Monday, April 4, 2011

On being courted by schools: Considering NYU

Part 1 of 3

I spent the last two days being courted. As I mentioned earlier, the two schools I applied to, NYU and The New School, both admitted me, so I had to decide which program to attend. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and were pulling out all the stops to convince the pool of us admitted students that we should sign on the dotted line for them: this was done by hosting Admitted Students days, NYU on Friday and The New School on Saturday. By the end of the two days, because of the content of their presentations, I was absolutely sure which is the right school for me. I think you’ll see why…

In the interests of space I will upload my reflections on the second school as a separate post. I know this is more information that most of you will be interested in: the main audience for this and the following two posts is my family. Note, all quotes quoted henceforth are my best attempt at the actual words said, I was jotting things down all day.
Though my initial bias was against NYU, I showed up bright and early with a smile on my face, my sharpest clothes on, and an open mind and heart, willing to be convinced that this was the school for me.

That the day they chose to host their program was on a Friday, necessitating us all to take a day off work or miss a day of school, was a point against them right off the bat. The day’s programming also ran from 9 am to 9 pm, which is just ridiculous. This initial impression, that the program is not considerate of students’ lives outside of NYU, was corroborated throughout the day.

I entered the huge building through a marble lobby, spaceship security gates, and uniformed guard, up shining brassy elevators, was given my slick printed nametag, and entered a huge ballroom with gigantic windows offering an absolutely stunning and unprecedented view across Washington Park, through the Arch, up 5th Ave, and past the Empire State Building, made especially gorgeous and dramatic by the swirling low clouds that shrouded the tops of the buildings. Yup, I was impressed. Part of me likes sitting in the lap of luxury, and this was unequivocally that.

Sadly, no one in the room but me seemed to notice or appreciate the view. The room was populated by a subdued crowd of about 250 mostly-white young adults in business attire, suits and ties and pencil skirts and heels all on their normatively-gendered bodies. People were politely provisioning themselves from the extensive mundane spread of sticky carbs and caffeine and sitting down at their assigned, numbered tables. When I commented on the view to a few, they looked and said, “Yes, it’s raining, this weather sucks” or “Whatever, I’m from New York, this isn’t anything special.” Unpleasant and disappointing, but perhaps I’d just encountered some bad apples, or they needed their coffee. After all, it was early.

The nametags they had given us had strings that were much too long except for the largest of us, so the tags rested on our bellies or hips, below the edges of the tables at which we sat, largely negating their usefulness and leading to lots of inappropriate staring to decipher a name. So I immediately tied the string on mine shorter, making it rest much higher and be easily readable. Everyone was flummoxed by this, and no one followed suit. I began to have serious doubts about my potentially-fellow students.

My scattered notes for the next hour of presentations read: Big. Very New York. Leadership. A push towards leadership. Asking tough questions, being tough. Lots of economists, health care. Power: Power over… Power for… Power with…. Almost all students are younger than me, have less experience. Think tanks as internships. Amartya Sen is coming to speak next week. (Ok, so those last two were good. That’s the kind of thing that gives me pause to consider. But the preceding comments are rather souring.)

Student panel participants: NYU isn’t a good fit for people who lack ambition, who are timid, who can’t handle being competitive, who don’t like people, who aren’t good at listening, who don’t like working in teams, who are afraid of hard work, who are disorganized, who don’t like New York. “If you’re like that, don’t come here, please, you’ll make our team work unpleasant and frustrating.” (Rather harsh, unfriendly, and unnecessarily critical, despite the obvious virtues of listening and hard work and the like.)

A very informative and useful financial aid session yielded some interesting info in addition to the usual Stafford loans and work study: They offer $5000 funding for unpaid internships over the summer between years of study. The funding isn’t guaranteed, I’d have to apply for it, but 50 students get it every summer, and I think I’d be a strong candidate. And they have funding to help pay for international travel for school projects. And they negotiate to get our clients to help pay for our project expenses. (This is unusual compared to other programs, and a very tempting perk.)

