What Is College For?: David Foster Wallace on Liberal Education and the Trenches of Adult Life

“This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College. May 21, 2005.

One of the questions faced these days by anyone giving a commencement address is whether to speak to the graduating seniors in the crowd before you, or whether to speak to the potential millions on YouTube. Many of these potential listeners in all parts of the world may be younger, perhaps just starting college, and your speech could come at just the right time to nudge their life in a slightly different direction—to make them conscious of their education, conscious of something important.

David Foster Wallace tried to speak to both at once. He spoke, to the graduating seniors before him, of the “the day to day trenches of adult existence” they were about to encounter. But he also spoke of the education they had just completed—the education they could not re-do, but could only try to make some sense of. This latter part of his speech is most important to those about to enter college. It is an ideal high school commencement address.

This is one of the paradoxes of Wallace’s commencement address. To have listened to his speech as a graduating senior, and to be told, perhaps for the first time, what my education was really about, would have struck me with a debilitating frustration. To go back and read those books again, and to have all those conversations again, with the knowledge that this all dealt with the most central aspect of existence might’ve put many of those seniors on very different life paths. But here they were being told about the “trenches” of existence, and what “day in day out” really means, perhaps without having ever realised what those four years at college had been for, how they could have limited the time they might spend in those trenches.

I was lucky enough to have been sent Wallace’s speech before entering college—and it was also sent to all students by Yale-NUS College’s Dean of Students the day before classes began in freshman year. This is how Wallace spoke to far more than those seated before him. And for all these people, the millions who listen to his speech online, understanding the meaning of their liberal education before entering college might have some immense effect.

It’s like in those sci-fi stories about an asteroid heading straight towards Earth, threatening human existence. Nudge the asteroid by even half a millimetre early enough (using a missile or something), and it will comfortably miss Earth. But leave it too late, until the asteroid is far closer to Earth, and the force required to knock it off its course might just be too great to be possible.

That’s the time value of experience. That’s also the power of writing and of speaking.

I didn’t properly grasp Wallace’s This is Water speech when I first read it, nor when I was sent it in freshman year. In fact, I’m sure I don’t grasp much of it even now. But from the start it gave me the sense that my education was about something larger. I felt then that it was about more than just a job and a career. It was this sense that let me push back when I was incentivised to connect my dots looking forward, and it has led to a fundamentally different college experience. As Wallace said, it has also let me learn how to give meaning to experiences.

The speech has also provided a reference point with which to understand my education. Each time I read it, I understand a little bit more of what Wallace was trying to get at. And I have no doubt that same will continue to happen for much of my adult life.

The Time Value of Experience

Note: I wrote this in mid 2011, when I was still 16 and in my penultimate year of high school. I might re-write it someday, but I feel the idea is important enough to make it worthwhile re-posting the original. The project I mention at the end, “They Don’t Teach You This In School”, was about creating an archive of life lessons and experiences through one minute videos asking people the question, “What’s one thing they didn’t teach you in school that you wish you had known when you were younger?”

You’ve no doubt heard of the Time Value of Money, a theory that explains how the value of a dollar in your pocket today is more than the value of that dollar if you receive it tomorrow. If you own that dollar right now, you have the opportunity to receive interest on it before tomorrow, which means that the dollar is more valuable to you by the amount of the interest that you receive before tomorrow (and tomorrow can represent any date in the future).

The Time Value of Money theory is the basis of fundamental finance and economics. It explains the core reasoning behind why people act rationally with regard to money and how people make investment decisions. There is no arguing with the importance of this theory in our society.

I propose that there is another theory which is arguably more important than the Time Value of Money. It’s a theory that is relatively obvious, but often forgotten. The theory explains the core reasoning behind how we act, and how we make decisions in life. And because it encompasses much more than money, it’s something that people should be made aware of, so that they don’t forget it.

Let’s call it the Time Value of Experience. It describes how experiences we have are more valuable the earlier that we have them, because those experiences can then be applied to all other parts of our lives in the future. It’s about knowledge and lessons that we’ve learned – so perhaps those terms are interchangeable.

