What an East Coast college didn't teach me

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

Do you know Claire Pratt Ferguson? Me neither, but she and I stood together on a balmy day in May of 2000, walked up on stage in the brick courtyard of an East Coast college and accepted our diplomas.

Well, FYI, she and husband Helaman were recently awarded the Joint Policy Board of Mathematics 2002 Communication Award for "conveying the spirit of mathematics to the public."

Oh, and Ellen (Marcy) Smith, also someone I don't know from my graduating class, is the research editor at Maxim magazine. After living in Brooklyn for two years, she recently moved to White Plains to live with her boyfriend and their cute 70-pound Rottweiler.

This is what arrives every four months in my mailbox like a bill from God's Department of Collections: the Alumnae Quarterly from Smith College, which I left Alaska to attend, along with America's overachieving private-school daughters, who are now 1) diplomats , 2) married to diplomats 3) attending Ph.D programs - on scholarship - in useful subjects, such as "food studies," and 4) all of the above, while wearing expensive shoes. Their many accomplishments are listed in the back of the magazine, after the articles about the really successful graduates who now have their own TV shows or are about to have a building named after them.

The sparkle of snooty Outside colleges wears off when you are three years out and making as much as a manager at Starbucks, while staring down the barrel of college debt. My debt is currently worth about as much as a fully loaded Hummer.

But it's especially worth the money considering all the relevance the literature I read and the feminist theory I studied has to my life here in Alaska, where we routinely elect people to public office who don't know that a sentence is supposed to have a subject and a verb.

How's this for an entry in the Alumnae Quarterly: "Julia O'Malley, Class of '00, lives on an island in Alaska and has to put a jar on her kitchen counter to catch the brownish water that drips from her ceiling when it rains. She has no immediate plans to further her education in any meaningful way. Recently she put her cute 60-pound dog (an unrecognizable pound breed) on Prozac, because when it gets upset (which is often) it pees on the floor."

I am not sure it if is a small town thing, and I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but for many years I nourished the secret thought that because I went to an East Coast college, it would somehow put me ahead in life. The East Coast, and all things in proximity to New York City, took on a magical, superior quality to an Alaska-raised kid. If you went there, I imagined, it rubbed off on you.

For the last three years, whenever high school girls asked me about my college, I always encouraged them to apply. I even sat at a college fair once and hawked the East Coast women's college experience like I was selling used Buicks. It was at this college fair that I actually convinced a brilliant, spirited young JDHS student to apply to my college.

"Forget communications programs, business degrees and state schools," I told her. "With a liberal arts education from this school, you will just see the world differently. It is like a lens that makes everything more colorful. This degree will look great on your resume."

I wrote her a letter of recommendation, citing her maturity, integrity and obvious ability to work hard. She was a better candidate than I was - better grades, clear ideas about her future, stellar SAT scores.

She called me last week to tell me that she was accepted to my college, as well as four others. I was thrilled. Then she told me my college, the one that sits highest in the college rankings, gave her the smallest financial aid package. And, she didn't think she could go there.

After she hung up the phone it hit me: I get the Alumnae Quarterly and I think, "Here we were a bunch of girls, like marathon runners, starting at the same point but some of us, namely me, crapped out and moved back to Alaska while others are now running a victory lap around Maxim magazine."

But we don't start out in the same place at all. Some of us start out here, where there are no prep schools, squash courts or old-money connections, and some of us want to come back here, where your ability to decapitate a salmon pays a heck of a lot more that your familiarity with Shakespeare.

I hope my young friend goes to the school that gives her both the most scholarship money and the most skills to work when she graduates.

A liberal arts education did make the world more colorful: I can recite poems, speak some Spanish and deconstruct the patriarchy. But, the fact remains that every job I have had in this state since graduation did not require a college education, and most employers outside of the newspaper world have taken one look at my resume and offered me a job as a secretary. And, I barely even know how to use Microsoft Office.

They didn't teach that at my college.

• Julia O'Malley grew up in Anchorage and moved to Juneau is 2001. She writes a weekly column about living in Juneau and can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.



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