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Clippings: 20-somethings on the launch pad

“Honey, listen,” my father says, “you and your brother are 99 percent likely to give back to society. But there’s always that 1 percent, and you’ve got some artistic tendencies.”
This was a motivational speech given to me the summer after my junior year of college.
I had just returned mid-July from a semester abroad, convinced I was too late to get a job. It would be my first jobless summer since I was old enough to alphabetize folders and enter data at my father’s school. “No one deserves a vacation at 22,” he told me. He was convinced that this brief stint in unemployed freedom would continue indefinitely due to my interests in backpacking and, god forbid, poetry.
While my mother tried to abate my father’s threats, I could see the fear lurking behind her diplomatic smile; she too wondered if I would ever find long-term, gainful employment. Now, as only one blissful month stands between me and graduation (followed quickly by my parents’ retirement), the parental anxiety has ramped up again. “You have to understand, Ellie,” my mom would say, “your generation is different than ours. We’re just not used to this ‘follow-your-passion’ mentality.”
Both of my parents graduated college and immediately began the teacher certification process. After more than 35 years in education, my father and mother are retiring at ages 62 and 61, respectively. Like many of my friends’ parents, their lives were ruled by practicality.
Graduate from college? Only three words that make sense as the next step: Get a Job.
Any job.
Despite my father’s fears, my peers and I are not lazy. Just because many of us have trodden the road less taken, doesn’t mean the road is a cul-de-sac. Taking a semester off to campaign, travel, or try on a particular occupational hat are not signs of misdirection or indolence. Quite the contrary, I would argue. Then again, it has also been our immense privilege to explore.
While there are clearly a large percentage of Middlebury College students who come from wealthy backgrounds, many do not. Even those of my peers who arrived on campus on full-scholarship — their lives, like my parents’, ruled by the realities of practicality — have been encouraged by the institution to believe that anything is possible. Through alumni connections, fellowships, environmental initiatives and other various funds, a Middlebury student can start an organization, receive compensation for an unpaid internship, travel internationally for research or outreach or study, and create a symposium. I would argue it is this wealth of opportunity, along with the innate drive that it took students to get here, that inculcates this dreaded reach-for-the-stars mentality. I think we are all feeling the pressure.
It isn’t enough to just get a job anymore, it must be the job, the culmination of your every passion. And if you can’t find it, why, you must invent it! “But wait,” (you may be thinking), “the real world is not Middlebury College. When you want to study in Madrid, or create an NGO, it’s more difficult than petitioning the Student Government Organization or the board of trustees.” And yet every year, graduates keep relentlessly carving out their own life paths.
Corinne Almquist, a 2009 graduate, began a gleaning project to bring “seconds” to food shelves. Woody Jackson ’70 dared to follow the life of (gasp!) an artist; and his colorful landscapes and emblematic cows have become a Vermont icon. One of last year’s grads, David Dolginow, is now regional food systems analyst at Vermont Refrigerated Storage.
Corrine’s classmate David Small works for Blackboard Mobile, a hot new software company in San Francisco run by techie 20-somethings. Andy Rossmeissl ’05 and Jake Whitcomb ’06 (along with Professor Jon Isham) started the local sustainability initiative Brighter Planet, providing carbon data to individuals and companies. Sierra Crane-Murdoch ’09 is a freelance journalist, tackling the dirty issues of coal mining in America.
We may be a generation of idealists, but wouldn’t you prefer that to pessimists, Dad?
Perhaps we future graduates should look to Yelizavetta Kofman and Astri von Arbin Ahlander for the best advice. These 2007 Middlebury grads founded The Lattice Group, a nonprofit that, in their words, “conducts research and sparks dialogue about work-life issues from a Gen Y perspective.” They argue that people in my generation should not think of career in terms of a predetermined upward climb on the corporate ladder, but in terms of a “lattice,” a framework that provides the opportunity for horizontal and diagonal movement from jobs in one industry to those in another. As they say, “A latticework weaves in all directions. This means … a more flexible career progression.”
I take comfort in this lattice, and breathe a sign of relief. Ahh. We will be OK. With such boundless self-motivation and neurotic go-getting, we are bound to build a voice worth contributing to society. And if that 1 percent looming large as doubt in my father’s mind represents all creativity, I would urge my peers to cling to that 1 percent. Dare to create your own lattice out of the strings of multi-experience, and weave yourself a lifework of art.
Ellie Moore is an intern at the Addison Independent this winter and will graduate from Middlebury College at the end of this month.

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