Each fall at Swarthmore, on the Sunday night before classes begin, students gather on Parrish Beach to watch “The Graduate.” The ’60s classic stars Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a freshly minted graduate of an unnamed college in the Northeast, and begins at his graduation party. His parents and their friends congratulate him and, of course, ask him about his plans for the future. Benjamin spends the rest of his summer floating in his parents’ pool, having sex with one of his parents’ friends, and failing to form any concrete plans for his future, accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack.
The theatrical release poster for “The Graduate” features Mrs. Robinson’s half-stockinged leg draped alluringly — if you’re into that — over the edge of a bathtub, with Hoffman in the background, and the text, “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.” Watching the movie to kick off the beginning of the school year has always seemed to me like a quintessentially Swarthmorean tradition: deeply ironic and a little morbid.
On the one hand, it’s more than slightly ridiculous for a group of people who will earn diplomas from one of the most consistently highly-ranked colleges with some of the toughest admissions in the country, diplomas which are thus incredibly valuable, to be even a little bit worried about their futures. Back in 2012, the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute described the job market for college graduates in May 2012 as “grim.” The unemployment rates for recent grads skyrocketed to nearly 10 percent, and the number of grads performing jobs for which they were overqualified jumped to almost 20 percent. But between 2008 and 2012, Swarthmore consistently overachieved. An average of 61 percent of the graduating classes found employment and an average of 21 percent matriculated to graduate school — the rest reported travel or “other.” The Swat bubble of prestige and alumni connections protects us, even when we leave.
On the other hand, for those of us who’ve ever identified with Braddock in the adrift-in-a-swimming-pool, aimless-about-the-future sense — not the having-sex-with-Mrs. Robinson-sense, but if that’s you, no judgment — starting out the year by watching “The Graduate” can feel charged with pathos. For me, “The Graduate” — and all of my parents’ friends’ inquiries that make me want to don a deep-sea-diver suit before going home — seems like it’s getting at a deeper set of questions. It’s not just “What job will you have?” but “What do you actually want to do? What will make you happy? What life can you see yourself living?” We are certainly incredibly privileged to be able to consider these questions, but they can still keep us up at night.
Life at Swarthmore begins gently, with a pass-fail semester encouraging us to relax, to live a life of the mind, to transcend petty competition and learn for learning’s sake. This non-competitive atmosphere sets or at least influences the tone of the remainder of our three and a half years here. Certainly, our mailboxes are still stuffed with promotional Career Services material, our Facebook feeds with news of classmates and alumni gaining admission to graduate school or finding employment, our Instagrams with stylized snaps of this or that externship. But we are — thankfully, in my mind — not exactly a pre-professional factory, like some other prestigious eastern seaboard colleges which shall not be named.
It’s easy enough, caught up as most of us are in engaging classes, extracurriculars, and friendships, to spend your time thinking about that interesting conversation you just had in your honors seminar, rather than only and always what you’ll be doing with your future. I personally can never quite wrap my head around the idea that some hot May day, I’ll cross the stage in the amphitheater, receive my diploma from whichever president has managed to hang on, and have to actually leave. It’s both unattractive and deeply unimaginable; so far I’ve been avoiding the problem, and, as my classmates and friends rack up research grants, score fellowships, and land internships and jobs left and right, I have returned to work at my childhood summer camp and refused to apply to anything more substantial or to acknowledge my eventual matriculation.
With six weeks of classes left for seniors, though, it’s crunch time. Some of them know exactly what they want — it just might be a bit difficult to get there. Some have absolutely no idea. And then there are some who are caught in the middle. Nearing graduation, they’re both terrified and thrilled, and in their stories, just as in “The Graduate,” we can find some universal fears and hopes.
Since he was about ten years old, Jameson Lisak ’15 knew that he wanted to be an actor when he grew up. His first acting opportunity came when he stumbled across an advertisement in a local paper for a community theater show — a musical, actually — near his home in western Pennsylvania.
“From that first show, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is the best thing ever,’” Lisak recalled. It took a few years for Lisak to realize that acting was what he felt he needed to do with his life, he explained, but he loved theater immediately. “The more and more I did, I realized that this is a career I could really see myself pursuing throughout my whole life,” he said. At college, as Lisak began studying theater more in-depth, digging into the theory, he grew even more convinced that he wanted to pursue a career in acting. Here at Swarthmore, he is a double major in political science and theater, but the former is merely a hobby degree. “Theater is the serious career degree,” Lisak said.
Lisak is hardly short on passion. I sensed that when I asked him what he loves about theater, he could have kept talking for hours. Theater seems as though it has shaped much of his life and his self-conception — he called it a bit of a cliché, but he explained that he was shy as a child and that theater was the place where he could truly open up and feel comfortable. Beyond this personal attachment, Lisak explained that he felt deeply attracted to the idea of his work never feeling stagnant, of a new show always presenting challenges to be overcome and then giving way to a subsequent production.
