My friend Alyson Zureick spent the past year in Sierra Leone instead of going to law school after graduating from Princeton. She's been researching ways to stop child trafficking and increase economic development in the impoverished country through the International Rescue Committee.
So when Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust scolded college graduates this year for rejecting public service in favor of high-paying Wall Street jobs, I knew she hadn't been to my neck of the woods. She claimed Ivy League graduates in particular are forsaking humankind to chase the dollar, citing Harvard's track record of sending 20 percent of its graduates to financial services and consulting.
I can't speak to the motivations of students at Harvard. But my experience indicates today's college students are more than willing to defer big money in pursuit of a higher calling for at least a while.
Zureick has also worked at the New York City Bar Association's justice center. She got the position through Princeton Project 55, which has put graduates in jobs at about 350 U.S. nonprofits. "I do think there are a lot of young people going into public service," she said in an instant message from Africa.
Nationwide, there are unprecedented numbers of college graduates choosing service.
Teach for America, a group that places recent graduates in low-income schools, reported a record 24,718 applicants this year. The Peace Corps has 8,000 volunteers overseas, the most in 37 years.
At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where I attend, the number of students enrolled in the business school is dwarfed by those in the biology department — with potentially less well-paid careers in medicine and research waiting. Its School of Government just celebrated its 75th year of training future civil servants.
And with the state of the newspaper industry like it is, would the office at the student paper be so crowded if we were all obsessed with money?
In its defense, Harvard does have a Center for Public Interest Careers, which places students in nonprofit and public service internships and jobs.
If prestigious universities are having a hard time getting their students to pursue careers in service, it is the school's failure to harness the volunteering fervor many of their students possess. For freshmen entering UNC last fall, 94 percent had participated in community service programs in high school.
That drive isn't lost upon admission. At UNC, I've seen the Public Service Scholars program grow into one of the largest groups on campus.
The Harvard president's speech just doesn't ring true to me. Sure, we want enough money to live on, but most of us aren't focused on becoming millionaires. The reward of a public-minded career is salary enough.
Andrew Dunn, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an intern on the Times editorial board.