As I walked into Wu dining hall a few weeks ago, a new poster caught my eye: “Works for Teach for America,” the ad read, “Has never graded a paper.” At first, I was confused as to what the poster was trying to communicate. Was it a stab at Teach for America (TFA), perhaps criticizing certain employees’ lack of prior teaching experience? As I drew closer, I saw that the ad was promoting the “HireTigers Meetup,” an “alternative career fair,” sponsored by the University’s Career Services office. This was not a criticism of TFA—rather, it appeared, the prospect of working for the well-established NGO without spending time in a classroom was meant to spark students’ interest.
The TFA poster was not the only of its kind. Later that afternoon, while passing through Frist Campus Center, a similarly formatted poster grabbed my attention. “Employed at Burger King. Has Never Flipped a Burger,” the ad boasted. As I considered these two posters, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease. The copy struck me as an attempt to appeal to students’ desire to work in large, highly successful corporations and NGOs while remaining comfortably detached from the “dirty work”—i.e. flipping burgers, and working in underfunded schools.
When I asked Eva Kubu, Career Services’ Director of External Relations and Operations, about the TFA and Burger King posters, she informed me that the ads were promoting an alumni panel titled “Expect the Unexpected: Organizations You Know, Positions You May Not Have Considered.” This panel, along with the concurrent “alternative career fair,” aimed to “introduce students to jobs and functions they might not readily associate with an organization.” Kubu, who had worked with a Princeton student to design the ads, told me they aimed to highlight careers “that may not immediately come to mind.” When I expressed my anxieties—that these posters perhaps had elitist overtones— she assured me that this was a “misinterpretation.” The posters may not have intended to insult Burger King’s minimum wage employees. Even so, they used the prospect of never flipping a burger, or never grading a paper, as a means of appealing to Ivy-League undergrads, inadvertently characterizing such jobs as undesirable.
I found I was not alone in my confusion as to just what was being conveyed. “It just seemed like they weren’t doing any work,” said Dierdre Ely ’17, a student in the Woodrow Wilson School. “I didn’t know what they were really trying to say.” Dayton Martindale ’15, had a much stronger reaction. (Martindale is managing editor of this publicaton.) Enraged at what he perceived as overt classism, Martindale took to Facebook to condemn the “posters…which gleefully brag about how our old boys’ network will put us in privileged positions without ever having to do the dirty work, simply by nature of our college pedigree.”
Though the posters themselves were controversial, the panel’s motive—to emphasize less than obvious employment opportunities—marks a progressive shift in Career Services’ vision. In fact, expanding the breadth of students’ career choices is a central objective of HireTigers, a brand-new career search network launched by the office this past summer. The program, which replaced Tiger Tracks, is not merely a re-branding of the older system, but rather aims to accommodate the diverse interests of today’s student demographic. “If you look at this generation of students, they are fragmenting across much more diverse career spaces,” shared Career Services Executive Director, Pulin Sanghvi, in a personal interview. “They have a much greater emphasis on smaller organizations that might not have these large, well-established recruiting processes.” As Princeton students embark on increasingly varied paths, Sanghvi explained, HireTigers hopes to provide a strong network of alumni connections to support their unique goals.
Career Services kicked off this new initiative on September 19th, with their advertised “#Meetup,” in the University Place courtyard. In addition to alumni panels, such as “Expect the Unexpected,” the event featured an outdoor career fair at which students could mingle with representatives ranging from the Green Corps to Frank’s Hot Sauce. Sanghvi felt that the casual, social format of the fair facilitated “organic” connections between students and representatives. He hoped the opportunity to engage in “meaningful conversations” would lead students to job opportunities outside of traditional tracks.
This “organic relationship building” is essentially a networking process. Explaining his vision for HireTigers, he described a scenario in which a student and alum “have coffee, very casually, in their jeans,” while discussing the students interests. In the imaginary situation, the alum then proceeds to introduce the student to more people, thereby growing a “web of connections” through which the student eventually connects with a potential employer. As more and more students pursue careers that do not have clear-cut “tracks,” Sanghvi told me, this process is becoming increasingly central to students’ career searches.
This shift in strategy would greatly benefit students interested in career fields—such as writing and the arts— that do not use organized recruitment processes. In the past, many students hoping to pursue unconventional tracks have felt overlooked by Career Services, at the expense of those entering finance or other business positions. Perhaps addressing this sentiment, Sanghvi emphasized that he wants students to feel “empowered” and supported by the University, regardless of how “far off the beaten track” their dreams might lead them.
Yet Sanghvi’s vision failed to materialize at this particular fair. Despite the balloons and cupcakes, it was a far cry from the “nice day in the sun,” that the director described to me. Most students were dressed in business attire, anxiously making introductions to company representatives. And, as at past fairs, the array of booths was overwhelmingly dominated by corporations and NGOs. The two most prominent tables belonged to investment management companies Prudential and Princo, whose central locations and standing banners were impossible to miss. On the whole, this “Meetup” seemed to convey the same sentiment students have long sensed from Career Services: If you’re not interested in managing money, we can’t help you.
For one sophomore interested in journalism, the spread was particularly disappointing. “When I saw [the Meetup] advertised, I was really excited, because I thought it would be ‘alternative,’ or different from other career fairs. But when I got there I was really disappointed, because all the jobs that were offered were related to computer science, or finance.” The student had hoped to find an outlet for her passion for writing, but was left at a loss. “There were a lot of PR jobs, and I feel like they lump that into one person—like if you’re interested in writing you’ll be a PR person, so there was, like, Burger King. It felt kind of condescending— like because we’re not interested in business, we should be selling hamburgers.”
Perhaps the emphasis on “alternative” in the advertising campaign was misguided. From Career Services’ perspective, the fair was different from previous fairs primarily in terms of its environment, which aspired to be more casual and social than past events in Dillon Gym. Yet many students interpreted “alternative career fair” to mean a fair for “alternative careers;” an opportunity to explore unconventional employment options. These two ideas are by no means unrelated—students interested in entering fields with no established recruitment system must rely more heavily on networking than others. Bringing in representatives from “alternative careers,” however, was not Career Services’ primary aim. Additionally, many arts and writing nonprofits simply do not have the funds to bring representatives to campus—an unfortunate fact that cannot be attributed to any fault of Career Services. Even so, the fair sent a discouraging message to many students who did not see their interests reflected in the spread of corporations and PR firms. “As a comp lit major, I didn’t feel welcome,” the anonymous sophomore told me.
Over the years, Princeton has earned a reputation for sending students into high-profile finance jobs, and other highly lucrative corporate positions. Yet today’s students are an increasingly diverse group, whose dreams extend far beyond Wall Street. So why does our Career Services office continue to usher students into business? Underlying this dynamic seems to be an assumption, on the part of Career Services, that Princeton students are unanimously willing to measure professional success by financial gain. Career Services’ posters make precisely this same assumption, baiting students with the promise of elite management positions and overlooking the fact that for many students—not the least those in Princeton’s Teacher Preparatory Program—this message is perhaps insulting. While humanities majors are welcome in lucrative, tracked careers such as public relations, they may not be ready to sacrifice dreams quite yet.