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Death by a Million Papercuts: Are Prestigious Degrees Really Worth the Trouble?


Allyssa Metzger’s June 2014 blog post in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why I Don’t Drop the ‘H-Bomb’,” chronicles her experience attending Harvard and the responses she receives when others learn of her alma mater.  She discusses how she manages their expectations and how she handles disappointing people when she actually doesn’t know the answer about something.  In some ways, her experience mirrors mine and others who attended prestigious colleges and universities.  However, every woman and every woman of color going into academe may as well prepare herself for the mounds of contrapower harassment she will face when students, especially those who are white and male, demonstrate their disdain and lack of respect for her earned degrees.

In the 1980s, I earned a Bachelors and a Masters from Stanford University, and graduated with honors and both degrees in five years.  But these many years later, I have found that there’s so much resentment on the part of the white male population, and it has become so serious a problem at my small, southern college, that a student recently brought a noose to school and told another student he was going to hang it on my door.  Living and teaching in the U.S. south, you should already know and expect to experience racial resentment, overt racism, and the burden of social class differences.  But for many of my students, my Stanford degrees are perceived as siddity and elitist.  This daily demonstration of resentment and harassment, has frankly, taken its toll.  My health has suffered, not because I earned degrees from Stanford, but because the stress associated with defending my choice, my person, my humanity, has become more than it’s worth.   Most of my student interactions are positive and reinforcing, but the microaggressions and outright discrimination I face as an extroverted Black woman have astounded me and left me with an overwhelming sense of disappointment.

Before I taught at this particular college, I had low blood pressure, healthy cholesterol, and no problems shedding a few pounds if I wanted.  While some of these traits are associated with youth, there’s no reasonable explanation for a change that takes place within a matter of a few short years, where I now have blood pressure so high it requires medication, and without the meds, has gotten as high as 181/130.  My cholesterol is high, I’m borderline diabetic, have anxiety-induced weight gain, and have been diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome (the same disease which benched tennis prodigy Venus Williams.)  I may not be able to directly attribute my health problems to any one person’s racist or misogynist attitudes, (although I read with particular interest, Joy DuGruy’s work on post-traumatic slave syndrome) but rather, the compilation of stress-inducing incidents, plus the daily need to “prove” I went to Stanford or pretend I didn’t, which takes precious resources away from my ability to focus on the next steps.

On good days, pain-free days, I often over produce, cramming everything I can into a short period when I’m able to move beyond the stress and think cogently.  Otherwise, I find myself easily distracted and dizzy from the surge of blood cursing through my brain.  I feel a lump rise up in my throat and I’m immobilized with fear and pain.  I want to do more, I need to do more, I can do more, so why aren’t I doing more?  This cycle of disappointing my own expectations is crushing.

Even though my degrees were earned 25 years ago, I no longer even try to conceal my educational privilege.  I have a teenaged son who is planning on applying to Stanford.  I’m not going to discourage him, but he has seen first-hand how it works, and feels it’s a trade-off worth considering.  But he has seen how people respond, sometimes with impressed surprise, most times with resentful disdain, when learning about my education.  He’s also been on the other side of my expectations, where I showed him how to get there and what it takes.  Four hard years of studying and preparation.  No down time.  Building alliances and coalitions with administrators and teachers who would support you.  Practicing standardized testing skills, essay writing skills, building leadership skills by taking full advantage of a variety of opportunities (Future Farmers of America and the medical Explorers, were two questionable choices I made, but when you’re on a quest for knowledge, no experience is worthless.  My grandmother, an educator, told me once, “You can learn something from everyone.”)  I taught my son perseverance (notice the root is “severe”) means you don’t get to drop a sport because you don’t like your coach, or you think your coach is unfair.  You have to figure out how to manage their expectations.

While I’ve never seen the matriculation numbers broken down by social class, I imagine that most people who are fortunate enough to attend prestigious universities and colleges, are simply replicating the class status they already occupy.  They are therefore, privy to receive even more benefits based on their privilege.  But those privileges are complicated and often informed by intersecting statuses, such as race and gender and social class.  Granted, the vast majority of students who attend prestigious/R1/Ivies are privileged by, at the least, social and cultural capital.  They have acquired qualities and types of knowledge that are considered valuable, but of course, the standard is defined by people who have vested interests in capitalizing on and benefitting from defining their capital as such.  But there are many types of intelligences, and only certain kinds are recognized.   What I’ve learned is that I cannot be responsible for their responses to this ONE privilege I have, because the overwhelming negative effects of my lack of racial and gender privilege, makes me resistant to the point of apathy, to their laughable claims.

If I had it to do all over, would I make the same choices?  If I were an economist, I wouldn’t likely advise incurring the debt that a modern education at an R1 university provides.  But I’m a social psychologist, and for me, the experiences I was able to have at Stanford seemed irreplaceable. As a grandmother, I would encourage my grandchildren to do the best they possibly can with the resources they have available, and then to make the most of the choices they make afterwards. I think the better question is, “If I knew then what I know now, would I make the same choices?”  And the answer, is of course, I don’t know, but probably.  But you know what they say about hindsight.

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5 thoughts on “Death by a Million Papercuts: Are Prestigious Degrees Really Worth the Trouble?

  1. I’m nit even going to lie, reading this has me a bit scared. I decided to go to Northwestern which like your alma mater is a prestigious school. Coming from a poor black family from the hood of Buffalo, NY I knew that in some ways I needed the privilege of a PhD from a top program to have the best shot at being heard (and hired) in my field. The flip side to this however is that i have to navigate the elite circles of legacy students, children of academics, and of course simple white male privilege. The struggle of that thus far is looking to be my million paper cuts. Unlike the harassment you have suffered, the will probably try and make me their token negro scholar, which is shitty in its own way. Either way I think there needs to be many more discussions about elite programs and how they affect the disadvantaged people who end up in them.

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    1. William, you are so right to be concerned, but not dissuaded. We simply must continue the struggle because we’re obligated, and because we can. Sharing our stories and experiences is paramount to creating understanding and preparing our young folk to carry the torch. Keep going, William — you can do it!!!!

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