In June, Nina Spierer -- a Barnard College Junior -- quit her job at JP Morgan Chase, chopped off all her hair and bought a guitar.
Two years earlier she, like many young people taught to dream of expensive business suits and crocodile briefcases, accepted a pre-recession internship in finance. Lured by the promise of a cushy job and a brag-worthy business card, Spierer enrolled in a competitive program designed to groom future bankers, perks of which included a starting salary of $15 per hour, an $800 semesterly stipend for books and expenses and the holy grail of pre-grad gigs: complete payment of her $50,000 annual college tuition.
For Spierer in early 2008, big banks weren't so bad.
But when the recession hit, Spierer, along with a growing number of her finance-focused peers, began to re-evaluate the worth of a life spent adjusting market values from a cubicle in lower Manhattan.
"After the recession I wanted to ask my bosses, 'Do you ever step outside? Do you know what's happening in the world?'" Spierer said. "I wasn't saving lives, I was feeding this soul-sucking machine."
So she quit. Equipped with a hairdo to match her new "screw the man" attitude, she began to pour her energy into Voices of our City and Urban Word NYC -- projects that use hip hop and poetry to empower inner-city youth. With the help of rap battles and poetry slams, she's been encouraging teens to use creative expression as a tool to cope with the worst of their bad days.
"I've volunteered before," Spierer says, "But nothing is as powerful or important as helping people through art."
And a slew of other reformed bankers agree. In the wake of the worst recession since the college-aged can remember, students like Spierer are rejecting the finance world to pursue programs, projects and passions that allow them to give back to their community through the arts.
Recent Harvard grad Grace Cho traded finance for fashion. Hillary Kritt, a Barnard College junior, abandoned her business plans to focus on theater. Disenchanted ivy-leaguers ditched corporate aspirations to become chefs, opening Coup-de-Taco, a health-conscious and socially responsible food truck on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
But while abandoning the big bucks to build better communities can be rewarding, it's a financial sacrifice; in leaving the business world, young artists become casualties of the system they once worked to build. Remember Nina Spierer's free tuition? And impressive hourly rate? And convenient stipend? All gone (and much missed,) as a result of her decision to pursue public service. However, Spierer -- like a good bohemian -- is free of regret: "If my poetry, my story, can help you get through your own day, then I'm happy. And you can't put a price on happiness."
As more and more young professionals turn toward artistic community initiatives, Spierer, who is currently packing for a government-funded arts exchange in Berlin, thinks the big banks are getting what they deserve.
"I wrote my JP Morgan application about the arts," she says. "They should have known not to hire a poet."