Hard work is hardly the issue in Lisak’s way — this semester, for example, he spent at least 22 hours a week in rehearsal for a show. Instead, as he auditions for professional shows this fall, mostly in the Philadelphia area, he sees himself at something of a disadvantage against students from conservatory programs.
“It’s absolutely terrifying,” Lisak said. Majoring in theater at a liberal arts college rather than in a conservatory program does not exactly make sense, he explained. While the Swarthmore theater department is strong and certainly has connections, they are not quite at the same level as those of conservatory programs. One of Lisak’s good friends at Julliard, for example, was recently booked for a pilot episode of a television show — and will be compensated with $250,000 for just two weeks of shooting.
“He just got it, just like that — it’s so simple,” Lisak said. “When I compare myself to that … a lack of a conservatory program just makes me more concerned about my chances in Philadelphia.” Though Philadelphia’s theater scene is not quite as cutthroat as, for example, New York’s, it is still highly competitive, full of actors, many recent graduates of conservatories, competing for a limited number of spots.
But Lisak remains optimistic. “This is something I’ve been mentally preparing myself for for almost ten years,” he said. “I’ve always known that this is going to be the struggle I’m going to face, and it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be terrifying — but even in that terror, there’s still that excitement that I’m finally getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Ian Hoffman ’15 is a bit closer to Benjamin Braddock than Lisak. In other words, he basically has no idea what he wants to do with his future. “I have a few different things that might be happening, all of them probably not, but you never know,” he said, laughing.
Before coming to Swarthmore, Hoffman hoped to become a creative writer. He’s certainly followed this goal to a certain at the extent at college, where he’s studying English, and applied and was accepted to the introductory and the advanced poetry workshops. At the end of his junior year, Hoffman won the Lois Morrell Prize, an annual English department contest which awards $500 to support students writing poetry throughout the summer. But Hoffman has mostly relinquished this goal: “I’ve felt that’s less and less practical — I’m not great at it and it’s really hard even if you are great at it,” Hoffman said. (For the record, Hoffman’s poems — which are usually characterized by economy of emotion and word and yet are also deeply evocative — are pretty damn good.) “I’m not counting on it. I’d like to have a job.”
Does he have a dream job now? “No, not really — I’m kind of just experimenting at this point,” Hoffman said. Several options are up in the air. Hoffman and his family recently became German citizens via a repatriation act, by which if one’s ancestors were exiled for political reasons, one can prove descent and then become a citizen of the European Union. Hoffman can thus go somewhere in Germany, or really anywhere in Europe. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t speak any German, so his applications to jobs in Berlin, where he would like to travel, have been fruitless so far — “Everyone’s like, ‘I don’t want a worker who doesn’t speak any German,’” Hoffman laughed.
Hoffman is also considering moving back home to Berkeley, and commuting to San Francisco, where he could work at a Jewish newspaper his family has connections to. He also might apply for an unpaid non-profit. This job, however, would only be twenty hours a week, so Hoffman would pick up another job as well, probably in the food-service industry, he said.
Additionally, Hoffman is in contact with a Swarthmore alum who works at a talent agency in Los Angeles. “He said if I took the plunge and committed to moving there I’d find a job, which is kind of terrifying because he didn’t actually promise to hire me,” Hoffman said. Like Hoffman’s other options, this one is both fairly unformed and not particularly appealing, either. He is also applying to magazines everywhere from London to Singapore. “I could be anywhere in the world, or I could just be at home … you know, I probably won’t get any of these positions, so yeah, that’s kind of what’s on my plate,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman might be somewhat aimless, but he’s also fairly unconcerned. Graduate school might be a possibility, but not yet, he says. “I just kind of want to live for at least a year, hopefully longer, on my own — if it has to be at home, at least doing something interesting, but have that independence, and then see, then re-assess,” Hoffman said.
Is he scared or excited for the future, or both?
“I’d be much less scared if I had a job,” Hoffman said, laughing again. “I’m also questioning — is it independence if I have no money and am living at home? So because of that, I’m definitely hesitant, and I see my friends getting really cool jobs … some of them are selling their souls and some of them have backing from rich people and some of them are doing nothing, and that’s cool, and I’m supportive of all of them, but I do feel like I just really wish I knew what I was doing. I don’t want to settle. I want to find something that I’m really interested in and excited about.”
Despite this uncertainty, Hoffman is fairly sure that he’ll find this something and that things will come together, he said. He is working with Career Services and feels as though it’s been helpful. “I feel like I’m finally getting some pretty good advice, even if it is kind of careerist-y,” Hoffman said. “She’ll tell me, ‘Don’t write this in your cover letter, it’s too joke-y,’ but everyone knows it’s all a joke already … but I’m going to roll with it, because I’m not sure what else to do. I could run away and join a hippie commune, but I don’t really think that’s going to happen.”
“I think I am going to get something, hopefully,” Hoffman concluded. “I’m optimistic for sure.”
Alice ’15 — she asked to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become clear — falls somewhere in between Lisak and Hoffman in terms of her attitude towards the future.
