Please Don’t Ask Me Where I Went to School
Ask me about my work instead.
This loaded question only serves to perpetuate educational stereotypes.
In the four months remaining in my college career I’ve attended a number of tech meet-ups and conferences. In that time there’s been one thing which seems ingrained in modern day conversation by which I never fail to be perturbed — that recurring question:
“Where do you go to school?”
Whoever it’s asked by — student, professional— and for whatever reason, by me, it’s always a loaded question. I don’t hear it as an easy conversation starter, nor as menial chat. It feels like a point of judgement. It’s asked because we work on the assumption that everyone competent in tech went to one of a select number of elite schools. If I was a bolder, more confident person at the time I’d answer the question, not with a garbled attempt at describing my school’s location and size, or mumbling “you wouldn’t have heard of it,” but with “Why?”
Why is it so difficult to recognize the impact of those six words? Why does it matter where someone went to school?
In the professional world what matters is the toolkit you’ve built with the resources you have.
When you ask me where I went to school, you’re asking me if I’m smart enough. You’re asking me if I got my tools from the most expensive hardware store. You’re asking me if I’m worth the investment for your company. You’re asking me if I’m fit to represent the underrepresented.
You’re asking me if I’m the kind of person you’ll want to put on the front page of your website to prove your company is diversifying itself — you’re asking me if I’m the shiniest, most pristine token there is.
You’re using my university’s rank to sort me into a false binary of successes or failures, as if it’s an accurate snapshot of someone as complex and colorful and beautiful as myself.
Don’t you just want to know if I can code?
It’s dehumanizing — dehumanizing because it strips away that basic human characteristic, the one that drives babies to chew everything in sight, the one that drives little kids to ask “Why” about everything, and the one that drove scientists like Katherine Johnson to “look beyond the numbers, through the math that doesn’t yet exist,”— curiosity.
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
— Albert Einstein
To emphasize the shit falsehood that we believe a college degree from a specific university measures smartness is to drive a destructive attitude into our lives that “makes intelligence its highest virtue,” as stated by Christopher Hayes:
“Intelligence is a vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a conviction that smartness is rank-able and that the hierarchy of intelligence, like the hierarchy of wealth, never plateaus…While smartness is necessary, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive. But empathy does not impress the same way smartness does. Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes.”
Here are some conversation ideas for you
- Ask me about my work: You’ll learn I used the same technologies your company uses. I’m self taught in most of these tools and am competent at it. You see that I know how to learn, and how much I like to learn when given the freedom to be curious.
- Ask me how I overcame challenges in school. You’ll learn I’m not afraid to ask questions for my own sake, and that I worked on side projects based on my interests and applied what I learned in class— I applied enough material to qualify for your company. I took the time to simplify concepts — enough to where I can explain it to a 5 year old. I always accepted myself knowing I’ll figure everything out eventually and get better.
- Ask me how my passion drives me. You’ll realize I’m not wasting my time in tech. More importantly, I’m trying to make a life, not a living. We do better work when we are driving with our own passion, instead of going for a reward (or avoiding a loss).
Would we have had this same conversation if you knew I didn’t attend an elite university beforehand?
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” — Albert Einstein
Hearing the dreaded “where do you go to school” question used to reduce me back into that unconfident 16 year-old, assuring herself that she wouldn’t (shouldn’t, couldn’t) apply to less selective schools because she would stand out and be looked down upon. At the end of the day I’m coding in the same languages as students from elite universities.
Certain schools may offer fantastic experiences. You might be better off at a school whose curriculum, environment, and expenses meet your needs rather than at a school with a big name. What’s most important in the quality of your college experience is your willingness to engage in your education, commit to learning and actively take part in classes that challenge you.
Where you go to school is not as important as what you bring to wherever you go. The truth is, learning is also a life long journey extending beyond the confines of any institution. My hope is that you’ll walk away with the idea that “merit” needs to be expanded beyond rankings into the many areas of excellence that represent the diversity of a given population. As we learn to see the value of skills from different backgrounds, we in turn expand, advance and diversify our companies, our financial systems, the richness of our shared way of life, and the quality of our existence. It starts with us, and I believe we can do it.
I look forward to my next conversation.