When I visited Emory University in April after officially committing, my information session leader told us — a mix of newly committed, relieved seniors and anxious, anticipative juniors — that we were each expected to have about five to six different career paths. And then she said that half of those career paths have not even been created yet. Our generation is unique for having grown up alongside the burgeoning digital age; with an interdisciplinary liberal arts approach, Emory is advertised to foster a boundless “vision of change.” I expected this vision to be projected through the student body, and yet, so many of my interactions concerning academic discovery have been confined to unenthused conversations about pre-professional plans.
Reflecting at the midpoint of my first ever college semester, I find myself conflicted over whether Emory is responsible for the mounting pre-professional culture that I’ve experienced, or if this culture is a ramification of America’s broader capitalist social structure. I recently worked on a piece with the Wheel’s Editorial Board on New York University’s decision to fire a professor based on students having received bad grades. As his organic chemistry course is a notorious “weed-out” class for pre-medical students, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of the students were falsely motivated to protest this class because of pre-professional requirements. This article allowed me to consider just how pervasive pre-professionalism is at Emory, especially considering there are application processes into the Goizueta Business School and Nell Hodgson Nursing School during sophomore year. American universities are becoming increasingly programmed as a collective to funnel students into pre-professional, long-term tracks — this dangerously rejects alternate career avenues, interests and any semblance of niche individuality.
As a sociology major with no semblance of a career plan, I am a part of the minority of Emory students. I am beginning to understand just how difficult it is to not be on a pre-professional track — after all, I used to be on one. I went to a vocational STEM high school and was convinced at 14 to pursue cardiothoracic oncology. There is an unparalleled security that comes with the pre-professional formula of medical school, residency and fellowships. There is also security in knowing that the outcome is a tangible, well-respected and financially stable career. In 2012, the Wheel identified the crux of Emory’s pre-professional culture as the need for financial stability. The cost of tuition has gone up tremendously across private higher education institutions in the past twenty years, with an average annual increase of 6.2%, and it is consistently rising; I understand the need for justifying the price of this university with a pre-professional track that will guarantee a certain salary. There is an undeniable privilege tacitly associated with boundless academic discovery, but what I struggle to understand is a complete rejection of exploring outside the bounds of pre-professional culture.
At Emory, this culture is so pervasive that it ultimately suffuses personal identities; I have witnessed it amongst my peers in the freshmen class, who have become so enthralled by their pre-professional track that every extracurricular and class revolves around it. Students who are not pre-professional are often left to grapple with a notorious sense of impostor syndrome. It is difficult to feel academically supported, despite the multitude of Emory’s academic resources, when your academic interests do not correspond to a clear-cut career path. Interestingly, pre-professionalism paths integrate interdisciplinary learning, like pre-BBA tracks that combine art history or film and media with management. While the opportunity to explore these tracks is a privilege, they simultaneously and inadvertently pressure students to fit their passions into the practical lens of business, rather than explore beyond Emory’s mainstream into less advertised majors and jobs.
“Sell-out” is a phrase coined to describe students who override their ethics for the sake of personal, or more specifically, financial advancement. Frankly, it is difficult to resist the urge to “sell-out” when so much of the student body dictates their academic experience by a long-term career goal instead of unhindered interest. Internationally, about 50% to 75% of all undergraduates will change their major once. Yet, I have been most surprised to witness that freshmen have had concocted pre-professional plans since the club fair in August, at the conception of a fresh discovery period. In a pre-professional society, it is difficult to render practicality with majors in linguistics, humanities or the arts. College experiences thus coalesce into a mere stepping-stone to your career, rather than a period for intellectual discovery. Emory as an institution is a microcosm of America’s capitalist economy.
My academic advisor recently told me that your undergraduate experience is the only guaranteed time in your life when you can study what you want, boundlessly. He also recently told me that, on average, a person will hold 12 jobs in their lifetime. And finally, he gave me the best piece of advice any non pre-professional student could hear: your major is never the defining factor of your career. It is the skills you learn through classes, extracurriculars and hobbies that diversify you as an applicant to prospective jobs; the analytical processes and interpersonal relations acquired from faculty research, the immersive cultural experiences encountered from study abroad opportunities and the language or coding skills born out of boredom.
The information session leader’s words back in April have reverberated with me amid being in the minority of students at Emory; I want five to six vastly different careers. I want interdisciplinary experiences in the workforce that leap boundaries of mainstream pre-professional avenues, rejecting narrow roles and a stagnant day-to-day. Passionate individuals and pre-professional ones are not mutually exclusive, but rather entities that rarely intersect because of a daunting culture within higher education and the broader American economy. It is a capitalistic culture that defines wealth as the pinnacle of success, undermining art, discovery and joy as unprofitable niceties to be set aside.
I urge students to individually relinquish beliefs centered around a “practical education” that are so fervently pressed on us — it is not impractical to learn outside of the requirements for an expected career. Academic discovery is directly correlated to personal discovery. Yes, there is an undeniable insecurity in not knowing what I want to do; simultaneously, there is an indisputable excitement surrounding the liberty of boundless avenues. At the least, I know that by granting myself the grace to feel lost and frustrated, I am learning from a variety of fields and collecting an array of both academically and personally fulfilling experiences.
Pre-professionalism is not the enemy; the enemy is the lack of liberty in choosing to pursue a pre-professional avenue. I don’t think the majority of Emory’s pre-professional students have it all figured out, but rather that they are fearful of the insecurity that comes with having no plan. I hope that you at least try to experience this entanglement of uncertain excitement once during your four years here. You owe it to your future self.
Saanvi Nayar (26C) is from Marlboro, New Jersey.