The other day my phone rang and to my dismay, it was a solicitation call I found myself unable to hang up on: a student calling from my alma mater. "Are you familiar with the Penn Fund?" she said in a painfully young and optimistic voice. I could pretty well guess what the Penn Fund was from the name and from the solicitations that I’d thrown in the trash, but I let her talk.
While she outlined such worthy purposes as scholarships and improvements to school facilities, I thought of all the people who had graduated in my class and are now 10 times richer than I am. I thought about how Penn’s campus sidewalks were up for sale in the form of commemorative plaques, how Revlon magnate Ron Perelman had given so much money to the school that he had a quadrangle named after him, and how the student bookstore had become a Barnes and Noble franchise. (We’re talking about the home of the Wharton Business School, after all. There are a few people around who know how to drum up money.)
But still, when she asked me for my pledge, I somehow couldn’t say no. Maybe it was the flattering chit-chat about my a capella group, or a sudden thankfulness that someone as lazy as myself had gotten to go to college at all, but I felt a resigned sense of responsbility to my school that I’d never quite felt before.
The thing is, I feel sort of conflicted about my undergraduate education. It was inaugurated by failure: I applied to Penn early decision, and was rejected. This unexpected outcome sent me into a tailspin, and a flurry of desperate college applications. My jarred parents, who had previously felt able to leave me to my own devices where academic advancement was concerned, followed suit with the rest of the families in my affluent neighborhood and hired me a private counselor.
A woman named Marge was produced to guide me through the applications labyrinth. She spread out my essays and credentials like an oracle, and went soberly to work. Her favorite word was BIG. She taught me to consider playing the race card (a Hispanic last name is BIG); to drop my bid for William and Mary ("don't even bother; their out-of-state admissions rate is 15%"); and she set me up an interview with Northwestern’s alumni guy in D.C.(He was BIG in that school's admissions scene).
The weeks before my freshman year found me in the following predicament: enrolled at Bucknell University, wait-listed at Washington University and Northwestern, and in some weird "encouraged transfer" limbo with Cornell University. Turns out, a nice high-school record and test scores didn’t buy as much prestige as I’d thought.
I ended up going to Wash. U. for a year and then gratefully transferring to Penn. But when I got out into the working world, my Ivy League degree didn’t seem to matter as much as I’d thought it would when I was a senior in high school. It certainly didn't confer me automatic status as the next Kurt Loder or David Sedaris or Madonna or Oprah or even Ty Burr, my favorite critic for Entertainment Weekly. And it didn't seem to help me command a better salary than any other twentysomething striver. The most memorable benefit was a bump down to 11% commission on the lease for my first NYC apartment, because the broker happened to be a Penn alum.
Since finding out that it would be necessary, even with a bachelor's degree, to continue working my arse off for merely questionable rewards, I've really put the Baracus into my English B.A. I've also forgotten to get my Master's, which everyone I know now seems to have. Nonetheless, Penn now has a pledge from me for 41 big ones. Perhaps I'll receive a doorknob engraved with my name in one of the English Department bathrooms.
Image from TVacres.com