If I make a mistake today – let’s say I screw up a negotiation with someone, or make a bad decision – then the lessons that I’ve learned through this experience are valuable, as they help me to avoid making similar mistakes in the future when perhaps the stakes are higher. By making these mistakes today, that experience is more valuable than if I made the mistake tomorrow because I’ve had a day with which to apply that experience to my life. Later that day, I may have avoided making a similar mistake because I already made the mistake earlier that day.

Therefore, experiences that I have today are more valuable than that same experience tomorrow by the difference of mistakes that I would’ve made before tomorrow if I hadn’t gained that experience today.

Obviously, the Time Value of Experience is not as easy to measure as the Time Value of Money. It’s intangible, and non-numerical. But by being aware of this theory, we can attempt to gain as many experiences as we can, as soon as possible.

This theory explains why many entrepreneurs love making mistakes, and look upon mistakes as a huge achievement. By screwing up, you’ve successfully gained experience and knowledge which you can apply to everything you try in the future.

The Time Value of Experience also helps me to explain the importance and value of my project They Don’t Teach You This In School. If people can pass on their knowledge and experiences through TDTYTIS, then young people can learn from that right now and benefit from it into the future. On the other hand, if the only way for someone to learn something is through personal experience, then society is slowed down because everyone is making mistakes that could be avoided.

I believe everyone should bear in mind the Time Value of Experience. You should try do gain as much experience as you can in whatever it is you do every single day, because that experience is more valuable the sooner you gain it.

Connecting the Dots of Our Lives

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Steve Job’s Stanford commencement address is one of those talks I rediscover perhaps once a year, watch twice in a row, feel that my life has changed, and then forget about a few days later. As much as I want to hold onto all that wisdom and let it change me, life always seems to get in the way.

I wrote recently about the difficulties with wanting to go abroad to do something different, to discover new interests and passions. To go abroad for study, for instance, requires an application that forces you to outline how this experience “aligns with your academic and career goals”. To be honest—to say simply that it doesn’t align, and that’s precisely the point—is to put you in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario with other applicants.

But I think that’s applicable not just to going abroad, but to what we want to do with our lives. Perhaps part of the reason I forget again and again about Jobs’ speech after feeling so deeply moved is that the daily reality of thinking about my future forces me to connect the dots looking forward.

Yale’s Office of Career Services recently asked me to send them my latest resume in order to talk through how it will set me up for the type of work I want to do over summer and after graduation. Through even requesting a resume, the question asked of us is not what do you want to do, but what can you do. The entire conversation is framed from there, with possibilities built on who we were rather than what we want to be and what we could be. We are incentivised by college career offices and employers to connect the dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging. That is a fallacy, an ever so costly one, and we must recognise that change is the point of our education. To leave college on the same path as one began leaves me wondering again what our time here was for.

A resume is the ultimate dot-connecter, and it requires that those dots are perfectly linear. I’ve heard from other students who went to their college career services office, who sat down with an adviser and were instantly labelled. “I can see from your resume that you will go into public policy”, the adviser says confidently, going off two previous public sector summer jobs the individual had listed.

Those summer jobs themselves were chosen by happenstance and serendipity! At age 20, to be told what career options are open to you based on a cumulative four months’ work! You wanted to be home one summer, you knew someone who offered you an interesting job, so you took it. Chance, fortuity; taking opportunities as they are presented: this is the right thing to do, and it is not connecting the dots forward. But to then be told by someone, supposedly a professional who knows how to best set you up for a career, that your dots will align only with a limited range of others… Your life’s work decided by happenstance!

I exaggerate, but perhaps only slightly.

And we know the answer were we to say, no, that’s not what I want to do with my life, in fact I want to be an artist and work on climate change. “But what experience do you have?” Job applications list as a requirement “former relevant work experience”. Your adviser tells you, “You’re competing for this museum curation job with other applicants who have spent the past three summers in that type of work. Why would they take you over them?” Friends and family say about your public policy job offer, “it’s a fantastic opportunity and a prestigious career, you should be pleased.” Resignedly, you decide that perhaps the public policy job wouldn’t be so bad. And so you connect one more summer’s dot, and as that line becomes longer it becomes yet more difficult to begin a new set of dots entirely. Each dot acts as a magnet, drawing yet more similar dots to it, and the more there are the stronger the magnetic field becomes. Two dots connect on your resume and decide the next fifty for you.

