Columns

Mitra ’18: Escaping the rat race

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, September 23, 2015

One of the things I love most about Brown is the sheer passion of the entire student body. Every day, I feel privileged to work with so many people who have ambitious dreams and are not afraid to strive for them. The enthusiasm I see around me has pushed me to try many unfamiliar activities and take unexpected risks. For that reason alone, I will always be grateful for Brown’s motivated atmosphere.

But the competitive nature of our campus culture has its drawbacks. Don’t get me wrong: I am the first person to acknowledge that the competition has driven me to work harder and get the most out of the college experience. But at the same time, I worry that it distorts our priorities and instills a one-sided image of success.

All too often, college students are compelled to choose courses and activities that look good on their resumes. This is certainly understandable, given the price of a college education. In today’s world, we have no choice but to think about potential wages and career paths. It would be unfeasible and impractical to dismiss financial motivations completely. After all, college is an investment and it is natural for students to want to achieve the most from it. We Brunonians are no exception to this rule, but it is a testament to the University that so many students have succeeded in combining their lofty ambitions with intellectual passion.

Brown is a college of overachievers — and I mean that in the best possible sense. But this very fact seems to have resulted in an almost formulaic view of success and achievement. This is perhaps most apparent in the near-universal fixation with summer internships and work experience. For the record, I definitely believe internships can be extraordinarily rewarding. They give us a taste of reality, which is crucial after nine months of living in the “Brown bubble.” Unfortunately, I know too many students who forced themselves into dreary internships for the sake of filling their resumes and demonstrating work experience. I can’t help but feel that their time would have been better spent pursuing their own interests.

I write this from the experience of my own summer. For the first month of our break, I remained in Providence interning with the Energize Rhode Island Coalition, a group of organizations and individuals trying to promote carbon pricing in the state. I had interned part-time throughout the spring semester, and I chose to continue in the summer because I enjoyed every minute of it. It was a phenomenal experience for reasons similar to other summer internships: I met people I would never have interacted with otherwise, gained experience working in a professional setting, learned more about Rhode Island and discovered things about myself in the process. It was everything I could have hoped for, with the added advantage that it complemented my concentration and added to my resume.

So how can I complain about strategic internships without being an utter hypocrite? Well, I spent the rest of my summer at home in Singapore. I could have filled those weeks with another internship or volunteer work to make the most of my limited summer time. Instead, I took time off from the unrealistic deadlines and never-ending pressure. I needed to recharge from the most rewarding but stressful semester of my life, during which the term “free time” was just an impossible pipe dream. After all, studies have shown the importance of rest for well-being and productivity.

It might seem like an exaggeration, but I genuinely gained a lot from my long-overdue months of leisure. I didn’t do anything that could be considered productive or practical by Brown standards. I visited my family and spent time with my grandmother. I rediscovered my vicarious love of sports, painted on canvas, dabbled in a bit of creative writing and expanded my literary horizons by reading numerous books. Each morning, I woke up with a blank schedule and, for the first time in years, enjoyed living purely in the moment. I wanted to give myself some free time, but in reality I kept myself busy — just on my own terms.

The break certainly succeeded in helping me recharge: I came back to Brown excited and eager for another demanding year. But more importantly, it gave me the time and opportunity for some important self-reflection. I had several epiphanies during the summer. I realized I couldn’t survive without my writing; I feel a thrill whenever I encounter anything related to law, and I have a love-hate relationship with political science but can’t seem to walk away from it. I gained conviction about my concentration and career choices over the summer — not only from the amazing internship but also from the purposeless vacation.

As I discussed my summer with my peers, I realized people listened to internship stories but were quick to dismiss the benefits of a break. I couldn’t seem to make people understand that my holiday was as enlightening as my work experience. Perhaps our conception of success is too reliant on quantifiable and demonstrable results. But some things are worth doing without thinking of ambitions or targets.

We spend so much of our time in college competing for grades, leadership positions and internships, but there are moments when it is important to step back from the perpetual rat race. I’m not arguing that everyone should take a free summer and ignore valuable opportunities. Many students thrive on pressure and can balance their lives with ease. But I do have advice for the first-year students who want a break yet can’t bring themselves to turn away from the competition: Don’t feel afraid to escape the race and live for yourself a little. Who knows when you’ll get another chance?

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu.