Fare Thee Well, Cornell

This will probably be my last blog post here.

NEW (OLD) BLOG: www.ivy.phoebeyu.com

Words cannot express the immense amount of gratitude I have for Cornell. Three years ago TO THE DAY, I arrived in Ithaca for the first time, having only before caught glimpses of the campus on glossy brochures, Google Maps, and friends’ Facebook albums. I brought with me two suitcases that contained my entire life, and left behind in Vancouver everyone I knew. As the Prepare volunteer’s car sped toward West Campus and the scenic beauty of my alma mater came into view, I distinctly remember feeling a combination of excitement, awe, and trepidation. I wondered (didn’t we all?) if I was the right fit for Cornell and vice versa. I wondered if I would do well here. I wondered what it would be like to look back on my college experience and how I would’ve given anything, in that moment when I first saw the clock tower on Ho Plaza, to know what the future had in store for me.

When I first walked into that second-floor suite in Flora Rose, I would have never guessed that the girls in my suite would become my best friends at Cornell. I would’ve never guessed that we would take weekend trips out of the country together, meet each others’ families, and celebrate every success and drink to get over every setback together.

Three years ago, if you told me that I would meet the love of my life on a Shortline Bus from New York to Ithaca, I would have laughed, checked your sanity, and laughed some more. Yet here we are.

I took a gamble by switching from two very sensible and practical majors – finance and computer science – to something I have to explain every time I introduce myself – industrial and labor relations. Boy, was I lucky I did. It’s true, ILR has the most amazing and caring professors at Cornell. Under the guidance of Professors Friedman and Compa, I managed to cobble together a thesis on labor relations and multinational-companies in China. Professor Gold let me TA for his labor law class, even though I spent an entire semester being terrified of getting called on, socratic style. Professor Jackson taught the first economics class I’ve ever understood. My advisor, Professor Lieberwitz, is a role model, though I will never forget the time I lost my voice and she made fun of me in class and threatened to dock participation points. Christina Homrighouse asked me to co-teach a seminar with her in the Johnson School, which pretty much makes her the coolest faculty member ever. Professor Nelson taught me the value of rhetorics and introduced me to a wonderful debate partner who’s off to do great things. The list goes on and on. The point is, my education at Cornell was not a process in which authority figures passed on knowledge to students. Instead, it was a collaborative learning effort where professors respected, valued, and even learned from what each of us contributed. More than anything, Cornell as an institution recognizes the dynamic, ever-changing world we live in and seek to provide education in a way as to be relevant, engaging, and globally-minded.

Without Cornell, I would have never had the opportunity to study abroad at Oxford. I’m sure you guys all know how much I enjoyed my time at St. Catherine’s College given all that gushing that permeated this blog.

The Cornell in Washington program afforded me the opportunity to work for what I think is the greatest institution in this country.

My experiences with my business fraternity, Phi Gamma Nu, was also one of the important highlights. This network of brothers is so supportive and talented. Also, shout-outs to Mock Trial, Forensics, KAPi, CCG, Hilltop, Entrepreneurship@Cornell, etc.

I started writing this entry with the aim of covering the major components of my Cornell experience. Now I’ve realized that it’s simply impossible to do these three years justice. I came to university with very little and it was thanks to Cornell’s generosity that I was able to finish college. Truthfully, I counted my blessings every day to be able to simply wake up and attend class. Through it all, I’m incredibly grateful for the love and support my parents have provided me along the way. I know I don’t say this enough, but mom and dad, you guys rock and I love you guys so much.

As I spend the next few years in New York City trying to make my mark on corporate America, I will never forget the humble place I came from and the warmth and fervor with which Cornell welcomed me into her embrace.

Any person, any study.

Phoebe Yu
Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University
Class of 2012

P.S. – I will go back to blogging at ivy.phoebeyu.com. Hopefully the posts will be a bit more frequent!

Different Sides of the Room

Cornell had several race-related incidents this year. There was the controversy over the oriental font used for a poster for comedian Margaret Cho, which resulted in the poster being pulled and apologies issued. More recently, there was an uproar about individuals at the Sigma Pi house throwing bottles at passing African American students and one non-Cornell student hurling insults with a reference to Trayvon Martin to taunt the students. The man responsible for the incident was later identified and fined.

