“My Voice” Essay: Must I Be Uncommon?
I am a junior now. And when I look out at the real world on the horizon, it’s decorated with ominous clouds.
You see, this is the first time on this trip through life that I haven’t had a map to follow. So far, I’ve just had to pass my classes. First grade led to second, and high school graduation led to college convocation. But where will college graduation lead? My dad often asks, “How’s that internship hunt going?” My friends innocently ask, “What are your summer plans?”
These questions, inserted into conversations as friendly filler, are starting to give me a constant case of clammy hands and panicky gut. I dream of becoming a respected journalist, but I’m in serious need of directions. I have no idea what my next step is, but I have a hunch it’s supposed to be remarkable.
The source of this feeling must be something in the water at Mount Holyoke, the result of a steady drizzle of pioneer propaganda. The mantra of greatness reverberates through my professors, peers, admission pamphlets, and even President Pasquerella. My writing professors believe that words can change the world. My adviser calls journalists “professors to the people,” making knowledge accessible to the masses. These truths are her religion, and I am a convert. Scanning the state of today’s media, how could I not go into journalism?
So, as I contemplate deadlines for internships with NPR, the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the New Yorker, and Ms. magazine, I panic. “Maybe I’ll just go to bartending school after college,” I muse, half-kidding. “Hanging out at the bar worked for Hemingway, right?” The idea makes my dad nervous and confuses my friends.
My dad is comforted by my econ major: “You could always go into business, sweetie. My company values good writers,” he tells me. This idea bores me to death. A career in the corporate world seems so unremarkable, so common. Doesn’t he know Mount Holyoke women must be uncommon? An english major is supposed to be an award-winning novelist, the voice of her generation. A film major will be a fearless documentarian. A biology major will work for Doctors without Borders…or cure cancer. But what if a student wants to go into PR, international business, or private-practice medicine? What if she wants to be a parent or a volunteer?
I get the impression that my dear, soon-to-be alma mater is nurturing me to bloom in the direction of nonprofit work and starving artistry. On the one hand, this is fine, because I want to be a starving artist…well, a starving writer, really. The job market for writers is bleak, though if by some miracle I do become a pulitzer prize–winning journalist, I will be published and applauded. But what if I fail? At times, this feels so frightening that I can’t even write a cover letter, fill out an application, or work on my résumé.
Yet, I am slowly learning to accept this expectation to accomplish great things. Although it stresses me out, the pressure also inspires me. In a year and a half, I will be catapulted out of this ornate academic bubble. The bill-paying, food-on-the-table demands of the real world may initially knock me flat on my back, but I’m going to get up and do everything I can to save the world.
—By Olivia Lammel ’14
This article appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
April 10, 2013
[…] is an essay I wrote last year for my school’s Alumnae Quarterly. I think it sums up, pretty well, the pressure a lot of us college kids are feeling right […]
I remember feeling quite similarly as I neared graduation in 1999. And as it turned out, my life took a path completely unlike the one that I had vaguely mapped out and I thank God for that every day because I love where I’m at and I wouldn’t change it. Nope, I’m not the novelist that I aspired to be, but I’m a hell of social worker and a mom and a wife. Not too shabby.
Save the world or save yourself? If career in corporate world is borring, then you go save the world because it is fun, enjoyable, gives you sense of respect for who you are, that you are somehow above and outside the system. Other people make you come alive. There is nothing wrong with that, if you feel like you have pasion and understanding for another human being and her problems in all of their dimensions. Just a recognition is enough though: if you think you saved the working mothers, the starving children, the sick and tired, they saved you equally enough.
I am an alumna from the class of 2006, and let me assure you that the vast majority of my peers have normal, non “world-changing” jobs. Vinnie Ferraro, at our convocation, told us that the best way for us to make an impact was to find what we were good at and then do our best at it – that the world does not need people doing work they’re not suited to do just because they think it’s more “uncommon.” For some women I knew at MHC, that meant working at the White House. For others, it meant becoming a nurse or managing a bar and restaurant. For some, it’s raising their kids. For me, it meant leaving grad school and changing careers!
