Friday, May 23, 2008

My dad graduates college (again)

originally published 5.14.06

I was not in the mood to be awake Friday morning. I was up before my usual 7am time – and it was to get ready to fight LA traffic. I hate LA traffic. I avoid going to LA precisely because of LA traffic. But today I made an exception, because my dad was graduating from USC.

Wait a minute. Your dad?

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Yes, my dad graduated from USC some undisclosed years ago, but his parents bought him a trip to Europe (as a graduation present) which left before the graduation ceremony. My dad did the same thing I would have done at his age (I can’t believe we’re related) and took the trip and ran. But as years wore on, I think he always wanted to “walk” in a graduation ceremony. We’ve always pooh-poohed this sentiment at home, because among my dad’s many virtues – which include an incredible kindness and affability noticed by all – he is overtly sentimental – and I don’t mind conceding him that, for it is no vice.

As it dawned on my dad that this would be our last year in Southern California, he began to be very serious about “walking” with the graduates. My mom was totally skeptical, but my sister and I said that if he walked that day that we would be there.

So, there I was, Friday morning. My voice was gone because my body was frustrated with the hours I’d been working during AP weeks and had decided to cut power, and I was, as I said, tired, but I wanted to support my dad.

I routinely prepare my students for college admissions but I rarely go to the ceremonies – it was quite an instructive experience. As my dad’s column began to make its way towards the seats, I closed my eyes and tried to cast myself back 40 some years ago, when my dad’s class stood in this quad. Many thoughts came to mind.

One was the incredible diversity of the student body. They looked to be from all races, creeds, colors, etc. and there were just so darn many of them. Some with many academic cords, some with none, some with colorful flowers…many on their cell phones…

How different must that student body have looked back when USC was more purely a good-old-boys network instead of the networking juggernaut that has made it the most desired school of choice anymore! My dad was just going to the local super-school, not necessarily the one that people flew thousands of miles to attend.

The master of ceremonies kept calling out the identities of the different columns – Column A was the Annenberg School of Communications, etc., Column B was the Marshall School of Business, etc., my dad’s degree was in Economics, which was featured in Column C. On and on.

I closed my eyes and imagined the tens of millions of dollars of education on parade here.

The average student who starts with me in their junior year will spend anywhere from $2000-$5000 on my services from junior year test prep to senior year college admissions. But here that number was nearly tenfold – tuition, room, and board at the University of Southern California (retail price, mind you, I know there are loans, scholarships, blah blah blah) is just under $45,000 a year. That is beyond wacky. Can an education truly be worth a little under a quarter of a million dollars? No way. Yes, this is the number one networking place in the world. But networking itself still doesn’t guarantee success – personality is a big part of anything.

I think back to a friend who I’m no longer in touch with but graduated from high school with (many moons ago) and when I took a year off before pursuing college I could not get him to shut up about how I was supposed to go to school and that taking this year off would be disastrous, etc. It’s been nearly 10 years since we graduated from high school – and though I am inches from my bachelors, I have never gained it, and I make a very, very decent income. He, with his degree and even some Masters classes under his belt, is still unemployed and living at home, with no property owned. What does that prove? That I don’t need to spend $200,000 so that I can make money years later. Even as I guide and advise the children entrusted to me, I increasingly find it personally indefensible to buy into the lie that these schools put forth – i.e. come here, and you will be popular, loved, successful, happy, and beautiful.

I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. Today was these graduates’ day, and they deserved it. It’s my dad’s too. As they announced my dad’s name, a huge cheer surged up from the crowd. They noticed that my dad was older, and they were excited he was there. The dean hugged him and had him say a few words. He explained why he was there, and ended his few words with “fight on Trojans!” and the kids ate it up. I, voiceless because of bronchitis, just had a huge smile on my face.

Then I mused – what if my dad hadn’t gone to USC? Would he have been able on his own to get the same opportunities that those three letters on a diploma had opened for him? And it doesn’t take many differences to where he never meets my mom, and this entire blog is erased, because I never existed.

So, I was perplexed. I find the current system bloated, pointless, incredibly expensive, biased, and ridiculous. It is wholly unsustainable, and is moving us towards an ever spiraling specialization that is so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Yet, this was not the original graduating class my dad was part of. But it is the reality today, in which we must live. And as we fought the traffic back to Orange County, I re-remembered why I was moving – to dump this reality for a realer one.

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