These events have led me to examine my own experiences with race, experiences that thankfully have not been nearly as severe as what happened at Cornell. What really ignited my drive to explore this issue a small incident that happened during Cornell in Washington.

Towards the end of the CIW semester, we divided into small groups of 8 or 9 students to present our papers in seminar rooms. In my room, there was a long conference table at the center of the room and I sat at the side farther away from the door. The side closer to the door gradually filled up as students scrambled in with their notes and dashed to the first open seat they saw. Eventually, that side filled up except for one cramped seat in the middle while my side of the room had a handful of open spaces.

At this point, a girl in my program (who will remain anonymous) came into the room and wandered over to the more empty side of the table. Before she sat down, she thought for a moment, and then turned abruptly and made a beeline for the cramped chair which she pulled out to make room.

I was puzzled and curiosity got the better of me. “Ha, what’s wrong with this side of the table?” I asked lightly.

The girl seemed surprised that I asked. I could see her debating internally for a second, then she said something I will never forget, “Well, I thought Asians should sit on different sides of the room.”

My first reaction was to laugh, as if I had just heard a joke only the two Asian-American girls now at the opposite sides of the table could understand. My next reaction was to tell her “I knew what she meant,” to diffuse the tension that had permeated the room.

One of my friends in the room, trying to decipher the remark, piped up and said, “I don’t think that was as clear as you think it was.” People in the room laughed. Some nodded. The tension was gone and we started the paper presentations.

It was such a small incident that I kept asking myself why it continued to bother me. What was the big deal? Why did I feel this discomfort caused by the combination of empathy and disgust? Then I realized it bothered me because race was the sole basis for this individual’s decision was race. Someone purposely, consciously chose not to sit somewhere and chose a seat that was harder to get to because of race. It bothered me because if I was still the exact same person but had a different skin color, this musical chair would not have happened. I don’t think it was meant to be a personal affront, but there was something deeper there.

I told this story to a few close friends and they were confused – “She was Asian too, so what gives?” I understand the remark now, weeks later, no better than I did in the moment. What I grasped then was that it meant the two of us shouldn’t be in close proximity in a room, because it may draw attention to the fact that we’re both Asian, and that was somehow bad. Perhaps two Asians being together emphasize the Asian-ness of each person. This part I understood. When people with a shared characteristic group themselves together, they lose a bit of individuality, are perceived as a collective, and are referred to as said collective. That’s why in high school cliches you have “the jocks”  “the nerds” and  “the band geeks” and not “Steve” “Ted” or “Sue” the individuals who each have a diverse set of talents. From this, I inferred that perhaps this girl wanted to be her own individual, and not to be perceived as “one of the Asians.” That would mean she wanted to shed the racial identity she was born with and my mere presence was impeding her progress. So where does it end? If we should sit at opposite ends of the room, should we eat at different tables as well? Should we be friends with different friend groups?

I don’t know if I considered the remark racist (honestly, maybe it was just a paper-induced bad morning), but it did propel me into looking at research associated with intra-racial racism. This is an area that has received very little attention in social sciences literature. Intra-racial racism occurs “when an individual is discriminated against because of their race by a member of their own ethnic/racial group, as opposed to inter-racial racism where discrimination is also based on the notion of race but where the perpetrator and target of racism are from different racial groups” (Paradies, 2006, Oxford University Press). A 2004 study in the Journal of Black Psychology explored perceptions of inter- and intragroup racism in a sample of 269 black university students. It found that 15% of “problematic life experiences” in the subjects were attributed to intra-racial racism. Another paper out of Rutgers in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that 28% of African Americans and 15% of Latinos “reported intra-racial racism as the most prevalent form of racism they experienced.” This 2010 op-ed in the New York Times further explores the intra-racial issues associated with “colorist.” While Asians don’t physically exhibit “shades” of Asian-ness, I’m sure we fall along a spectrum on how strongly we identify with this race.

