I wish she had experimented by telling people in social situations that she went to an Ivy League school and seen the reactions first hand. And by reactions, I mean how people reacted to her, and how their reactions made her feel.
People do make assumptions based on this kind of information- some of them are flattering, others of them are unflattering- all of them make me uncomfortable, all of them are detrimental.
In high school, I didn’t even tell people I was applying to an Ivy League school. I had a first choice, Mt. Holyoke, and I didn’t want people thinking of it as my second choice because I didn’t get into my reach school. When the guidance department announced over the loud speaker that I would be attending Yale, all of the heads in the room whipped around and looked at me, shocked. It was awkward. I was wearing my Yale sweatshirt- the one full of holes that I’d had since 6th grade when my best friend’s older brother started attending. I had always loved the school- loved the environment, loved everything he told me about learning there. I had the shirt long before I even applied to the school. I wore it enough (because it was super comfy and I loved the paisley fabric of the letters) that it got holes. I wore it after I had applied and before I knew if I’d gotten in- including on picture day (which I had forgotten about). My application was a lotto ticket, and I was lucky enough to win. Nobody had batted an eyelash at the sweatshirt until that announcement. After that, the high school rumor mill churned out reports daily about who thought I was bragging by wearing the shirt, who though I didn’t deserve it, who thought it unfair I hadn’t told people I was applying, etc.
That was my first experience sharing what would become my alma mater. Of course there were accolades, my friends cheered me on and were genuinely happy for me, but it was tinged by those negative reactions. That is how the stage is set for people to hide that information.
As we all know, high school is an unhealthy and miserable microcosm of society.
When I was applying to grad school, I went on a bunch of interview weekends. I distinctly remember one weekend (at Johns Hopkins of all places), another prospective student, upon learning I was from Yale said, “So you’re the one from Yale! But you don’t seem snooty at all.” Apparently the assembled group of prospectives, as they got to know each other, had wondered who was the Yale student that weekend. At that moment I was glad that our name tags hadn’t included our undergrad institutions. I have enough trouble meeting new people without having to overcome hurdles put in place by their stereotypes. This was the reaction of people smart enough and hard working enough to be brought in from all over the country to interview at Johns Hopkins- you’d think they’d know better.
When we were first dating in grad school, my husband didn’t believe me that this kind of information would make all manner of people act weird and make embarrassing (to both parties) comments. Then he took me to his high school reunion and his jaw dropped at the reactions of his former classmates. People instantly used self-deprecating humor to put themselves down and adopted ‘we’re not worthy’ types of body language. Instead of discussing the weather or the Eagles, conversation revolved around how dumb they were and what I was studying. It was so uncomfortable I asked him to please stop telling people where I was going to school, and he obliged.
Years later, we were out to dinner with friends of friends, people we barely knew. Our friend, who was hosting the event, introduced me as the smartest person he knew, and rattled of my undergrad, grad, and post-doc institutions. It was the end of the evening as far as I was concerned. I felt super awkward, my husband knew how I felt. It didn’t even matter whether the other people gave a shit or not (most likely they couldn’t have cared less)- I couldn’t say if it changed how they interacted with me, I changed, I was uncomfortable and felt conspicuous.
This is why I consciously withhold this information from people until they get to know me. On several occasions, upon revealing the info people have said, “I never would have guessed! You are so [opposite of whatever stereotype they had in mind]!” While that’s not a reaction I like to get, I at least am glad that they were able to get to know me without that sterotype interfering.
Quite frankly, it’s the same reason I don’t go by “Doctor”- I don’t need people’s assumptions getting in the way of getting to know me.
For the past two years I’ve been invited to speak to a group of girls interested in STEM– at a struggling high school, in a struggling city, in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area. When I sent in my biographical info for the program, I specifically did not use “Doctor” or “PhD” in it. My work email signature does include the “PhD” but I left it up to the organizers how my name should appear. After the event, which was great- one of the other panelists (who has a PhD in education and goes by “Doctor”) pulled me aside and asked, “Why don’t you use doctor?” I replied, “Because people see that and make assumptions about me. I find it gets in the way.” (If she hadn’t gone by “Doctor” I might have added that I think it’s pretty pretentious when PhDs do that.)
What this geographical lie of omission comes down to is this: It’s hard enough to get to know new people and their prejudices (good or bad) can make it a lot harder. It can be harder because of how they react (put themselves down). It can be harder because of how you think they’ll react (unnecessarily impressed). It can be harder because of how they think you want them to react (impressed). It can be harder because of how you react to their reaction (awkwardly).
I’m not asking anyone to play the world’s smallest violin on my behalf, as if I have this cross of education to bear, I’m just pointing out that it makes me uncomfortable when people react to by alma maters as anything other than factoids of information. (Unless you are a potential employer, in which case- be impressed!!!) And, since they often do react strongly to learning of my educational background, making one or both of us feel awkward, I choose to avoid sharing that info when possible.
And for the record, I don’t think the geographic option is ‘code’ for the in-crowd. When people tell me they went to school in Boston, I don’t automatically assume Harvard. And when I’ve said I went to school in New Haven, I’ve never been insulted when people ask about UNH or Quinnipiac- I’m usually chagrined because it means I have to clarify and ‘fess up to the truth.