The flipside of upward mobility

This year, I’ll make about as much as the average American. I’m 20; I’m not old enough to legally drink. I don’t have a full-time job. Shortly after I graduate, I’ll make more money in a year than the largest amount my parents made combined when they were both still alive and working. This will most surely happen before I’m old enough to rent a car. I used to think the idea that, at some point, making a six-figure salary would be amazing — now I usually don’t apply to jobs if their TC is only 100k. I guess it’s always easy to get accustomed to the idea of having more.

These days, the American dream boils down to upward mobility, whether from within or to escape an adverse situation elsewhere. We all want higher salaries, more prestigious jobs, better benefits, perkier perks. But what is promised to Duke students is unfathomable for most of the country. Speaking to friends from high school this summer after completing my tech internship, I realized just how different my hopes and expectations have become in the past four years.

In the context of Duke, my career trajectory is perhaps rather average — or, if not average, then unremarkable. Get a high-paying junior summer internship at a well-respected company in a suitable field; use that to launch yourself into an equally prestigious new grad role. While I am not low-income, I grew up middle class in an average middle-class area, which translates to being in the lower third of family incomes here, from my estimations. I am beginning to reckon with the fact that post-graduation, I will be decidedly upper class.

This is by no means a conduit to brag, but instead is something I think many students who come from non-prosperous backgrounds are starting to think about when making career decisions. My first article for The Chronicle was about my feelings as a non-rich student here, and I’m glad the recent New York Times piece has somewhat opened up the conversation to talk about class. Growing up, I never had my basic needs unfulfilled — in the context of our country, my family was doing just fine — but Duke has opened my mind to a whole world of potential items and experiences I never knew I wanted and can’t yet have.

It’s not just the salary differences for cost of living variation between places like rural Ohio and San Francisco; it’s the opportunity gap. For me, tech is the epitome of the contemporary American dream and while we love to pretend that it’s a perfect meritocracy, so much of achieving upward mobility is built on luck.

It’s not that I haven’t worked hard for what I have, but the overarching forces determining how well I end up doing are rooted in chance. I’m lucky my high school received grants from Amazon to provide AP Computer Science classes, for which I had a very supportive female teacher and thus was able to see programming as a potential career, since I’d never met another programmer — for context, at Duke, I didn’t have a female CS professor until last semester. I was also lucky to get off the waitlist for Duke and to have parents who supported me in going to college out of state; this seldom happens in my community. Once I got here, it has been a lot easier to get lucky.

For many people, Americans and beyond, tech is the contemporary gold rush of opportunity. This is a much better analogy, as we cannot pretend that success in this field is all based on hard work. In gold mining — which I know from my watching of Gold Rush — one of the most important factors is whether your land actually contains gold and, if so, how much. Sure, how much effort you put into panning for that gold will determine your output, but you can’t find what isn’t there, and you often don’t know where to look without the advice of experienced miners. No matter how hard they try, some people will never find any; a few may get lucky with a barren field.

However, the act of moving upward begets the matter of leaving the past behind. I resonated with a recent letter to the editor from an FGLI student who graduated in the ‘70s and said that the experiences of students who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder at Duke have stayed similarly frustrating. “Those who are fortunate can still go home and be proud of their humble roots, but they will always see home with different eyes, and the visits will be short because the chance to advance lies outside those roots.” I found the one chunk of gold in an infertile field and, as they say, ran for the hills. It makes no sense to give up the land from which you can find flakes of gold in every handful.

Sitting in the office of the tech company at which I interned this summer, looking out at San Francisco’s Bay Bridge on one side and the Transamerica Pyramid on the other, complete with all the stereotypical tech office amenities, I’d sometimes just stop and marvel at how far I’d come. I’d realized the promise of the West. I knew it would feel good — and oh, how good it felt — but I never stopped to think of how guilty I would feel.

Guilty that people who work harder than me make exponentially less money. Guilty that my comparable peers in high school are getting the short end of the stick in their own professional pursuits. Guilty that my tech friends and I see such large amounts of money as lowball offers. Guilty that I can now afford to workout in Lululemon and own multiple items from Patagonia and that the clothes from the stores of my youth feel embarrassingly cheap. Guilty that I have enough disposable income that I don’t have to say no to things. No matter how good it feels to have hit gold or how successful I become in my career, I can never forget what I am irrevocably leaving behind.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.


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