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College admissions scandal elevates hard work over Hollywood

• May 9, 2019 at 3:00 PM

I recall a day in 1985 like it was yesterday. It was a summer evening. I was in a townhouse in Georgetown, a tony neighborhood in Washington, D.C. I was attending a party populated by other young people like myself who were spending their summer doing some form of internship in the nation’s capital.

Except, I was not like all the other young people there.

For one thing, my internship was in journalism. I was working at the Washingtonian Magazine, part of a national program of the American Society of Magazine Editors. A lot of the other interns were working for law firms, lobbying firms, or on Capitol Hill.

Another difference was that I was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, having changed after work. I didn’t get the memo. A lot of the other college students were posturing in their suits with the yellow polka-dot power ties fashionable in the 1980s.

But mostly, I stood apart in the dialogue. Students were talking about their futures. One boasted that his father knew some big wig at a firm where he wanted to work. Another declared that he was a member of some society at an East Coast Ivy League school. Still another pointed out conclusively that his father golfed with the president of a certain company. Then the circle of people I was in cast their eyes on me.

This was the moment that summer where I grew the most. It was not working with a staff writer who was the wife of a future vice president. It was not conducting a research interview in the mayor’s office. It was not the writing I did for my developing journalistic portfolio. It was this simple moment before a jury of my peers.

“Well,” I gulped, as the pin-stripe-suited East Coast elites looked at me. “My dad is a plumber. My mom is an immigrant. I go to a state university back in Michigan. I guess whatever job I get I’ll know I got it because of my own hard work and talents, and not because of who my daddy knows or the name of the school on my diploma.”

Crickets. Literally, all I heard was crickets. We were outside at night in the summer.

Then one young man, quite possibly the least pretentious of the bunch, spoke. “Good for you, man,” he said and smiled. “Good for you.”

“I hope you become a senator,” I responded. “You get it.”

I bring up this story because it came rushing back to me in my mind in recent months. A scandal broke in the national news involving several Hollywood celebrities, and now apparently many more wealthy people, who paid a lot of money to fake information and trick admissions officers to get their kiddos into top-notch colleges. It reminded me of the elitist attitude I encountered on that summer night in D.C. years ago.

One would think that all these years later, people would understand that college is not just a pedigree to wave around as leverage. No, college is an opportunity to learn. And it is based on hard work and talent development, not patronage.

There was this interesting juxtaposition of my own current experience teaching at Grand Valley and this national scandal. Some of the children of these elites boasted that they didn’t even want to study or attend class, just party and be part of the elite school scene. Meanwhile, I had three students take third place in a national PR case study competition, competing among top schools from across the country, including graduate students. My colleague leads a group of students on a National Student Advertising Competition team who won their district, besting Big 10 and other larger schools in the Midwest, to go on to the semi-finals and possibly the national finals.

A year ago, I was in New York City to attend a conference and I connected with an alumnus who works in Manhattan, handling major national clients in the digital advertising arena. He is a loyal GVSU alumnus and says what he loves most about the school, from its sports teams to its students, is “grit.” They all work hard and succeed beyond expectations, he said, which is how he got where he is now in Manhattan.

That grit was exhibited this past semester by another student. She came to me after a career fair and resume review event, and said she got high praise for her resume, and that bothered her, because she thought surely there was room for her to improve. This was a student who had multiple internships, including with a U.S. congressman, was involved in extracurricular activity and did excellent classroom work. I simply confirmed what the people at the event had told her — she looked stellar.

At the final exam period, she turned in her exam with an envelope. The envelope contained a kind thank-you note and a business card for her new job — at a well-known PR firm in D.C. She also thanked me for writing a letter of recommendation for her to be admitted to graduate school at Georgetown, where she will attend nights while working her new job.

I don’t think my letter did much to persuade, just confirm. I think she got the job and grad school acceptance because of her own hard work and talent. I also am keen to observe that her dad is a plumber.

I confess some delight in seeing those given to patronage and pretense ending up in scandal. It is reassuring to know that in this world the values of hard work, merit, or call it grit, still lead to success. And more than success is the satisfaction in knowing it has been earned.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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