that we can at least find a better balance between personal and professional growth here at USC and foster an intellectual environment of equal opportunity for young, ambitious students. While professionalism is increasingly necessary, college should be a time for personal and intellectual growth above all else, and I do hope that the need for an impossible amount of experience doesn’t completely overshadow this notion.
Rekha Olsen is a sophomore majoring in communication. “Trojan Talk” is a guest column about relevant student issues.