It didn’t take more than a semester for me to figure out that college is just like high school. Only there are more exams. More deadlines. More applications. More responsibilities. A whole lot more caffeine. Whaddya know? Your parents weren’t lying when they said the stakes would keep getting higher.

And the bills. And the earning potential.

I’ve had a couple of sobering moments recently, occasions when I realized that the last three years I have spent championing pure academic enterprise (what is that, really?), congratulating myself for studying critical theory and not cellular biology, and deriding pre-professionalism are about to come back and bite me in the proverbial derriere. The first: waking up at noon during a Career Fair on campus, wandering onto Duke’s main quad in sweatpants, watching all the economics students, engineers, pre-meds, pre-laws and future businesspeople of America scurry around in suits to their third interview of the day. The second has been more of a constant, burgeoning feeling than a moment. Every time another one of my friends gets a job in investment banking, I am reminded that the only banking I have ever done and will ever do is online. Primarily in the arena of “withdrawals.”

Is it just me, or is every single college student and graduate suddenly working in i-banking, as the field is affectionately called (or jealously, I suppose, depending on who’s talking)? Especially the desis. From my Rhodes Scholar buddy at Morgan Stanley (whose job involves figuring out the likelihood that people are going to die and Mo. Stanley’s going to profit from their insurance; something like that, a noble enterprise, I’m sure) to the guy from my freshman dorm working at Citigroup, to a dear girlfriend from high school now interning at UBS, “the world’s largest wealth manager.”

Everybody’s doing it, with the exception of the kids doing management consulting at Bain and Co. (one of the “big three,” I was told). And of course there’s a group of computer-science types, holding down the fort respectably at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, where I hear the yacht parties are fun pre-game for weekend golf.

Oh, isn’t it fun to make fun of people making money?

This summer, I’ve continued my privileged “I-don’t-need-to-get-an-internship-just-because-it-would-look-good-on-my-resume-and-yeah-I-need-the-money-but-so-what” track record by writing (a fruitless endeavor, I say, while writing) and taking on a short-term volunteer position at a primary school in Guatemala. And although I didn’t quite expect it would take this form, I was served an exceptionally important reminder while doing unpaid labor for Familias de Esperanza (or Common Hope, as the organization is known in English).

Money matters. Really.

Common Hope was founded in 1986 in Antigua, Guatemala, by an American couple who believed that education was vital for the children of low-income families to reach their full potential. They also knew that a comprehensive approach to children’s education would be required if the project was to be a success. What evolved was an organization that focuses on health care, housing, and community development in order to ensure that every sponsored student is able to complete school. Sponsors pay $60 a month to fund a child’s education (including school supplies and uniforms), enable the child’s family to receive free access to the Common Hope health clinic, and make the family eligible to an incentives program whereby they can work toward building a home or earn amenities (like a toilet) for their existing home.

We all know the statistics. Most of the world’s population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just two dollars a day, and Common Hope is able to transform the lives and opportunities of a five-person family in Santa Maria de Jesus living in a one-room house of corrugated iron with a dirt floor, cooking over an open fire so that the one-room is filled with fumes and each child has respiratory problems, using a communal tap at the end of the road because they have no running water, and struggling to meet the demands of a landlord who doesn’t seem to care that the primary breadwinner is an alcoholic drinking away the family’s rent.

If you are from or have ever been to India, you know I’m not exaggerating. Poverty has the same ugly face no matter what color people are or what language they speak. Guatemala is just one example of a country where many people are very poor, and where many people are enthusiastically and successfully working to make small, incremental changes to their daily lives. Where 18-year-old student teachers work with 10-year-old first graders and 16-year-old third graders on phonics and counting, so that maybe in a month, Cristian will be able to write his own name without having to copy it from the name written on his standard-issue desk. And maybe Nanci will understand that “mano” is spelled m-a-n-o because each individual letter serves to create the word and not because “m-a-n-o” is written on the wall next to a large drawing of a woman’s hand.

Working with the first graders at Common Hope was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Not only was it exceptionally hard to impart seemingly simple but deceptively complex concepts to young children—like the fact that each letter makes a sound, and those sounds together comprise a word—but it was also heart-wrenching to watch little Dora and Irene sweep the classroom and move the desks after school, desks nearly twice their size, in order to earn a lunch before being picked up to go home.

Two dollars a day, we volunteers were told at an information session on the sponsorship of Guatemalan children. Two dollars a day. Sixty dollars a month. Just over $700 every year.

Not that much money, right? But I don’t have it. When I left the information session at Common Hope and when I returned from Guatemala, I was forced to consider the irony that I have railed both against college students making money and the injustice of families not having money. And yet I, who have benefited from the best education, have not yet put myself in a position to make a lasting financial commitment to the education of others. Is that too much to expect of oneself at age 21? Shouldn’t I aspire to earn and contribute, now, when I haven’t yet acquired the responsibilities of a mortgage or a spouse or children to support? When, for two dollars a day, I might be able to affect change in the lives of the poorest families of Guatemala, or India, or any of the countless places in the world where children may never be able to spell y-a-c-h-t, never mind the cocktail party.

I-bankers of the world unite!

(You know who you are.)


Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.