I exaggerate, but perhaps not much.

In class with David Brooks this semester we spent a few sessions discussing how to choose and shape a career. We were discussing careers in the traditional narrative of “needing the stars to line up”, in the same way that Jobs talked about your dots connecting. Someone frustratedly said “It’s not about how well the stars line up, but how creatively you draw a constellation between them.” I hadn’t heard that before, and it hit home.

The same advice is embedded in Jobs’ talk. From India to calligraphy to Mac OS is no path that a career adviser could ever have seen, or which Jobs could have put on a resume. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He did what he felt was right, and later, after working out what he wanted to do, realised how these past experiences could make him better at whatever work he wanted to devote himself to. Had Jobs met with a career adviser or needed to apply for a job through a resume, where would he have ended up? What creativity, passion and talent would have been wasted?

We need to be aware of how our personal narratives and the lives they lead to are shaped by the structures of resumes and career thinking. Without understanding this, well-meaning career advice may hold us back from drawing a constellation between the dots of our lives, forcing us instead to draw an all-too-straight line between them.

The Two Yale-NUS Colleges

I’m sometimes asked what it is like to attend a university that is frequently in the headlines because of controversy. And it’s true: Yale-NUS College, where I am a member of the inaugural class, has been continually questioned and debated in public right from the start. Yale-NUS has been seen as a herald of the corruption of liberal values, where those poor students are censored and must be regretting their fated decisions to go there rather than Yale. We have been compared to blind puppies, and people have pitied our apparent lack of freedom.

But having spent this past semester at Yale in New Haven I’m struck by the fact that there are really two Yale-NUS Colleges. There’s the one that I attend, where student life is really just what I’ve had at Yale, where students have no need to take notice of the dire predictions made about our college’s fate. And there’s the other one, where Yale-NUS stands for the selling out of American liberal institutions. I read about the latter college in newspapers and online, and begin to pity those students myself. But I’ve certainly never encountered it in my three years at Yale-NUS College.

We should believe that Yale-NUS exists for an educational mission, and in that light what matters are the experiences that my classmates and I are having, over and above the abundance of interests and opinions that commentators on Yale-NUS seem to have. Each of us chose to attend Yale-NUS for very real reasons, unrelated to speculative controversy, and the College must be assessed against these reasons and hopes. For me, it was wanting a true liberal arts education in the Asia Pacific, an education that gave respect to narratives other than the American and Western European.

A recent Yale Daily News feature about Yale-NUS declared that “equally, if not more, important than how Yale-NUS’s watchers in New Haven view the partnership is what insiders — Singaporean politicians, peers at other local universities or patrons at Singapore’s signature food markets — think of the school.” Perhaps—but once again, this misses the point that Yale-NUS exists not for political and higher-ed insiders, let alone aunties and uncles at Singapore’s hawker centres. To juxtapose this with an equally crass stereotype, the equivalent would be a reporter from Singapore asking patrons of a Bojangles in Tennessee what they think of Yale. The response may not be quite what Yalies were hoping for, and ultimately those perspectives matter little to students’ lives.

The focus on the views of everyone other than students at Yale-NUS belies the false premise from which American commentators, as well as many students at Yale, approach the College. The frequent comparison between liberal Yale and authoritarian Singapore shows how Yale-NUS is often seen as a civilising mission, a grand scheme to indoctrinate Singapore from the inside, to end those restrictive chewing gum laws and ultimately allow gay marriage. These concerns demonstrate the confusion of liberal values with a liberal arts education, and I for one came to Yale-NUS for the latter.

Yale may believe it is exceptional, yet I’m inclined to read this exceptionalism as restricted to the realm of liberal arts education. As Yale’s own prospectus on Yale-NUS describes, “Creating an entirely new liberal arts college in Asia would allow Yale to extend to other parts of the world its long tradition of leadership in shaping liberal education.” One may disagree with even this goal, but it is a mistake to read it—as most critics of Yale-NUS seem to have done—as synonymous with a mission to inculcate liberal values in Singapore.

