The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Career Stuff

It’s that time in April when jaded and exhausted college seniors are slowly beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The sun is (generally) shining, we’re more or less certain of our future plans (more the latter than the former, to be fair) and there are tons of activities planned for the next month or so intended to strengthen our bonds of friendship and fill us with nostalgia for our days as wide-eyed and optimistic freshmen drunk off the joy of living in New York City (and by that, I mean drunk off free Natty Light at frat parties). On this list which defines the life of a graduating senior, the “future plans” segment has become more and more prominent in conversations on my campus. It’s kind of like the “What were your SAT scores/what are you majoring in” of our first year (ugh, I HATED those questions). Suddenly folks you haven’t spoken to since a couple of awkward encounters during sophomore year in a dorm elevator are curious about what you’ve been doing for the past four years and how you plan to apply the skills you have supposedly gained in the “real world.” Now, being the disenchanted young woman that I am, I tend to view these questions when fielded by anyone I don’t consider a close friend avec – how do you say? – le side-eye. My cynicism seems somewhat justified by a recent document I was made privy to in which, essentially, my classmates entered information about their post-graduation contact details, summer plans, starting salary, potential spousal requirements… you know, the standard things one frets about in the “real world.” Personally, I believe that if you want to know what I’m doing after graduation, we should be good enough friends that I’ve been telling you about my plans in person since last summer, not entering these myriad details into a form as a means of keeping in touch. Perhaps I’m just being idealistic, but this somewhat depersonalised approach makes me uncomfortable.

This is not to say that such an activity is entirely driven by base motives: if one has a large social circle, perhaps it’s easier to have everyone’s information in one easily-accessible place as opposed to struggling with lingering memories of half-forgotten conversations a year later. However, I think more people are concerned with the “networking” aspect of such an enterprise – knowing where your classmates will be working may help you to make connections and plan your ascent up the corporate ladder accordingly. I’m sure anyone reading this must be thinking: “Um, no shit, Sherlock – what the fuck else did you think you were going to college for?” Well, pardon me for my unconventional thought, but I had hoped that I would leave college with an expanded mind and drive to change the world. I guess I fucked up… which is why I don’t have a job with Merrill Lynch. Epic fail.

Or so it would seem. You see, there is an underlying assumption on this dear campus of mine that pretty much everyone wants to follow the same path to fame and glory: that all of us would like a penthouse in Manhattan, a red Ferrari (personally I prefer a black Mustang) and a name – you know, that recognition amongst an elite group of people that you are the unequivocal shit, an outlier, da best (shout out to Drake). After all, this is what the American dream was built on (although back in the day, this was probably closer to a townhouse in Chicago, a tricked-out horse and buggy and a shiny plaque at the Episcopalian church down the road with your surname on it). However, mes petits chou-fleurs, not all of us had the good fortune to be born and raised in this wonderful country known as the USA. Some of us who are attending college here were raised in the hot and sweaty tropics, deep in the heart of darkness, as far away from the shining citadel as you can get. Where I come from, it is a precious few of us who have the luxury of being individuals in the sense that your personal success reflects back on you and you alone. Oh, no – if I am successful (which the meaning of my name promises me I shall be), it is a success for my family, my village, my tribe and each and every Nigerian boy and girl who hopes to one day go to America and also become a success. In the words of Lagbaja, it’s always “we before me.” Sure I can go ahead and get that Mustang, but I had better make sure my mother isn’t struggling through the streets of Lagos in a broken-down Kia before I drive off the lot. Before I do well for my own sake, I have to be aware of the duties that I have to fulfil to those who came before me and those who will come after (i.e. the ungrateful brats adorable offspring I shall one day give birth to).  Of course I want to be successful, but where I come from one’s individual achievements aren’t just about you and how you compare to others: it’s also about improving the conditions of those who aren’t as fortunate as you are and helping those who helped you get where you are, no matter how indirectly.

Now I realise that this is somewhat tangential to my original train of thought, but one thing that has struck me in my four years of college is the extent to which the mantra of “American exceptionalism” has shaped the atmosphere on my campus. There’s a certain “we’re the shit (up in this bitch)” swagger that I guess I’m supposed to adopt because of the fact that I’m going to hold a diploma with this university’s name on it and because I got the chance to rub shoulders and share dining hall meals with the future leaders of tomorrow (or some other such eulogistic language that may be bestowed on us at graduation). And that’s wonderful – after all, this is the country that brought us the car, modern democracy and the atomic bomb. All my country has apparently done is introduced the term “419” into popular lexicon. However, I worry that all of this individualism is breeding – again, what words to pick? – self-obsessed twat-heads who only see other people as stepping-stones to a bigger house and a brand new iPad. This is not to say that all Americans in any way, shape or form are all like this, or that my country is full of people who care about each other and who want to lead us down a path of peace, prosperity and progress – there’s a whole rack of military thieves who disprove that claim time and time again. But even they hook up their brother’s child, their grandmother’s maid and their old school buddy in the name of family and community. And those connections are, for me, far more important than the ones that make me money. It is important to me that I remain humble about my achievements and take nothing for granted because, in the end, I’m not that special, and there is so much in the world that is bigger than me and my egotistical existence.

