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On purpose

Meaning through public service in a post-pandemic professional landscape

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I’ve been thinking a lot about public service in the past few weeks, as my TV screen and Twitter feed have been inundated with praise for the steadfast leadership of civil servants such as Anthony Fauci in these scary and unpredictable times. Fauci is an alumnus of Regis High School, an all-boys Jesuit school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that also happens to be my alma mater. 

Regis was established in 1914 thanks to a generous donation from the suitably named benefactress Mrs. Grant. In the school’s charter, she stipulated that the school would provide a high quality Jesuit education to young Catholic boys from the larger New York metropolitan area, with special consideration to those that could not otherwise afford a private education. Tuition was, and remains, free for all admitted students. 

I mention this fairly irrelevant bit of trivia because, although I was not raised religious myself (I was baptized Catholic, but would hardly consider myself devout), I was drawn to the Jesuit conception of the duty that accompanies the gift of a free private education. The school’s motto was simply “Men for Others,” an admittedly eyeroll-inducing dictum that underpinned every aspect of my experience in high school. Regis as an institution is far from perfect — the exclusion of women remains an anachronism I believe is to the detriment of both the admitted and the omitted. But this simple charter to channel the education we were so privileged to receive for free into community and public service is a powerful call to action that can help guide a quest for meaning in an often muddled professional landscape. 

My own aspiration to pursue a career in public service was formed during my time at Regis, not primarily through something I experienced in the classroom but something that took place in my own home. In the fall of my freshman year, my mother died by suicide in the throes of a deep depression. My life was irrevocably changed by her loss, one that was impossible for me to comprehend as a 13-year-old with no understanding of mental illness or its consequences. In the depths of my grief, I was supported by old friends, classmates, teachers and strangers who expressed their consolation through the frame of their own losses, sorrows and struggles. It was through these interactions that I began to realize the invisible scars that so many carry, scars often stemming from health complications or economic circumstances.

So as I graduated from Regis and embarked on my Stanford journey, I had the privilege of knowing what I wanted to do. As I progressed through my freshman and sophomore years, I began knocking out core classes in the economics and public policy majors, one by one. I focused on health policy as my area of concentration, primarily because of my personal experience. But I also became transfixed with our health care system because the more I studied it, the greater my disbelief became that a country as wealthy as the United States could have a system so broken. Through the doldrums of the Econ 50 series, I was particularly heartened by the determination of my fellow public policy peers to pursue careers short on glamour but high in impact, careers centered around improving the structures and systems that are failing the people they are intended to support.

But I was also discouraged by the considerable number of students around me, particularly in economics, who gritted their teeth through the same, grating core courses only to pursue careers at companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Bridgewater. Tens of hours spent learning microeconomic models and building the intuition to understand the markets our economy operates through, all to oversee a leveraged buyout at a massive investment bank. I was similarly perplexed and frustrated by students in symbolic systems and computer science spending hours mastering complex machine learning algorithms, only to apply to work at companies such as Facebook and Twitter — companies that exploit those tools to increase division in our society and draw unsuspecting scrollers into ever deeper rabbit holes of misinformation. How could these students, with immense talent and almost limitless professional opportunity, be pursuing careers that primarily serve as engines of wealth accumulation and political division in our country?

I want to be quite clear that I recognize education is a tool of economic liberation for many, many students at this university. Particularly for first-generation and low-income students, a Stanford education is an incredibly hard-earned credential. It can serve as a path to high paying positions in any number of different industries, helping secure their and their families’ financial futures and create lasting, intergenerational mobility. There should be no hand-wringing over this; I consider the pursuit of support for one’s family to be even more laudable than a pursuit of a career in public service by those privileged enough to choose their profession, like me. My father is a law professor here at Stanford. While my family is hardly uber-wealthy, I have the luxury of choosing a career of passion over necessity, a luxury that not everyone else has.

But so many students here at Stanford do have that luxury and yet continue to limit themselves to careers that primarily serve to enhance their already backstopped status and wealth. I look out on a country and world in which so many are right now feeling the acute pain and confusion I felt when confronted with the loss of a loved one. Many of these losses were and are avoidable, and are being compounded by failures of governments to provide support to those impacted. Every nurse being placed on a ventilator because they were forced to reuse their personal protective equipment was failed by their government. Every worker who suffers acute anxiety or depression because they were laid off and lost their health insurance along with their income is being failed by their government. Every low wage worker who has to risk infection and go into work because they won’t be able to pay their rent if they don’t continue to work is, yes, being failed by their government.

As I look out on this crisis of leadership and talent in our government, I can’t help but think what if? 

What if MS&E majors, instead of working on integrating a multinational supply chain for a consulting firm, were working for the Department of Health and Human Services organizing the distribution of N95 respirators to various states based on need? 

What if incoming finance interns, instead of consolidating corporate power by underwriting airline mergers, were instead working on optimizing loans through the Small Business Administration to prevent restaurants and retail stores from closing around the country? 

What if students with fluency in Java, C and Python were helping to design federal servers with redundancies so that a surge in demand wouldn’t crash the systems that distribute unemployment insurance to millions of Americans?

This summer, after I pass through the limbo that will be graduating in the time of coronavirus, I’ll be starting as a health policy researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. It is a dream job for me, the culmination of an eight-year journey to work on health policy in ways that might prevent others from losing loved ones as I did. I hope that for me this is the beginning of a long career in the public sector. 

I recognize that not everyone has a similar story of tragedy or a seminal moment that inspires them to go into public service. It is easy to put the blinders on and look after ourselves first, with those we don’t know or can’t see becoming nothing more than an afterthought. But look around. This virus highlights, perhaps more so than any other event in our lifetimes, the depth and breadth of struggle and suffering in our communities. Even more, it demonstrates the ways that our lives are inextricably linked to those of the people around us. We can no longer afford to be complacent and assume that if everyone looks after themselves then things will work out just fine. In this period of intense social solidarity and sacrifice, we look ahead at an economy and society that will be fundamentally reshaped in the wake of this crisis. Many of us face a choice as we contemplate this uncertain future. I hope you choose a life in public service.

As students in Silicon Valley, we are surrounded by companies pursuing moonshot initiatives, always vowing to make the world a better place. Perhaps, with humility, all of us graduating into a post-COVID-19 world can strive for something simpler: Working not for ourselves, but for others, our countless neighbors bearing invisible scars.

Contact Conrad Milhaupt at ctm20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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