Within the realm of liberal education, however, the best people to ask about how Yale-NUS is shaping up are students themselves. The education I am receiving at Yale-NUS is practically identical in structure to that I’ve received this past semester at Yale: great professors from the world’s top universities, small seminars, a focus on debate and challenging other viewpoints. Where my education at Yale-NUS has differed is in the extent of those differences in viewpoints.

At Yale in New Haven the perspectives of other students that I’ve had to engage with have been centred around a common set of values. Differences of opinion on fundamental issues are really only minor differences around the edges of a topic, if those topics are even raised at all. At Yale-NUS, on the other hand, I have had to engage with viewpoints so different to my own that I have struggled to find language to respond. On topics from gay marriage and capital punishment to the role of the U.S. military in the world and the “Asian values” debate, I’ve been exposed to viewpoints that I always dismissed as being held by other people. To realise that these views are held by people I call friends is an education in itself, and has taught me necessary lessons about the diversity of the Asia Pacific.

When we focus on Yale-NUS’ mission to bring liberal arts education to the Asia Pacific, rather than liberal values, the irony is that I think Yale-NUS better lives up to its mission than Yale does. More often at Yale-NUS do I find myself deeply intellectually challenged, shocked at being face to face with a viewpoint so starkly different from my own, and forced to formulate a response that can be comprehended despite deep differences in fundamental perspectives.

Step back from the controversy, look at Yale-NUS for what it was intended to be and not what its critics say it should be, and then ask us about what it’s like studying the liberal arts in Asia. Yale-NUS is no longer an idea or an experiment, but is a real college with students who have very good reasons for attending. It’s time to start talking about the Yale-NUS that actually exists, not the one created from the minds of a small number of loud and eloquent commentators.

“Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?”

A: Also, I have a philosophical question for you. Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?

B: Thinking about life is one of the only things we can do that transcends our own lives. It speaks to something more timeless, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a life, in fact.

It’s kind of the eternal conversation. It’s internal, it’s you grappling with your own mind, I would even say it’s the only way to work out what being human actually is.

A: Hmmmm…

But by that metric we might as well have been born brains only.

What’s the point of having able bodies if we spend all our time inside our heads? Or what’s the point of having such a gigantic diverse interesting special world, and special people in it, if all our time is spent thinking about things we haven’t necessarily lived?

B: I’d say it supports the mind. Without being a body in the world, with those special people, we wouldn’t have anything to feed the mind with.

It’s the physical experience that gives rise to thinking about life. Unless you’re Descartes.

A: Right, exactly! Hence my question.. We spend all this time thinking without actually having the physical experiences to give basis to those thoughts.

We think about the physical experiences of others, be them fictional or historical characters.

Rather than going out there and having them ourselves.

B: How do we make sense of our own experiences in the world unless we’ve given thought to the experiences of others before us? We’d be actors going onto the stage cold, it’d be as if we lived in a vacuum where no one had lived before us. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate ignorant life, animal-like?

A: No, I mean… of course we should give thought to others’ experiences, but I think we often leave it at that.

But also life is not a play that needs to be put on properly… it doesn’t require rehearsal, the whole point of life is that no matter how much you read or prepare, it’s never going to go as planned.

I’ve been thinking about this because on Friday my friends and I were playing never have I ever, and I realized that I know a lot and I study a lot, but that very often I don’t live my life to the fullest.

And not even in the way of doing crazy things, but of just experiencing things for myself rather than taking others’ word for it.

B: Now you sound like Kundera, and I hadn’t even realised where I got that earlier phrase from: “Because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come… We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

And one part of me has always loved that phrase, wanted so desperately to agree with it in order to feel that lightness, to just live without the burden of all those who have lived before and all who will live afterwards. But—and I don’t know how to properly describe this—I feel like that’s abdicating some human responsibility.

A: Human responsibility to what?

B: I get asked that a lot (including by you!): do you actually live? You don’t drink, you don’t go out, everything is so structured and ordered, what new experiences are you having, how do you know what kind of life you want to lead without trying? And the truth is I’ve never really wondered, because the decision not to do those things has been so firm. There’s a million things you could do and you’ll never do all of them. Commitments are our way of limiting the choices open to us, what we can do with our time over the course of a lifetime. I don’t feel at all as though I’ve missed out, and that time I’ve spent reading and looking internally has (I hope) given me a way of making greater sense of all the experiences I have had and will have.

