DG Roundtable: What is “Success”?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This is the first in a series of ‘roundtable’ discussions by the Daily Gazette Editorial Board. We use the messaging application ‘Slack’, inspired by Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight blog. Every week, we aim to hold discussions over issues pertinent to the Swarthmore community. This week, we discuss the definition of success at Swarthmore. For the next roundtable, we welcome members of the Swarthmore community to join in the discussion. If you are interested, please email editors@daily.swarthmore.edu.

isaaclee94 (Isaac Lee, Assistant Opinions Editor) I think many swatties are wary, if not afraid, of conventional definitions of success. Isabel’s article last year on our disdain for professionalism attests to such a mindset.

avishwanath (Arjun Vishwanath, Opinions Editor) I would say disdain more than wariness or fear. During my freshman year, I did a winter externship through Swarthmore with a small consulting firm. When I came back from break and was talking about it at sharples, another student was questioning why I did it, more or less telling me that it was “evil” (he did academic research over break). That’s a moment I haven’t forgotten – it’s one moment, but I’ve seen similar reactions before.

avishwanath However, I do agree with you when you mention wariness and fear, but I think that comes largely from fearing the disdain of others. I know of seniors who don’t want to mention they are applying to jobs with certain employers because of the reactions they would get, or others who simply want to avoid such jobs altogether so that they are not corporate sellouts.

isaaclee94 The growing popularity of tech as a career is one way for swatties to get into a lucrative career without appearing to “sell out”, even if the companies they aspire to be in are worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

avishwanath That’s definitely true – a lot of CS majors go to companies like Google, Amazon, Yahoo, etc. I think there is a disdain for finance as a general field as something which has no social value (without necessarily breaking it up into different sectors, like private equity vs. proprietary trading vs. investment banking).

isaaclee94 So are swatties against profit in general? Some swatties declare that they want to join a non-profit, like a badge of honour.

avishwanath Possibly, but that wouldn’t explain the tech companies. I want to explore this distinction you made about tech companies a little more. I think it’s for two related reasons: 1. Tech companies are “cool” and more “disruptive” (although as we’ve seen with Uber, the latter isn’t necessarily viewed positively) 2. Tech companies are perceived to be for-profit companies that have social value. Google and Apple make products that people like in their everyday lives. Of course, so do companies like General Mills or Gillette, and given that consulting companies are trying to help these companies, it might be consistent to support them as well. But I imagine it has to do with these companies aiding and abetting capitalism.

anniet (Annie Tvetenstrand, Co-Editor-in-Chief) I feel like we’re making a lot of sweeping assumptions about Swatties and their views on capitalism/consulting

anniet The fact is a lot of Swatties ​*do*​ go into consulting (myself included)

avishwanath Oh I’m not trying to say this is true of all Swatties. I think a number of Swatties believe this, but more importantly I think people believe that ​*most*​ Swatties believe it.

avishwanath And Annie – of course a number of Swatties go into consulting, there’s a good chance I will as well. I know most of the people who are applying to these jobs right now, and there is a sizeable component. But I think that they are doing it while being aware that there is a significant anti-corporate belief at Swat.

isabelknight (Isabel Knight, Managing Editor) Also what’s interesting is the disconnect between attitudes among the student body and attitudes among the administration. I think the administration would very much like to cultivate a student culture that is not anti-corporate, in part because obviously they know what careers will bring the most donations, but also because Admissions wants to attract students who are asking questions about how much a college education can provide them with security. Plus, admissions is also marketing to parents who don’t necessarily share in the idealistic impressions of “changing the world” that their kids do. In my experience having been a tour guide and admissions fellow, parents seem as if they are definitely concerned about what kind of education their kids are getting, but a lot of the time, the second question they ask is “will my child be able to get a job?” or some veiled version of that.

isaaclee94 I’d say our job prospects are good, but it really will have to depend on the student and their choices in college and if they want to grasp opportunities on the way.

allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar, Co-Editor in Chief) I think we’re talking about a very specific subset of students: what about low-income students whose main goal is supporting themselves after college, and not the moral impact of their job? Not to say that low-income students don’t have moral concerns, but that a less privileged background often means you have to make more compromises.

allisonhrabar When I think about a disdain for success, I think about my own hatred for defining success in terms of the size of your paycheck. Why do we view more “lucrative” careers like tech as more inherently successful than, say, being a librarian or public school teacher?