Intra-racial racism isn’t a priority in this day and age because there are more significant problems with INTER-ethnic group racism. Unfortunately, it’s still something we have to deal with. When we witness exchanges like this, is it justified? Is it something we can – and want to – change? There’s little reason to fault the person for doing it if it does conform to that status quo, but i wonder if we could change that status quo.

In Defense of Working for Wall Street

At the end of this blog entry, you may be tempted to call me soul-less, morally bankrupt, and just a bad person in general. Let me explain.

By now you have probably heard about the New York Times OpEd resignation letter that caused quite the stir on Wall Street. Greg Smith’s editorial, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” discussed the toxic and destructive culture at his old firm (By the way, is anyone else picturing Greg Smith at his desk gleefully typing up his opinion piece knowing the firestorm that it will cause, all the while complying with pitchbook requests from his superiors with gritted teeth?). Greg said that he knew it was time to leave Goldman when he realized he “could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.” Indeed, for those of us who have done campus recruiting, someone did look at us in the eye and tell us what a great place investment banks are to launch our careers.

The flavor of the month for reporters seems to be this investment banking recruiting “crisis” at elite campuses around the country (I’m looking at you, Dealbook). These articles typically start off the same way: some reference to the heydays of investment banking, a reminder of whatever recent scandal that’s causing a firestorm, and then, the crowd favorite: a quote from an Ivy League student or an recent graduate from an elite college about how he/she used to want to work for Wall Street, but now found something actually meaningful and fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong, I have quite a bit of respect for people like them. It certainly takes resolve, and even courage, to look the other way when all your peers are printing resumes on ridiculous five-pound papers and flocking to bank recruitment sessions. Some articles finish on a high point, noting that the percentage of recent graduates heading to Wall Street have dropped significantly, hence the “crisis,” I suppose.

My question is this, is anyone defending working for Wall Street? Why have I not read a single account from a summer analyst/analyst/associate/VP/D/MD championing the Ivy League-to-Wall Street exodus? To the 20% or so Cornellians heading to Wall Street and all the junior people working in the industry, where is YOUR side of the story? I can think of three reasons for this silence.

  1. Everyone hates the job and would never publicly announce any inkling of love for it
  2. Everyone knows the perks and benefits of the jobs are so self-explanatory that there is no need to defend working on Wall Street
  3. Everyone signed confidentiality agreements

I have a feeling that it’s the last point. Given the lack of literature in this area, I have taken it upon myself to try to provide some insight to the casual observer. So with all those opportunities out there, why did people like me pick investment banking?

Disclaimer time: Notice I will say “some of us,” as these may or may not be my personal reasons for choosing investment banking. Everything from here on is coming from a new analyst’s perspective. I concede that my experience with this world is limited to a 10-week summer stint. The rest of the entry is based on my and other people’s experiences in recruiting. Also keep in mind that there is a large disconnect between what junior and senior people do at a bank. 

Even at an analyst level, some of us actually find the work fascinating. Believe it or not, some people enjoy finance. They like following the markets and finding undervalued companies and running analyses on them. Corporate raids and shareholder activism excites them (there are movies made about M&A, after all). Some of us go into finance because it’s our passion. Bullshit, you say. You’ve deluded yourself into thinking you actually enjoy this. How can you enjoy anything if you are working 100 hours a week? I would say that one’s enjoyment of something decreases incrementally because of the hours, but even with all the drawbacks, the leftover interest some of us have for finance still exceeds any interest we have in some other subject. In other words, benefits exceed costs.

I fully recognize why work is called “work” and not “play” – it’s because you have to do work! In college we are instilled with the belief that we have to find our “one true passion” and follow that passion and make it into a career. Society views it as a failing or even a waste of a life if someone is not doing something he/she absolutely loves. I think in some ways, that’s misguided. The alternative message is that our “one true passion” does not have to align with our career goals. We could have many interests and by turning one of those interests into a career, we have succeeded. My one true passion boils down to alternating between watching Survivor and eating ice cream for days on end, and maybe sneaking in a vacation to some exotic locale every other week. That would make me a lazy bum, you say. The lack of productivity would also probably drive me crazy. People in investment banking aren’t just interested in making a lot of money, but rather, they find reward in a career they have an interest in.