Alice has always been a serious student. She graduated at the top of her class from a small, rigorous private school in an urban center of the Midwest, where she took as many AP classes as she could, captained a sports team, and participated in a range of other extracurriculars. As she considered colleges, Alice was drawn to Swarthmore’s academic rigor, but also to what she described as a “work-hard, play-hard mentality” that she saw at work when she visited the school.
Like many Swarthmore students, Alice has always set high academic standards for herself, and these stayed with her from high school into college. “There have been classes in which I haven’t been able to do all of the reading, but I don’t like that fact, and would have preferred to have been able to do all of the work,” she said. “But to have a balanced lifestyle at Swarthmore, I don’t think it’s always possible to do that.”
Still, this semester, Alice has done most, if not all, of her reading for all of her classes. “That’s important to me to at least strive for,” she said. A senior spring mentality of coasting through final diploma requirements doesn’t seem present.
Alice is also heavily involved on campus — she captains a club sports team, which she’s been a member of for four years, holds down two campus jobs in addition to the full-time commitment of serving as an RA, and attends regular meetings of four other clubs. Basically, Alice is smart, well-rounded, driven, deeply involved in the Swarthmore community and organized — the kind of person who seems as though they’ve got it all together. Shockingly, she isn’t quite sure about next year.
Originally, Alice had her sights set on the Watson Fellowship, a competitive grant which awards graduating seniors around $30,000 to pursue a year of independent study somewhere outside of the United States. Unfortunately, she did not make it past the Swarthmore interview stage. “After that, I was just like, ‘Well, fuck, now what?’” From midway through junior year until this fall, Alice had been focusing nearly all of her energy on preparing her Watson application. “After that I sort of had to do a lot of re-evaluating about what my next steps were,” Alice explained.
Alice has spent most of her summers as a camp counselor, and, as a psychology major, thinks that the most logical path for her is to work with children in a clinical context. She’s uncertain, however, what that will look like, or what population of children she’d like to work with; she is experienced with kids with various disabilities, largely autism, but also with children with histories of trauma and abuse, and says she has enjoyed working with both of these groups.
“My job search so far has just been a lot of applying to random shit,” Alice summarized. She hopes to eventually attend graduate school for psychology and thus has been applying to any and all research assistant positions which come her way in order to strengthen her eventual application. Graduate programs for psychology tend to expect applicants to have this type of research experience, making these coveted positions. Alice has not yet heard back about any of her applications.
Additionally, over spring break, Alice interviewed at two schools — one charter school, where several employees are recent Swarthmore graduates, and a school for children with autism where fellow counselors at Alice’s camp are also employed. The charter school offered Alice a job, and at the other school, Alice had what she described as an extremely positive interview.
But none of these options — research assistant or teacher — feel exactly right to Alice. “None of these jobs are really what I want to do with my life — as in, ‘It’s perfect, it fits,’” she said. “They all have a lot of downsides to them — if you asked me, ‘Do you just want to do this?’ My answer would probably be ‘no’ to all of them. But I also want to be working next year and I have yet to find a thing that I really know I want to do.”
I wondered if this was in part due to nearly a year of focusing on the Watson. Alice didn’t think so: “I was very focused on it, and very focused on the application, but the reality of spending a year traveling the world — I could’ve done it, but part of me was also relieved that I didn’t have to,” she said. “I would say that the Watson was the most attractive of the options that I’ve had, but even that had parts of it where I had a hard time seeing how I would be living that life next year. I feel the same way about all of the other things that I’ve applied to.”
Alice hopes to have a life outside of her eventual job as well, and is both excited and concerned about this prospect.
“It’s really important to me that I can go home at the end of the day and not do work, because all I’ve done my entire life has been 24/7 jobs,” Alice said. Between her three jobs at Swarthmore and working as a residential camp counselor, Alice has never had a life where she could go home and “not have something hanging over me.” She’s excited to have this kind of job — and she’s also worried that she will not have the time to do the things outside of work which she so desperately wants to do.
“It takes time to cultivate friendships outside of a job, and I need to be able to go to sports practices and go to swing dances in whatever city I end up in, to get out there,” she said. “But you know, if I’m working myself to the bone, how am I going to do that? Since high school I’ve always done a thousand different things outside of schoolwork, and that’s just how I like to live my life. And I think that gets more difficult when you’re in the real world, where those things cost money, you don’t have as much time to do them, and it takes time to get there — they’re not all in one concentrated campus, you have to drive 40 minutes across the city to get places. So I know my lifestyle of just doing a thousand random things is going to have to change, and that’s…” Alice trailed off. “I don’t like quitting things, and it sort of feels like quitting.”
Just five days after she graduated from Yale in May of 2012, a woman named Marina Keegan died in a car accident. In an essay entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” composed shortly before her death for the Yale Daily News’ special commencement edition, Keegan wrote, “We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lie alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out — that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
“When we came to Yale, there was this sense of possibility. This immense and indefinable potential energy — and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away. We never had to choose and suddenly we’ve had to … What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over … [T]he notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”