avishwanath Allison – that’s a totally fair point, but I think the term “successful” here is really being used as a proxy for going into relatively lucrative private sector work. So you’re right to say that those professions aren’t unsuccessful, I just think we’re arguing about it in it’s more financially understood sense.

allisonhrabar Yeah, I can see. I’m just a little surprised that was the first place we went, because when I suggested this topic I specifically wanted to get away from that idea.

avishwanath But Swatties don’t disdain your definition of success, and so there isn’t much of a debate there.

allisonhrabar To clarify, what do you think my definition of success is?

isaaclee94 Most fields and careers are seen in a positive light here, even if they do not bring in large financial rewards. This contrasts with schools such as UPenn where only lucrative fields may be seen as ‘worthwhile’, and thus associated with success.

anniet I think we’re falling too much into the mindset of Swattie exceptionalism here

anniet We’re not the polar opposite of UPenn, because that’s not how the world works. We still have a lot of the same implicit values/biases

isabelknight I don’t think it’s a myth that the culture here is different from other places though. I got a lot of people responding to my article last year saying they agreed that swarthmore very much fosters a anti-corporate culture in a way other schools don’t. For example when Robert Zoellick decided not to accept his honorary degree, those condemning him seemed to think that just the fact that he was VP for Fannie Mae was enough to compromise his character. This obviously wasn’t accepted by everyone but a fair number of people seemed to agree with that viewpoint.

avishwanath There are a lot of people at Swarthmore that don’t hold an anti-corporate view. But I think a lot of people at Swarthmore ​*believe*​ that the student body is very anti-corporate, when in fact it’s a vocal minority.

isabelknight Plus that article in the economist ranking colleges seemed to suggest that Swarthmore sends a lot fewer people to Wall Street than other schools of similar rank, which does suggest a cultural difference from our peers.

allisonhrabar I have to disagree with Isaac: I think plenty of fields and careers aren’t seen in a positive light here. I’ve heard people denigrate “low” starting salaries of $50k (or the very idea of having a humanities major) just as often as I’ve heard people bashing corporations.

isaaclee94 That may be true but corporate bashing has a more vocal and passionate group of people. While Robert Zoellick may be protested against, no one will protest against a librarian or artist, unless they’ve actually said something controversial previously. For Zoellick it seemed like his experience alone was grounds for disqualification.

avishwanath To get back to the broader question, what do Swarthmore students define as success? It seems to me to be more of Allison’s definition than Isaac’s “UPenn” definition, but of course, the student body is by no means a monolithic entity. But compared to other schools, I would agree with Isaac and Isabel that we lean more towards an anti-corporatist attitude, or at least in how we perceive ourselves.

The Daily Gazette

The Daily Gazette is Swarthmore’s daily newspaper. The Gazette is sent out every work-day to more than 2,500 people, and has thousands of readers from across the world.

The Daily Gazette was organized during Fall semester 1996 by Sam Schulhofer-Wohl ’98. The goal: to provide timely coverage of campus news and Garnet sports while maintaining complete independence from the administration and student government.


  1. While we are interested in getting participation from a diverse range of voices on the next topic, we are also hoping to hear your perspectives on the topic of success as well – feel free to argue about what we’ve said here in the comments!

    -Arjun Vishwanath, Opinions Editor

  2. Great idea and very interesting discussion. I would add that the fact that Humanities and Honors majors at Swarthmore are dropping is an indicator of changing ideas and anxieties about success. Swarthmore is an unusually academia-focused school, and I think many students would rate getting a pHD as the pinnacle of success and as morally superior to a job in the for-profit world (despite the arguments you can make about the corporatization of higher ed). But because of the shrinking academic job market, a lot of students forgo that route because an unemployed pHD would not be “successful.”

    Also, I think it’s worth adding a little more nuance to the perception of non-profit and public service jobs. Swat’s Ed department/teacher certification programs mean that some students can leave swat and become schoolteachers, but there’s a difference in how you’re perceived if you plan to be a schoolteacher the rest of your career versus working as one for a few years before continuing to a policy gig. Within teaching, a student might be accused of “selling out” if they work in a private school. Some social justice, non-profit minded fellowships like the Lang or Truman are extremely prestigious, but getting paid next to nothing as a community organizer or activist after graduation is not.

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