The problems with attending a prestigious university

On personal brands, images, and reputations

This is the Duke™ intern.

That’s how people frequently identify me. By the institution for higher learning I’m attending.

But I’d say it’s more of an institution for higher earnings than anything else. Not that you’re guaranteed a job out of college, but that your tuition paid for a ticket out of blue-collar jobs.

Or maybe it’s an institution for students-from-families-with-higher-earnings instead.

In January 8, 2017, the average family income for Duke students was $186,700.

And this may sound like a random possibility, but marriages among Duke students and alumni may reproduce economic inequality.

When a rich Duke student marries another rich Duke student, and their degrees gain them access to higher-paying jobs, then we’re talking future families earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases.

And that aside, I think some of the mentalities that allowed students to attend Duke in the first place are problematic.

Many students see Duke as a pre-professional training ground: Pre-med, pre-law, pre-consulting, pre-banking.

The focus is shifted from learning for the sake of learning towards “How can I best spin my experience so I can market myself to people in the job market?”

I say this because I know it’s true on my part.

I see how the career centers have been booked as students scramble to find jobs and internships. To get their resumes and cover letters polished and ready to go. And career prep programs that train students to abide by “STAR”s and deliver elevator pitches to important people.

And it’s not just on the individual level. It’s at the institutional level, too.

You get administration that panders to where the money’s coming from. Perhaps a board of trustees without adequate representation across socioeconomic statuses.

Instead, you have a mass population of students who grow up thinking they’re entitled to special treatment, that they’re somehow better than everyone else because of how much they’ve achieved their entire life.

Their accolades, their awards, their titles all lend credibility to who they are and what they care about. And that’s not problematic in itself — it is when people think they deserve something more than the average person.

When I see people of privilege who boast about how hard they’ve worked to get to where they were, I don’t discount their work ethic. I’m sure they’re hard workers. But their words insinuate that those who aren’t rich simply don’t work hard enough. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

By virtue of nature’s lottery, you probably ended up in a family with more resources and opportunities than others. There were so many unseen factors that went into how and why you got to where you are.

And if you aren’t where you wanna be, not all of it is entirely in your control. There are systemic issues that run throughout society, the result of well-intended policies with unintended consequences.

My worry is that a lot of what’s politicized in the education system revolves around image and reputation building rather than creating meaningful programs.

At a research university like Duke, there are plenty of professors who never studied the pedagogy behind teaching. They’re there for doing research, not teaching students. I’ve heard of so many cases where people didn’t feel like their professors cared about their academic success — or worse, actively worked against them, seemingly determined to “weed out” the students who couldn’t keep up.

People boast about academic rigor as being emblematic of a university’s prestige.

That’s some kind of bullshit.

Despite having “academically rigorous” courses, students aren’t trained in critical thinking skills.

Instead, we’re brainwashed, indoctrinated with the values of a paternalistic education system that breeds and rewards blind obedience, people-pleasing, and more. We strive to adhere to arbitrary standards and expectations that others place on us.

And at what cost?

At the cost of our mental well-being.

I don’t care if Duke has people who have spectacular GPA’s. I think what’s more important is whether students are able to get the seven or eight hours of sleep to maintain a healthy lifestyle. To afford the mental and emotional stability of a good night’s rest.

And parental and personal expectations are sky-high.

What you wind up with is a lot of students who suffer throughout the school year. Who go through sometimes what seems the equivalent of academic hazing. Who are more likely to help each other years down the road because in some cases, Duke is a brand — it leaves a scorched mark on your skin for the years to come.

And the people who succeed at Duke? Who often treat people improperly, who view relationships as fundamentally transactional, who think money is what ultimately rules the world? Those are the people who often suffer years down the road, when people won’t hire them because they don’t have people skills.

In short, they’re entitled assholes.

That’s what I realized after years of suffering. Years of trying to stay afloat — to be involved in everything somehow. Years of trying to make my parents’ money worth it somehow. After two personal hospitalizations and visits to the psych ward for some of my dearest friends.

So yeah. Now my GPA is pretty low, but I’m feeling much better about myself as a person. And employers? They don’t really give a fuck about your GPA.* What they care about is your attitude, your work experience, and your willingness to learn.

I’ve met so many wonderful people at Duke. But I’ve also met less-wonderful people: people who present themselves a certain way in public and act differently in private. People who are willing to cheat and lie to get what they want. People who use others to their own advantage, who see “connections” as ways to “expand their network” and get more people to open more doors. Who curry favor with people simply to take advantage of the resources they can obtain from them.

That’s some fake shit. And I’ve had enough of it.

And to people who’ve been blind to people like this, this may sound like a surprise. But I’ve noticed how people treat others, and I’ve noticed these tendencies within myself as well.

Just don’t let it all get to your head.

*unless you are pre-med or pre-law, in which case it might be important. Or if you aspire to go to grad school.

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