The depiction of rural Sudanese life in Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North always underlines this for me: despite the foreign education that the narrator receives and the turmoil that the Western world has brought him, the caravan of life continues to go on regardless of his angsty musings. I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but as long as I’m able to build meaningful relationships with the people who are taking this ride with me, I’m actually pretty okay with being average i.e. realising that I’ll never be the CEO of a company (although I will not be telling my parents that those are not my future plans – trust and believe). The people I admire the most are always the ones that are seemingly simple, who don’t treasure outward appearances but rather possess the kind of self-knowledge that would make even this last stressful semester of college easy to bear, and who recognise that it’s not the job you have or the money you make that determine your real legacy.

P.S. I was originally going to go with Erykah for this post, but then this Mya joint randomly popped into my head… damn, memories. Shout out to Sisqo.

I have made my season of migration back to the heart of darkness. NYC is as cold as I left it – a sharp arse contrast to the balmy Harmattan heat of Lagos and Dakar. It hasn’t all been gloom and doom though – I’ve hung out with friends, touched Mos Def (yes I saw him – and it was amazing) and had that deliciously decadent molten chocolate brownie with ice cream from the diner across the street from me. However, it’s my last semester as a college student aka Knuckle Down Time. I have a thesis to write, a job to find and classes to ace so I can graduate with a decent GPA. This means that I will be spending the majority of my days locked down in the library – kind of depressing, but as I love pretty much everything I’m reading and writing, I’m actually very content about the whole life situation.

Except for this job business. Part of the issue is that I enjoy making life complicated for myself. When I first got to college, I thought I could be an econ major, enjoy the perks of investment banking upon graduation (aka wild money) and retire filthy rich at the age of 32 to pursue a life as a nomad photographer. Alas, I discovered that my brain was suited better to analysing literature than manipulating formulae, so I traded my calculator for a stack of novels (at last count, close to 200 of them) and chose to study English and Political Science. This made the past 2 years in particular incredibly fulfilling, but now the honeymoon period has worn off and reality has hit. I have to find a job – a good job – and generally try to figure out what the hell I want to do with my life. For a while now I’ve been fantasising about becoming an English professor… I could absolutely dedicate my life to the study of post-colonial African literature, get tenure someplace fabulous and school the yung’uns on Achebe and Senghor. Yes, it will take a long time to get there (and I will be pitifully destitute while getting there), but deep down I know that an intellectual/academic/creative path is for me. I need to be surrounded by mountains of books and papers, to have arguments over the smallest nuances of a sentence and most importantly, to continue to learn. This all sounds so incredibly perfect, and yet I am full of doubts.

You see, this little break for freedom I want to make hasn’t exactly come with precedent as far as my upbringing goes. My parents are both professionals, as are my older two sisters (although one is also trying to be a professor). While growing up I was given free rein to indulge my intellectual curiosity (something my father probably deeply regrets now), but it seems that as far as Nigerians go, I’m an exception in terms of the things that interest me. Most of us are taught to focus on what will provide the money to take care of your family: be a lawyer, be an engineer, work for an oil company. The glory days of Soyinka and Azikiwe are long gone – the leading Nigerian intellectuals are predominantly elderly men and in a country where civil society and intellectual debate have been decimated and restricted for so many years, it doesn’t surprise me. Being a professor at a Nigerian university doesn’t pay (literally) – working for a bank does. Why then, would anyone want to study African literature over Accounting? Ah – because they were unlucky enough to stumble across a comparative literature class their sophomore year, read A Season of Migration to the North and were unable to resist the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago. I’m trying to make a life out of what most Nigerians would call a hobby. This means that if I really do want to go down this path, I may have to do so outside my home country.

However, this isn’t so simple. Although I love learning about other cultures, the problems that haunt Nigeria are tugging at me, forcing me to look closer at this place I call home and decipher just how much I know about it… which is actually pathetically little. I need to learn more about the complexities of Muslim-Christian relationships in the Middle Belt, where horrifically violent riots have been taking place, about the variations in rural and urban life in the North and South, about which societal structures survived colonialism and which ones are a product of it. But Nigeria hasn’t become a sexy topic for academia yet – as far as African countries go, Sudan is probably what’s hottest in the corridors of intellect, or countries like Senegal that have a rich legacy of scholarship. I’m not saying that there aren’t brilliant Nigerian scholars, but it saddens me that the vibrant academic communities that thrived at Nsukka and Ibadan (my parents’ alma maters) 40 years ago have falling victim to the systematic rot that plagues everything else in Nigeria.

