After I graduated from Middlebury, I waited tables. I found pleasure in learning long wine lists, working by candlelight, and timing 12-course tasting menus to the minute. I am persnickety by nature, which is excellent for high-stakes fine-dining restaurants where minutia like matching all the handles of the oyster forks at Table 34 takes on astounding importance. But serving was not what I imagined for myself post college. In the summer and fall of 2010, I interviewed for a few editorial assistant positions and almost got a job in management consulting. Eventually, by winter, I took what I thought was an editorial research position at a business-to-business journal, but it was actually telemarketing. Surprise! The job didn’t pay enough to cover my rent, student loan payments, and living expenses, so I quit in May and got a job serving. I worked first in Portland, Maine, and then in Washington, D.C., where I served at the most-booked restaurant in the country for three-and-a-half years.
Occasionally my friends and relatives expressed confusion about why someone—me—with a degree in international studies was scraping plates and cleaning out drip trays for a living. But here’s the thing—just as Professor Jay West taught me to love 19th-century German literature, angry patrons and drug-addled chefs taught me never to feel above anything. I toughened up and learned to take responsibility. I also learned salmon roe kohlrabi foam exists (but maybe shouldn’t); anything can be made into a velouté; and grad school is not always the answer—even though, late one night, smelling like truffle oil and sitting on a bus next to a vomiting sous chef, I thought it might be. I applied to MFA programs and got waitlisted.
When I graduated from college, part of me believed the world had a perfect, golden niche waiting to be filled with my skills and abilities. This is embarrassing and obviously not the case. In her opening address to Middlebury, incoming president Laurie Patton said students “increasingly must create their own worlds—their own forms of employment, their own ways of being in the world.” That’s a great sentiment, and I think it’s true.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because of all the talk about the relevancy of a liberal arts education—whether courses on European structuralism sufficiently prepare students to meet the demands of today’s job market. But the liberal arts are also about adaptability, persistence, intellectual generosity, restlessness, tradition, and grit.
Middlebury allowed me, even in moments of selfish, myopic despair, to step back and find perspective. And as for structuralism, I remember hearing my trendy restaurant’s spring menu—some elevation of local honey and stone-cooked peasant bread—and thinking of nothing but Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction.
Rachel Siviski ’10 still enjoys finding just the right wine to pair with dinner. She lives with friends in Vermont.