The fact of the matter is that applying that “uncommon” philosophy to just your career is incredibly limiting. First of all, because your career is not your life. Mary Lyon said “uncommon WOMEN,” not “uncommon WORKERS.” Second of all, because I don’t believe my Mount Holyoke education was solely about finding a job. That’s a huge part of why we go to college, of course, but that’s not the only reason. I went to MHC because I knew I would get to spend four years in a place with other people who love learning and I was richly, richly rewarded. My life is immeasurably more satisfying as a result of what I learned at MHC, both inside and outside of the classroom – and that is “uncommon” enough for me.
Dear Olivia, I too was in English composition (’55). Mechanics meant I had little finished writing until computers came on the scene but I have found other talents of which I was not aware and I believe you are also an Uncommon Women as your other respondents have indicated. Enjoy whatever internship you find but know it’s just a step toward discovering who you are. BetsyWin
Oh, Olivia, we all feel this way sometimes! You have, rightly, been taught that you can be anything you want to be, so pressure to meet that expectation can be overwhelming. Take it as a blessing and think of all the young women who have not received this gift. We all have work to do to change this — that’s your “uncommon woman” responsibility, and you’ll succeed with your gift of eloquent communication. Kudos for admitting anxieties — alongside these doubts will emerge feelings of gratitude and accomplishment. Allow yourself to enjoy victories and to take credit for achievements.
I graduated in ’92 and have spent much of the past 20+ (!) years wondering if I have diluted the MHC legacy with my non-fabulousness. Last year, at 40, I quit my horrid yet lucrative corporate job to pursue independent work facilitating global health partnerships. Income is intermittent but so much less important now, and I’ve never been happier. Ironically, I read your essay as I sit at the World Health Assembly in Geneva as a civilian observer, literally in the midst of “cancer curers and Doctors Without Borders”. I am neither, but I am here, feeding my intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and exercising my voice for a cause so dear to my heart. I decided in recent years to place myself in intimidating yet inspiring situations to see what emerges and lots of uncommonly great stuff has transpired. You are a gifted communicator, so whatever it is you have to say, shout it out boldly and proudly.
I am class of 1990 and felt just the way you do when I was in college! Since graduating I have worried that I have not lived up to MHC expectations. Although, as many have said here, I think I have done uncommonly well and affected people in uncommonly good ways even if I haven’t made millions, cured cancer, or become an award winning something or other. I have just embarked on a journey towards becoming a teacher and my blog name is uncommonteacher as I think a Mt. Holyoke woman is the type who has the gumption to undertake this sort of thing at age 45. MHC wants you to dream big, gives you the skills to make dreams reality, and would not have accepted you if they didn’t know you could do it!
Olivia, I applaud your thoughtfulness, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: You are already an uncommon woman. Your awareness, drive and sense of service, while it can feel at times weighty, is a gift you will carry through the rest of your time on campus, and ever after.
As you’ll learn when you walk through the throngs of clapping alums during the Laurel Parade (of which I will one, celebrating my 20th next year!), we support you and your pursuits, as long as you are true to yourself and try your darndest to get from A to B.
Whether those aspirations and accomplishments include a Nobel Prize, making your first million bucks by 30, eating ramen every night while writing your butt off (as a journalist for many years, I can tell you deprivation comes with the territory) or exhibiting the phenomenal dedication of a stay-at-home mom, we’ve got your back.
Fulfilling our lives’ purpose(s) is/are like oxygen to uncommon women. We can feel suffocated when our contributions seem commonplace. Do yourself a favor: don’t be too hard on yourself when setbacks come – and they will – they are often the most illuminating of all. And just keep breathing.
Like a parent’s voice in your head, the MHC mandate to be Uncommon never leaves you. In truth, you wouldn’t have arrived on campus without an innate drive to be uncommon. In those stretches when your life feels routine, or the guys in the office assume you’ll do the dishes in the sink, it’s bolstering to remember who you are at the core. But that “Uncommon” identity can be a little haughty and illusionary, too. Don’t let your sense of purpose or high standards spoil your humility, fool you into thinking you’re “above” doing your time with entry-level assignments at work, or make you scornful of beautifully undramatic things–the reliable parent, the stable and friendly employee with no desire to conquer the world, or the quiet and uncomplaining courage of someone you may otherwise consider common.
P.S. Don’t fret about your future. It’s important to have, say, a 3-5 year plan, but you’ll find that each step tends to open paths you hadn’t anticipated. Enjoy the journey!