A: No yeah I know what you mean, but I think my question is not necessarily that we need to live our lives by those metrics of drinking and going out, but more of… meeting new people, taking big risks, doing things for the hell of it and not as part of a plan, etc. And sometimes I wonder if I’m being ungrateful of the fact that I have a healthy and privileged life and that instead of taking advantage of it to live everything I possibly can that its being wasted.

B: Of the billion directions your life could take, of the limitless spontaneous ways you could live your life, how should you know which directions to even take if you haven’t, through thought and reading, come up with some internal framework and blueprint for the fundamentals of how you want to live?

I think that’s where all this thought and reading comes in. I refuse to think it’s wasted time. It’s what gives meaning and sense to external life that would otherwise be wholly existential.

A: I just don’t think the internal framework and blueprint should come from other people’s experiences, from what some old white dude wrote in a book a thousand years ago. Nor should it come from assumptions about life that I make in my brain without actually having gone through them in reality. I think the whole point of youth is that you’re given a chance to go out there and create an internal framework through trial and error, one that works for you because you are unique, and not one that you’ve lifted from someone whose life circumstances were entirely different. And I think reading and thought should come in at the point where they aid you reflect on what you have experienced, but not manuals for how you should experience things. Reading in particular can help you get an idea of how others have dealt with similar problems, and thus you can feel less alone in your overly human struggles, but they should not be taken as guides on how to act.

B: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

So, to end: was this conversation a waste of time, should you have been outside living life instead? 😊

A: I am! Hahaha I’m driving to the club 😛

B: Ah, then there’s our answer. False dichotomy!

A Global Perspective on the Humanities Debate

Though the decline of the humanities in universities has been much discussed, these reports seem to reflect more the Euro-centric perspective on higher education than the global reality. Nicholas Kristof felt compelled to defend the humanities from such talk in the Times (Don’t Dismiss the Humanities, August 13, 2014), and in doing so framed the debate along strictly U.S.-European lines. This is no surprise, given that those are by and large the normal boundaries of the debate. But it is necessary to reconsider what we subconsciously define as these boundaries in order to understand current global trends in education.

In Singapore, the founding of Yale-NUS College (of which I am a member of the inaugural class) signals a belief that not only is there a role for the humanities in a digital world, but there is a growing and decisive place for it. Yale-NUS is one of an increasing number of tertiary institutes in Asia focussing on providing an education encompassing the humanities. For instance, in Hong Kong, a recent focus amongst public universities has been on shifting from a British-styled three-year specialised degree to a four-year American bachelor’s program after a government directive in 2012. In South Korea, a number of colleges offering specific liberal programs have started within larger universities, operating as semi-autonomous colleges. New York University has opened campuses in both Abu Dhabi and in Shanghai.

It is interesting to note the substantial government backing that many of these new programs receive. Yale-NUS College, for its part, is funded in majority by the Singaporean government. Though debate erupted amongst certain groups at Yale about what role such a liberal institution has in a more authoritarian place, the high-level government support for Yale-NUS signals a desire for this city state to be more accommodating of a variety of viewpoints.

Granted, students at liberal institutions like Yale-NUS College do not all study the humanities. But as a fundamental building block of a liberal education, a move to cement the liberal arts in Asia does signal a desire on the part of the government to improve access to high-quality humanities education. This approach marks a stark shift from the traditionally highly-specialised, British-style programs offered throughout Asia where the most attention and respect is placed on the disciplines promising highest post-graduation earnings.

At Yale-NUS, a common curriculum that all students must participate in spans much of students’ first two years at the College. A one-year course in both Literature & Humanities and Philosophy and Political Thought is mandatory, and a focus is on providing a grounding in the literary and philosophical traditions of different regions within the same course. Students begin by reading the Indian epic The Ramayana before moving to The Odyssey, and later the Persian love story Yusuf and Zulaikha by the poet Jami, to name a few. Likewise in Philosophy, classes start with Chinese philosophical traditions, and then moved through both the traditional Western canon and what Yale-NUS has called some of the basics of an Eastern philosophical canon. Other courses called Comparative Social Institutions and Modern Social Thought are designed to specifically challenge some of the cultural beliefs that underpin students’ mindsets when coming from different cultural backgrounds.

With this more accommodating, global focus Yale-NUS, and many other liberal arts institutions in Asia, are not just transplanting a humanities education but are improving on the one traditionally offered in the United States. This is a significant attraction not just for students within Asia, but for other students from around the world who lament the fact that at the Ivies one must take a separate, specific Asian literature course to gain an understanding of these equally important and impressive traditions. Students here turned down other offers from all Ivies, including Yale itself, to become a member of the inaugural class of Yale-NUS. This represents the recognition that this university offers something unique and improved in the liberal arts over the traditional bastions of liberal education.

Ultimately the humanities and the liberal arts can be expected to play a larger role in Asia and elsewhere in the years to come, precisely because they allow an understanding of what many, like Nicholas Kristof, fail to see: that just because there is a trend in the United States, this can no longer be used to speak for the world as a whole. When one looks globally, without the confines of a U.S.-centric viewpoint, it is much more clear that even in a digital age the humanities will be playing a vital and growing role. This global perspective on the humanities debate must be taken as the starting point if any global conclusions are to be reached.

Why should we go abroad?: On connecting the dots of our lives

There were a few great lines about “finding yourself”, to use the cliche, in a Wall Street Journal article the other day. The article, titled “The College of Chinese Wisdom”, was wide-ranging and disparate, and I felt that the interpretations of Chinese philosophy for an American newspaper left something to be desired. But nevertheless an anecdote unrelated to Chinese philosophy in the middle of the piece left me thinking, and is worth quoting in full:

“Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat. He’s always been great at mediating conflicts among his peers. He was involved in Model U.N. in high school, the international section is his favorite part of the newspaper, and he’s become pretty fluent in Spanish. He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy.

So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do.

Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.

None of this has anything to do with the fact that he was in Spain; it’s just that one series of experiences led to another and opened up things to him that weren’t part of the plan. There’s nothing wrong with spending a year in Madrid or majoring in international relations. But there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going.

Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.” [Emphasis mine]

The difficulty comes in how the structures of our decisions are imposed on us from above. In his application to study abroad in Spain, the student will have had to outline how the experience will fit with his pre-defined goals. For instance, in my application to study abroad (I’m currently spending a semester abroad at Yale in the U.S.), I had to answer the following:

“Please explain why you are interested in studying abroad at this institution. Include in your answer a tentative list of courses that you would be interested in applying, and how might these courses help you achieve your academic and/or professional goals?” [Dodgy grammar was theirs, not mine]. 

We may well want study abroad to be a transformative experience, exposing us to new interests and ways we could live our lives, but taking this approach will make being accepted to the program far less likely. Institutions demand that we have our dots connected, so to speak—that where we are going aligns very neatly with where we have been and what we are doing at present.

A resume, for instance, which I was required to attach to my study abroad application, needs to show why the application makes sense for you. The truth could have been that I chose my study abroad precisely to do something entirely different, and yet my resume would then have had no narrative, and my responses to interview questions would have lacked the force of someone who had all their dots connected.

So I entirely agree that there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going. And yet for students to take this advice to heart, to go abroad—or choose jobs—with ideas about what they could become and where they might go will require acceptance of this approach by overarching institutions. It is not students’ mindsets that are the problem, but rather the structures of decision making and narrative building that are imposed on students by long-standing institutions. The structure of a resume dictates the possibilities that are open to us.

Perhaps the risk should simply be taken, the questions answered honestly: I want to go abroad to do something I have never done before, something that might not make sense for my academic and professional goals but which I think I should try nonetheless. It’s prisoner’s dilemma, of course. The students who take the chance risk losing out over the students who answered the questions by connecting the dots of their lives. But ultimately losing out in an application that aligns your life along one straight path might be precisely the opportunity you needed to do something transformative that you had no seemingly good reason to do.

 

Thanks to Maria for sending me the link to the WSJ article.