The phone rings and I check the caller ID to see who it is. It’s my alma mater the University of California at San Diego and I grit my teeth as I wonder whether I should answer it or not. If I let it ring the answering machine will pick it up. The system used by the school will recognize that a machine has picked up the call and will drop it. It will then note that I was unavailable and schedule to call back a few days or weeks later. If I pick up the phone and answer it myself there will be a long pause as the system routes the call to an available representative. This representative is always a student who is working while in school not because it’s fun but because he or she has to.
Over two decades ago that student could have been me, although I applied to the job to call alumni but didn’t get accepted. Instead I got a job working at the local video store renting movies to other students, professors and the odd famous person passing through La Jolla California. I rented porn to businessmen and bored housewives, and cartoons to harried mothers dragging their kids to the Ralph’s next door. I also rented New York New York to Jonas Salk and his wife, and met Gary Sinise when he came by to rent a film during some downtime in a play he was performing in at the La Jolla Playhouse. I also rented Playboy Sexy Lingerie III to a man who then turned around and leveled a .45 handgun at me, leaving the store with $500 in cash, John Hughes’s Career Opportunities and my sense of well-being that didn’t return until months afterward.
As I hold the phone in my hands I have only a second or two to decide whether to answer it or not. If I don’t, I’ll just be called back again, so I’m just putting off the inevitable. Since the Wife doesn’t answer the phone (when did that division of labor fall on me?) I’ll be the one to deal with it in the future. But if I answer it I will be forced to explain reality to someone who probably isn’t read for it.
The kid on the other end of the phone is most likely a VA or liberal arts major, but an academically gifted kid from the lower middle class. If she came from a wealthier background, she wouldn’t need to work. If she majored in chemistry or biology chances are she would be already building experience by working at one of the numerous bio-tech firms or hospitals around San Diego. She worked hard to get into UC-San Diego; the UC system is the tougher of the two public universities in California to get into. The UC System has many dirty little secrets that would no doubt make Ronald Reagan whirr in his grave since he protected the system from budget cuts and helped expand it during his tenure as governor in the 1960s. One of those dirty secrets is that it is much harder to get into if one is Asian or White since the system follows strict racial preferences. I only got in because I transferred in as a sophomore and lost a year of credits, after I had initially been rejected (I begged and pleaded in a 7 page long letter to the head of admissions to get in – my dirty little secret). So I can’t be rude to the kid when she starts up her spiel on how great the University is and why it needs my help.
How do I tell her that while my university experience two decades ago was important to the trajectory of my life, it left me with no connection whatsoever to the institution. UCSD was a huge school, and it’s even bigger today with nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students spread out across 6 colleges (up from five during my tenure). It felt big to me at the time, and that feeling was good for me in the long run. It reminded me that I was responsible for myself, that the “system” would not be looking out for me. If I didn’t attend a class, the professor would not notice me missing; the only person to suffer would be me. Attending a large impersonal school was exactly what I needed to help prepare me for the “real world” where I would succeed or fail on my own without help from any institution. I doubt that the school intended to teach me a lesson in small-government conservatism, given the ubiquitous leftist slant of the place – but it did.
I had some interesting classes there. I learned Marxism in a summer class taught by an Israeli communist. A professor in Eastern European Politics brought in a guest speaker from Yugoslavia who predicted his country’s breakup along ethnic lines – five years before it happened. But the rest of the classes weren’t memorable. They were often large, with hundreds of students taught by professors who would rather be doing something else, assisted by teacher’s assistants (TA’s) who were more interested in hitting on the pretty things than they were in helping undergrads master their subjects. It was all ticket punching; I had received a better education from the Jesuits in high school and the teachers at the University of Missouri – St. Louis where I transferred from. All that really mattered was that I graduated from a top school, and UCSD is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country and the world. To do that I needed credits in this subject, credits to finish that requirement. After 3 years all the credits were amassed and I graduated in a ceremony that is completely forgotten except for the fact that my elderly mother attended and met my future wife for the first time.
After graduation the degree turned out to be less useful than I had hoped. It was necessary to teach English in Japan, but any bachelors degree from any accredited school would have sufficed. It would have been more important had I been determined to follow my dream to join the foreign service as one of my high school friends had, but a baby and the Wife’s ambitions to be a doctor took priority. It would have been hard for her to attend medical school and for my son to know his grandparents in Uzbekistan. This was a conscious decision on my part, and while there is some regret it is outweighed by the contentment for the rest of life that followed that decision.
A couple of years ago the Wife and I drove by the campus of the university. I had intended to stop, but after seeing it we decided that there was no point. Large buildings had been placed on every open field making the campus completely unrecognizable to us. Neither of us felt any connection to that place whatsoever. It made us both somewhat sad, so we left La Jolla and cut short our nostalgia trip.
UCSD helped me find the Wife, gave me a degree that has no bearing on my career today, left me in the hole $12,000 with student loan debt that I paid off in 4 years, and the sense that I am not special – just one of many that needs to look out for himself. There is no connection, mental or otherwise, to the institution, and I am not going to pretend otherwise.
Does the kid on the other end of the phone really want to hear that?
Things have changed a lot since I graduated, like tuition. When I left tuition was running $3,500 a year; now it’s over $14,000. I finished school with a total debt of $12,000 – including the debt from University of Missouri – St. Louis – and paid it off in 4 years. According to UCSD the average undergraduate finishes his or her degree with $20,000. Even at that inflated price I believe the cost of the education is worth it especially compared to private schools. One can thank the generous California taxpayer for making the UC system a bargain.
But will she want to hear that her liberal arts degree won’t make it easy to pay back even that relatively small amount? That one of the best things a school can do is provide connections to businesses employing alumni? Small private schools excel at that, but not huge education factories like the UC schools. Even large schools like Ohio State and Michigan have strong bonds with their alumni because of their successful sports teams. The only sports we had at UCSD was offending the Women’s Resource Center in the humor newspaper and betting on the cockroach races at the Che Cafe. While enjoyable these sports don’t make for good television on Autumn Saturday afternoons.
Chances are she will work in some field that has nothing to do with her degree, earning less than people less educated her and wondering where she had gone wrong. She will then either return to graduate school and make her situation worse or find a field that she excels at on her own, and UCSD will have had little to do with the success she eventually achieves.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed my college experience, but unfortunately for the Alumni Fund my college had little to do with it. Does she really want to hear this? Should she hear this – or should I just answer the phone and politely say, “Sorry, I can’t donate anything right now. Thank you for calling,” and hang up? I suppose the answer is obvious…