I was offered a small merit-based scholarship, so asked about the likelihood of continued scholarships. I was told a GPA of 3.6 is necessary to maintain the grant semester by semester. This isn’t a problem for me, as 3.6 is well within my usual GPA range. However, I was saddened by their rationale behind the 3.6 cutoff: it’s the average GPA throughout the program, meaning that the faculty grades lightly. (I’d rather they have higher expectations, grade more harshly, challenge us to do better.)

Definitely my favorite temptation of the day rested in the international summer programs. The school offers 2-3 week programs at three different times during the summer in locations such as Cape Town, South Africa; Accra, Ghana; and Shanghai, China, combining intensive class study on a particular topic relevant to the location (i.e. environmental management, food security, and urban planning respectively) with organized housing, sight-seeing, and observation of a local organization’s work. I liked the particular locations (all of interest to me), I liked how well-structured the time is, and the topics were of great interest. I hesitated over the hint of poverty tourism, but understood their desire to keep us safe. But most of all, I love the intensive class format, it being my favorite way to learn: if I could do my whole degree through a series of intensive programs of a few weeks each, I’d do so. And then I learned the best thing about the international summer classes: they can be done by people attending other schools, though they’re a bit pricey. :)

Then the real turning-point in my decision-making process, during a panel with faculty from the program. One spoke on the financial challenges states face regarding pension plans. One spoke on the statistics of the racial divide in subsidized housing compared to their surrounding communities. And the last spoke with refreshing frankness on social entrepreneurship, articulating an attitude I had begun to glean held importance in the program: Their main interest is to make graduates well-prepared for the workplace. They’re most concerned with putting onto my resume what’s going to get me a job. But is “what’s going to get me a job” the right question to be asking? It was all very, very in-the-box thinking. They were very critical of the idea of social entrepreneurship, of people setting out on their own, of people working outside of traditional, pre-existing workplaces and organizational structures. They advocated for people working within well-designed organizations. “It’s not about the lone individual: it’s not about individuals at all. You have to be willing to give up control of your projects, of your dreams, to get them done.” Um, no thanks. I do not want to go to grad school to learn how to settle, how to plan from the get-go to compromise my control and my ideas. And, after talking at such length about the failures of existing structures and organizations and programs, why say I have to work within these broken systems? And who is to say that I have to come in at the bottom, give up my control and ideas? Who is to say I can’t run those organizations or start my own and maintain control? I fully understand the arguments for existing institutions and against common problems of startup social entrepreneurship, i.e. redundancies and incompetencies, but that’s just badly done/ignorant entrepreneurship, not all of it. And their whole attitude smacked hugely of anti-grassroots, anti-community organizing, and pro-institutionalism: that’s not how I want to learn or do my work. Probably not the place for me.

At this point, I started a list of questions I really wanted to get answered: Is there discussion of and support for female leadership, addressing and helping solve the challenges women working in this field encounter? Is there a queer community here, and does it include women? Do queer people, queer ideas, queer relationships get respect and support here? Do we have opportunities to work with small organizations, not just megaliths like the World Bank? (I was unable to get answers to these questions over the next 5 hours, in effect answering them for me.)

At the late-afternoon faculty mixer, the faculty all arrived quite late (30 min+) and wanted instead to meet with small groups of people in their offices instead of in the larger gathering rooms. None of the prospective students stepped forward to open the wine bottles or started eating the array food, though they were all talking of how good it looked. When I stepped forward and opened a red and white wine and started pouring for everyone, hamming up the hostess role, everyone relaxed a bit, but seriously? They needed someone to pour for them? It turned out to be very very hard to get to speak with faculty because there were so few of them and so many students, which proved the reputation of their inaccessibility. I did eventually get to speak with the delightful John Gershman, the advisor of a friend of mine who recently completed the program, with whom I definitely hope to speak again in the future, a nice end to a baffling day.

In conclusion, I came away thinking while I could do the NYU program, and could get a lot out of it, it wouldn’t be teaching the kind of business I want to do in the world, and I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it very much.

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