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Rejection Friday: musings on qualifications and the “stickiness of labels”

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Last Friday, I got rejected from a position I had applied for. No one enjoys rejection and I was no exception. Needless to go into detail why and how I wasn’t qualified, I’m more interested in discussing “stickiness of labels,” inspired by this small incident of my delayed success.

Ignore the fact that I blatantly stole the term from Rosenhan, a psychologist known for his Rosenhan experiment in the 1970s. The term was used to express his concerns of potential effects that disorder diagnoses (labels) have on patients and doctors. In other words, if you know that you’re messed up mentally, chances are that your actions will follow a particular pattern or your doctor will seek out symptoms to reassure the established label. Scary? let’s hope we’re not going down that path anytime soon.

You may ask, my friend, what the hell does Abnormal Psychology have anything to do with qualifications or supposedly my lack thereof? More than you would imagine. Right from the get go, I knew it was going to be a long shot in the dark since my research indicates that I should at least have some prestigious Ivy League school name tag under my belt and I, unfortunately, don’t have one readily at my disposal. My boss consoled that I should never let such inadequacy pre-perception rig me against confidence to do something. “It’s really what you make of it.” She reassured.

In one way or another, society functions based on stickiness of labels. I once read an article discussing how little these highbrow educations do for one’s career compared to where its names can get you to. However, there are always two sides to a story.

Having lived in Boston-a robust college central for the last 3 years, I’ve met students from a myriad of prestigious colleges such as MIT and Harvard. Their exclusivity and bragging rights come with a price. It’s an interesting social hierarchy when there are distinct bubbles of higher ed institutions. Despite how one is naturally confined to his/her school social circle, there seems to be something else that lies beneath and within. For examples, MIT kids are more likely to hang out with Harvard, Yale, Wellesley students (although they might see one another as rivalries, odds are that they’re more likely to socialize together.) The 2nd bubble of schools include Northeastern, BU, Bentley, Emerson, Suffolk, Tufts, Babson who are often interlinked based on their realms of professional networks. The last one includes institutions that are often followed by a “oh, where is that again? I’ve heard of it” response in conversations. Most of these are tend to be small liberal arts colleges or art/music schools that have barely distinguishable names.

In a conversation I’ve had with 2 Harvard graduate students, also Resident Assistants for an undergraduate dorm, Harvard students were portrayed so distant from my wildest imaginations. Instead of a studious, sophisticated, bright and eager-to-learn bunch, they were painted to be a pack of grade-grubbing maniacs. They allegedly spend more time saddling with grades than actually focusing on improving themselves academically. These stories really upset me. Harvard and their long-time prestige, dreams of millions around the world as the greatest education standard that one could ever dream of, is not what I had expected. I had imagined the school to be an environment to nurture the brightest talent in social sciences, the ones that will shape this country’s future political, economical and social infrastructures. They are the ones who focus on the education itself so diligently because it’s just part of who they are, improving critical thinking and absorbing knowledge that we commoners can only dream of.

This brings me to my next point of exclusivity. This attribute engenders one of the most imminent human emotions: jealousy. Not too long ago, a friend and I went to a bar in Fenway area where we happened to run into some of my bartender friends. 5 minutes into the conversation, my friend introduced he went to MIT and one bartender immediately reacted in a negative, shut-down and mockery way. It was subtle yet very obvious, at least to me – a third-party observer. It was one of those “oh I see that you go to MIT” comment that I can’t exactly recall. There is something instantaneously off-putting about exclusivity that places another person at a lesser value. It’s only in human nature to respond defensively with his body language and verbal reaction. There were more than one instance I’ve seen this social occurrence at work. Another friend of mine graduated from Columbia after transferring from Gettysburg. Interestingly enough, he admitted routinely introducing Gettysburg as his college instead of Columbia due to negative reaction he usually faces. This further confirms my belief that labelling, more often than you would think, is a dangerous, loaded prejudice that can alter perceptions in daily personal interactions. These behavioral reactions aren’t explicit, usually very subtle or even barely noticeable on the surface. Nonetheless, they form subconscious impressions which are slated to take powerful effects on social exchanges and human relationships.

I dream of a judgment-free society where people would acknowledge labels instead of emotionally responding to their associated connotations. Chances that we can erase that divisive boundaries are as slim as money growing on trees. Ironically within their own exclusive network, these highbrow educations further reinforce social hierarchy by planting their version of prejudicial superficiality in students. During orientation at Columbia, my friend was greeted with announcements like “NYU students are just Columbia’s rejects.” Michael Lewis, in his Princeton Baccalaureate 2012 address, emphasized luck factoring in success, that successful people often negate “… lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increasing their chances of becoming even luckier.”

Personally, I don’t go to any Ivy League or prestigious colleges in nature. Have I ever dreamt of it? You bet I did. But the current degree I’m pursuing, though might not be as well-known and impressive, is a honorable education in its own right. Best thing about my Ivy League friends is our intellectual exchanges. I’ve grown up to the point in my life where I can appreciate a person for who they are, their actions, their talents, their opinions instead of the labels attached with their background. Or so I strive to be.

There are always two or more sides to a subject matter and neither is superior, they’re just different. When put together, they shed light on perspectives that might conspire to complete a picture. As long as we’re not shut down by jealousy and exclusivity that is.

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