But somewhere in the hot mess that is Nigeria, I sense opportunity. I see potential teachers and students on every street corner in Surulere. It’s not that we don’t have the resources to do better – to expand our horizons not only in terms of development, but also to rebuild our public forums, improve education and encourage political debate at the grassroots. It’s just that we don’t have leaders who have the inclination, bravery and balls to step up and actually improve the country. And that must change. We’re sometimes called the “sleeping giant” – maybe it’s time for us to wake the fuck up. And maybe, just maybe, with other people who feel the same, I could be the alarm clock… as long as I can get some decent moolah out of it (just keeping it 100). I think that would make for a pretty awesome life.

Now back to Mamdani and this chocolate muffin.

P.S. Not that it has a lot to do with this post, but I love this Erykah Badu jawn.

Before I came to college, I had a game plan for the next 12 years of my life: I would move to New York, major in Economics, become the hottest and wealthiest stockbroker/investment banker/scam artist under the age of 30, retire with a billi in the bank to do pretty much whatever the fuck I wanted. It was all perfect until I stumbled across the fly in the ointment: I can’t add. And I hate maths with an unbridled passion. And all my bloody Econ professors wanted to do was make me work through abstract-ass formulae and bitch about how because they failed as investment bankers, all of their students would too, and inevitably wind up being equally disgruntled teaching bored undergrads with no tenure in sight (yes, I’m talking to you Professor Arluck). Long story short, I discovered that what I preferred doing was talking about literature (one of my friends told me while we were studying for a exam that she’d never seen anyone get so excited about Crime and Punishment, a pretty depressing ass book), and I preferred to read rather than struggle through problem sets. So now, I’m a hippy happy English major, and I love it.

 What I don’t love so much is the fact that my friends who are either engineers or Econ majors (i.e. all except two) make fun of me for deciding to study literature. Gems I’ve heard from them include:

 “I can do everything you can do better, but you can’t do anything I can – like calibrate the effectiveness of a motorised input/output widget prototype to within 0.0003 degrees of accuracy from a spaceship orbiting Neptune.”

(I usually reply to that, “I’m pretty certain nothing you said was in English anyway, so you just disproved your own point by opening your mouth”)

 “What kind of a job do you expect to get with that exactly? I’m guessing nothing that actually pays.”

(I’ve given up trying to dignify that with a response)

 “Um, look down at your hand. What colour is your skin again?”

(I usually respond to that with a backhand slap with said hand)

 What really pains me about these fucking retards my dear friends expressing such sentiments about what I have chosen to study is that I’m not derisive of the fact they are engineers, no matter how earth-shatteringly boring I know everything that they study is.

 Also, this may seem outdated and idealistic, but I believe that you should study what you love at college. You know, the kind of shit that makes you actually want to go to class at 9am in your pyjamas (although, to be fair, the only thing that makes me want to do this is the guarantee of free food). Unless you have your mind set on a particular career path that requires highly specific skills, it really doesn’t matter what you study. In the field I want to go into – publishing – experience, enthusiasm and contacts are far more useful to employers than the ability to programme a T-81 calculator.

 No, I can’t do the calibrating-whatchamacallit, but I know that I can write a more insightful paper than you can without even trying, in less time, and actually care about it. I may be the only person that means something to, but I don’t give a shit. Ain’t nobody care about what you do in the basement of the engineering building at 10pm anyway except for your webcam friend. Yes, I know about that Tina from Texas. Don’t deny it.

 And yes, English majors can find well-paying jobs. Not all of us want to go into finance – broadcasters, actors, journalists and professors all make good money while doing what they love. I’d take a tenth of the money a hedge fund manager makes for twenty times the peace of mind and a significantly smaller risk of getting caught running a $50 billion scam.

Side note: why the fuck do engineers go to engineering school and torture themselves with painfully dull classes if they want to be bankers to begin with? Being able to build a robot does not give you any kind of advantage on Wall Street, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise.

 Furthermore, engineers aren’t the only ones who contribute something worthwhile to society. I’ve had this fight with a couple of friends who laughingly tell me that what I want to do with my life won’t change anything in people’s lives. If that is so, why are authors like Tolstoy, Woolf and Shakespeare still admired today? Yes, writers don’t build computers or highways, but they create works that make people think in new ways, that build bridges between different cultures so that a 21st century African girl like me can empathise with the pain of a 19th century Russian noblewoman torn between duty to family and her desire for happiness (Anna Karenina, one of my favourite novels of all time). And in a world filled with hatred and a distinct lack of understanding of what makes us similar and what we share as human beings, I can’t think of anything more beautiful. *cue “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson*

 I’m not saying that all English or liberal arts majors are noble people destined to be writers or teachers who “change the world.” Nor am I saying that engineers are all money-grubbing egotistical robotic beings. I actually only have one friend that is a fellow English major – most of the others I’ve met are obnoxious pseudo-intellectuals who dress in an affected British professorial manner that gets on my tits. I am saying this though: both engineers and liberal arts majors contribute in different but equal ways to the betterment of society, and I’m going to need all of my engineers out there to accept that and move on. No pomposity in the ’09, it’s not what’s hot on the streets.

 Speak on it.

 P.S. Title’s courtesy of Jilly from Philly – although I don’t love her 3rd album as much as the first two, “Hate on Me” is a hot track.