Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui
We started our senior year overwhelmed and awed at how much we have learned and changed over the past three years. Our minds, however, were soon taken away from contemplation and nostalgia towards something less abstract: our post-graduation plans. Some of us feel that we need to make a choice — to suit up and dive into the corporate world, or take the path less traveled and lead a career that solely contributes to social good. Our swift problem identification at times alienates us from reality and makes us prone to believing that there are only two options available — creating economic value or creating social value. What we overlook is the fact that we live in a time in which careers don’t have to be static, as jobs don’t come with a lifetime guarantee, and making this choice is a constant factor we need to consider as we build a career.
Many of us are dreading the day when we have to leave the people we met at NYU Abu Dhabi; we feel that this type of community is unique and idealistic. But leaving does not have to mean that we will lose this community. The experiences we gained here can remain active in our lives, and more specifically, in our careers. NYUAD has prepared us to work with diverse teams, in situations that range from class projects to global competitions and community outreach. Many companies actively recruit for students who have participated in these things. But it’s more than the tangible work that has been done in those projects; we’ve developed an understanding of how diversity leads to progress that cannot be achieved otherwise. We learned how to question the origin of everything and to always look for purpose. We met people and heard stories that made us reflect on our society's needs. Through countless projects, we tried to create long term impact and give back. We got the rare chance to zoom out and look at the world as a whole and not through our own cultural lenses.
This brings us back to the career choice of taking a corporate job or pursuing a project we’re passionate about. We should not force ourselves to make a choice when the two choices are not fundamentally different; they both seek to create value, albeit for different stakeholders. People have constructed that distinction, and so they have the power to deconstruct it. We can bring in the cultural awareness we learn everyday on this campus into each brainstorming session at work. We can engage with the products and services we’re creating just as we did at NYUAD, perceiving them as children of our own innovation rather than deliverables. We learned how compassion is a prerequisite for a successful relationship, personal and professional alike. Because of this, we can form connections with our clients and colleagues that go beyond contracts and that build toward a common purpose.
Upon enrollment, we are given incredible support and funding from the school, guaranteeing that all students’ needs are met. What happens then? When we are no longer burdened by immediate needs, surrounded by other ambitious peers, and learning with unlimited resources, we get to be create, take risks and serve others. From investing personal time to run Student Interest Groups to initiating projects like the Girls and Boys Education Network, Staff Appreciation Day and Autism Awareness Month that serve the wider community of Abu Dhabi, we are actively encouraged and supported to strive for purpose that transcends the self — the highest human need. This, perhaps, is the greatest privilege we have: the opportunity to both contemplate and execute ways to make an impact, while receiving one of the best liberal arts education without significant financial burden.
Knowing that this privilege is upon our shoulders as we transition into the real world, we feel conflicted that choosing certain jobs would almost betray the altruistic and compassionate values we embodied during our four years. Can we ever reconcile this intrinsic need to create, learn and serve others with the extrinsic need to make a living and hold a certain social status? The answer seems bleak, but only because we look to that first career after college as the endpoint to immediately fulfill both needs. Perhaps this is the peril of instant gratification seeking millennials, as the generation before have labeled us. Having spent the past 16 years at academic institutions in which progress was strictly linear and predictable, quantified by numbers and letter grades, we expect to apply this linear progression paradigm to starting a career.
If we learned anything from our wise elders’ career stories, we would realize that we can no longer plan every career move as we did with the classes we registered in as per the academic bulletin. So rather than planning and expecting to attain a good salary, work-life balance and social impact, maybe we should focus on growing as individuals, both professionally and personally. We should seek to develop our skills, which can be anything from navigating at a 10,000-person corporate ladder, learning a new programming language on the job or communicating with difficult supervisors. The setting to learn those skills most effectively will vary from large corporations to nonprofit organizations.
As we work on acquiring these skills throughout different careers we will one day realize that we are at the right position to create and give back. By connecting the dots in retrospect, we may even realize that we have already made a significant impact. Until then, we will never know how specific efforts have translated into specific outcomes. We do know, however, how to empathize with strangers, how to identify problems in our community and initiate solutions and how to make a home out of a foreign country. We also know what intrinsic motivation feels like and how we can apply it to find meaning and excitement in a career that not only creates sustainable economic wealth but also social impact. That being said, it is also important to note that our contribution to society is not constrained by our careers. Every small thing we do, thought we share, connection we build makes us present in society. And that presence is, in itself, social impact.
Dana Abu Ali is a staff writer. Jihyun Kim is a contributing writer. Email them at [email protected]