May 27, 2011

Not just business as usual

U of C students should hold on to uncommon ideals when entering the workforce.

As spring quarter draws to a close, students are preparing for their next endeavor. Graduating seniors are taking that long awaited–and often times long dreaded–plunge into the “real world”; some students have secured their old jobs back home; some lucky travelers will be heading overseas to acquire new languages; some fortunate few will be watching the entire series of Lost and having time-travel debates over Thai food. Another group however–about 450 students–will be beginning Metcalf Internships in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles, Beijing, and just about everywhere in between. CAPS has done an overall exemplary job not only growing the Metcalf program over the years, but also preparing current students for their opportunities. There are however several practices that seem to run contrary to the U of C spirit.

The Metcalf Fellows Kickoff Reception last night provided a wealth of information for those who will be embarking on a Metcalf this summer or in the upcoming academic year. While most of the information provided and advice given was ultimately practical, some of it did not seem to coalesce with the stated academic aims of this institution.

Level-headed, practical advice goes a long way, especially at a school like the U of C known for its abstract-minded students–the veritable manifestations of the proverbial philosopher with his head in the clouds who falls in a man hole. Networking, not getting too drunk at company events, planning out your route before your first day of work–these are all valuable and appreciated tips.

But what about the age-old conflict for any new employee: sucking up to your boss? CAPS, in the spirit of sensible career advice, essentially advocates the bite-your-tongue position. Which, to be fair, is not unreasonable. They may be motivated to attempt to temper the potentially worst impulse of the prototypical U of C undergrad: brash hot-headedness bordering on arrogance. It’s possible that CAPS fully expects its students to tear down the office doors, usurp the CEO’s desk, and start imposing their infallible will on the entire company. If that’s the case, then they are completely correct to advocate the opposite position and hope for some sort of thesis, antithesis, synthesis dialectic resulting in a palatable compromise.

The fact that a noticeably large portion of the presentation was devoted to wardrobe selection was also somewhat unsettling. Again, this advice was rooted in practical necessity; pink cut-off jean shorts under a striped Urban Outfitters tank top probably wouldn’t cut it in the workplace, neither would an all tie-dye outfit (sorry, Rafael), or a beret (sorry, kid who wears the beret). Ultimately, the slant of the presentation was too much focused towards “fitting in,” being inconspicuous, and more or less playing a role of some sort.

The U of C teaches constant questioning, fierce independence, and modest self-assertion. These traits were not only absent in CAPS’s advice session, but they were largely contradicted. I understand that what we learn is all well and good in theory, but what about practice? (Isn’t that how the T-shirt goes…?) What is the point of the U of C if not to educate future world leaders? As I see it, U of C students and alumni should aim to shatter these ridiculous corporate codes of conduct, not conform to them so that Metcalf Fellows will have a good reputation and the program will continue to grow without end.

Yes, it is still a necessary evil to comport yourself, at least to some degree, by the expectations of corporate culture. But on the other hand, we cannot forget what we learn at the U of C. We should not contradict and condescend to our superiors, but we should not abandon our inquisitive, challenging nature; we should not show up to work in our sweatpants, but we also should not disguise our inner Maroon under a business-casual façade.

Colin Bradley is a first-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.