Retaking the Rudder: An Aspiring Adult’s Chase for Zeroes

Laura Newland is a 2010 alumna of Duke University. In her senior year, she started writing about her experiences seeking Wall Street internships. Shortly after graduation and finding a job outside of finance, she finished the ambitiously titled Chasing Zeroes: The Rise of Student Debt, the Fall of the College Ideal, and One Overachiever’s Misguided Pursuit of Success. It is not an imaginative book and Newland does not deliver on all of her topics. She is more focused, like many young adults, in her own journey. She has difficulty connecting her story to the broader questions of higher education, value, and career. However, Newland does offer readers a first-person account of the Wall Street recruiting process how it can affect students and institutions. It is eye-opening. Those of us in education who cheer every time one of our students lands a high-paying job should give it her story consideration.

Chasing ZeroesGifted at mathematics and a strong economics major, Newland attended Duke with ambition but no defined plan. As the cost of her education increased to $200,000 – a mixture of investment by her parents and what we must guess is some degree of personal debt – banking started to become a very attractive career option. Newland explains how banking and finance dominated the job fairs and drove student ambition at Duke and, we can safely assume, many other élite institutions. A focused, hard-working, and surprisingly incurious young woman, Newland accordingly geared her education and co-curricular life toward finding one of the coveted spots on Wall Street. She bettered her grades, traveled to New York City for interviews and summer classes, and noted how classmates and bankers dance together for admission into a select club. Ethical lapses and opportunities abound.

No Caligula here. Students in the summer program are far from debauched. They work assiduously, study diligently, and prime themselves to become useful cogs in the larger machine. The corruption Newland chronicles is loss of self in the face of great wealth.

Ultimately, Newland does not land an internship or slot at a top bank. The economy is in a tailspin. Positions are reduced and competition is extraordinarily fierce. Newland rejects an offer from a private equity firm and takes a job at insurance company. It is not a good fit. First jobs out of college often are not successful. Later, Newland finds her passion, writing.

Newland believes that she entered college feeling empowered and optimistic. She writes that the education at Duke challenged her but left her unprepared for the loss of agency and direction that came with her pursuit of a post-collegiate career search. She argues that the corrosive influence of potential post-graduate wealth, particularly in the guise of finance, coupled with too many internships too early and high tuition, drives many students to make their college too pre-professional. It is a valid point, especially if one situates pre-professional as distinct from intellectual and educational.

On one hand, it is easy to appreciate Newland’s frustration, her concern, and her plea to make sure that there is more honest conversation about the role and nature of a college degree in readying students for the world of work. These are valid points. On the other hand, one might argue that the process worked exactly as intended. Newland received a strong education (something that she readily admits) and is now poised to succeed in her chosen profession, writing. Wall Street was given ample opportunity to select young men and women for employment. The financial institutions chose wisely, discerning that Newland’s heart really was not in it. And Duke benefited as well, not only from Newland’s tuition, but her post-collegiate success as an author.

Newland’s crooked path to deciding what to do for a career, how to balance value, money, and interest, is far from unique. It is, in fact, common. So, too, are mistakes, missteps, and changes of direction. It is a difficult process for most. Newland’s challenges are those of privilege, a perspective she does not deeply question or appreciate.The question of whether or not she would find any job does not seem to cross her mind. Had Newland been able to imagine other students’ journeys, or the journeys taken by the recruiters, bankers, and educators she met, she would have written a better book.

David Potash

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