Some of us are not qualified to do the other things people have suggested. I observed over the summer that the common denominator amongst all the interns was this raw willingness to work hard – whatever it took to get the job done. Beyond that, we’re a pretty normal, albeit overachieving, bunch. This means some of us do not possess the keen minds of our colleagues on the Engineering School or the literary skills of those who are pursuing writing or the dramatic arts. A lot of commentators stated that students should go into start-ups. Having visited Stanford two years ago and seeing first-hand the entrepreneurial culture there, I say go for it. What’s holding us back? Well, some of us may not have ideas for start-ups. Some of us may not know enough programming languages to crank out an app. Some of us are just risk-averse (more on the ironic nature of this later). I read a study a while back that said the most successful and most common type of entrepreneurs are people in their 40s. These are folks that have already worked for bigger companies and through experience, figured out a better way to do things and started their own businesses. I’m not making excuses for not doing start-ups. I’m just saying that some of us don’t have brilliant ideas right now and are picking a business in which we want to gain more experiences. What about other fields? Marketing? Nope, don’t have an inkling of creativity in me. HR? Tried, didn’t work out. Non-profit or the government? See below.

Some of us have circumstances that limit the opportunities that we have. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: a big part of my decision boils down to financial reasons. Ironically, I chose banking because I’m risk-averse when it comes to my own finances. I was once in a situation where I was denied the opportunity of my dreams because of finances. I promised myself one thing: I will never let finances be the reason I, or my children, cannot seize upon an opportunity. To do this, I must make a financial security net with enough cushion to handle any fall, because I realized that I could depend on no one but myself. Investment banking is one of the means to this end as well as an end in itself. I am risk-averse in the sense that I am not willing to gamble with a start-up or a more so-called “rewarding” career when I lack the financial cushioning and the certainty of job security (that is not to say there is job security in banking, I fully accept the possibility that my “marriage to work” could totally backfire, but I’m OK with that having learned from the experience). Coming from an Asian family, I know one day I will have to support my parents and this is not something I take lightly.

The cynics among you will say, why don’t you do something else that pays a decent, but not obscene amount that will guarantee success, like Teach for America or any stable job with the federal government? While I do want to work for the government at some point doing financial regulations and reform, right now the government does not want me. Some of us do not qualify for Teach for America positions, Rhodes or Marshall Scholarships, or any paying gig within the state or federal government. I can’t even stay in this country if the boutique firm I’m working for doesn’t sponsor my visa, for goodness’s sake. So yes, some of us have circumstances that limit the opportunities that we have and I’ve only barely scratched the surface here. Within what we can do, Wall Street comes out as a winner.

If investment banking did not pay me a cent, would I do it? No, but I would still be making models projecting my personal income and expense streams and case it up with clever levers so I can play with different financial scenarios. I would still follow the market. I would still read about big deals that are going down in the Fortune 500 and secretly wish that I could be a part of the action. Before you call us a bunch of greedy bastards, ask yourself, would you do YOUR job if it was unpaid? Some of you would still do it. Most wouldn’t.

This list is by no means comprehensive. These reasons could even be entirely misguided; but as someone who has gone through the process, this is why we are heading to Wall Street. We are not special. We are not better than anyone else. Some of us come from immigrant families and we are immensely grateful for the opportunities. We are willing to sacrifice a lot to get the job done.

So stop condemning everyone who is working on Wall Street. Stop assuming we are immoral sell-outs. Stop expressing your “disappointment” that as “elite” graduates we are not doing something better with our time. Many of us did not choose this path lightly and we will find out in our ways if we’re meant to do this for the rest of our lives. We are hungry and ambitious. Not all of us will stay in finance or even love this industry after it chews us up and spits us out, but in the mean time, we’re here to prove ourselves. Let us.

Further readings from campus newspapers / other sources

Phoebe Yu's humble and loquacious musings at Cornell University