Olivia, i am rounding the corner toward my 50th reunion, and my daughter graduated from MHC in the 90s. I have thought a lot about what it means to be ‘uncommon’, and talked about it with many an alum. Here’s some good news for you. Although most of us will not win a Pulitzer, my wager is that each of us alums holds within many seeds of the Uncommon–and yours will sprout in your lifetime. I am a garden-variety small town psychotherapist–one who has never published anything, or become famous. But I often read poems with my clients, and I listen uncommonly hard. They refer to me their relatives and friends, and return when they need shoring up. I started rollerblading when I was 51. I painted my first painting when I was 58. I have raised thoughtful and principled kids who are contributing to this world, and who are raising yet another generation to love knowledge and books and the human condition. Mount Holyoke has settled into your bones, Olivia. Your uncommonness already shows, and it will surprise you many times along the way. No worries, dear. Follow your dreams.
Olivia, I’m class of ’63 (argh – how did I get so old??) and it was a half-joke at that time that if you wanted a job after graduation from MHC, you had better enroll in Katherine Gibbs and get some secretarial skills. I majored in French and knew I wanted to teach; that lasted for 3 years. Since then, I have had more careers (not jobs, actual careers) than I care to count. They all involved teaching/training/consulting/writing and I loved all of them. One thing leads to another, and the adage “do what you love and the money will follow” is not totally off base. I love teaching. I am a teaching artist (ARTIST???) who goes all over the country doing what I love.
My daughter, who graduated from UMich and wanted to be a magazine writer, ended up in P.R. Started doing PR for magazines and wrote free-lance. Became VP of PR for Hearst Magazines (still used her writing skills) and now has moved on to another company. She has written a best-selling book, Be Your Own Best Publicist, which is filled with great career advice. Who’d have thought?? This long story is all to say that you should not worry. Do what you do best and you never know where it will take you.. Wishing you the best!!
Sursum corda, Olivia. I am class of 1960, and I had the same misgivings then (I’m now age 74). My late mother Luella North (Kemble) was MHC class of 1933 and worked for the College during the 1960’s and 70’s, earning the Alumnae Medal of Honor for establishing a career development program. She was devoted to MHC, but told me that at the time she worked there she thought the Superwoman thing was being overdone, and that there was too much pressure on rising graduates to right away get a “wonderful, exciting job”. You sound like a serious, motivated person and with that you can’t fail. You may find a calling later that you never dreamed of. In the meantime, hang in!
Olivia, it took me 30 plus years to figure out that I don’t have to worry and stress out and pass all manner of societal and academic tests to be an Uncommon Woman. I AM an Uncommon Woman…just the way I am. And, so are you. No matter what route we chose, or which route chose us, we are all Uncommon Women. Today. Right Now. Forever more.
I remember feeling the same way during my last year at Mt. Holyoke. Professor Pyle gave me some valuable advice that I’ve turned to many times – something along the lines of: “Don’t think too far into the future. Consider where you might like to be in 3-5 years and strive towards that.” He also told me that your paid job doesn’t have to define your contribution to the world. So, even if you take a “common” job, you can still be uncommon on the side. Both pieces of advice have served me pretty well in striving to be uncommon!
Reading this essay reminded me of my own panic over the years of not “living up” to my degree. It worries me sometimes the way we use the word Uncommon now. I used to think it meant being unique and independent, forging your own path. Now it seems to mean that everyone has to do something that fits a very narrow definition of success, by winning a Pulitzer or joining Doctors without Borders. Sending that message to our students and young alumnae is going to produce a very depressed generation of MHC women. And it saddened me to see the roles of “parent” and “volunteer” excluded from the possibilities for a woman who wants to be Uncommon. I don’t know that any one MHC woman could ever “save the world,” but I can guarantee you that the collective of women who do will include parents and volunteers.
I wish Olivia all the best. I hope she gives herself permission to let go of some of the pressure and just start somewhere. Lives and careers take long, windy, unpredictable paths. Your degree is not a weight on your sholders, it is a key that can unlock many doors, and the good news is that there is no wrong door to choose.
Strive high, of course. But don’t stress yourself so much! The main thing is: do whatever you want to do, and do it/them uncommonly well. The rest will take care of itself.