After the party: why your alma mater matters

The most frequent question I was asked over Winter Break was not “Are you wearing a fake beard?” but “Did you hear the This American Life story about Penn State as the #1 party school in the country?”

I went to Penn State for graduate school, and because a number of friends from my high school were undergraduates there, I visited PSU a number of times while I was in college. Having witnessed, and perhaps on the rare occasion contributed to, its culture of fun, I was not surprised by its selection as the #1 party school.

I remember my first visit to Penn State surprisingly well. It was during my junior year of college and I thought I had found Undergraduate Heaven. There were pizza shops and sports bars on every corner in downtown State College, everybody on the street was between 18 and 22, and all anyone wanted to do was have a good time. No wonder it attracts so many students who remain fiercely loyal to their alma mater for the rest of their lives: it’s a place to create wonderful fuzzy memories.

I am proud to be a Penn State alum. I received excellent graduate training from great professors, I made a lot of friends and I participated in some epic tailgates before attending what I’m told were very good football games.

So did I hear the This American Life story about PSU as #1 party school? Yeah, I did. And I hated it.

The designation of the #1 party school in the country is a badge of honor worn by many undergrads and some alums, but it can cause embarrassment to those who recognize that the value of a degree from any institution depends highly on that school’s reputation.

When I was on the job market, I almost didn’t apply to Grinnell because, having lived my life on the east coast, I had never heard of the college and I thought that everything I ever needed to know about Iowa I learned from watching of Field of Dreams. It was only because a Grinnellian who was also at Penn State told me that Grinnell was, in fact, a very good school that I decided to send in my application.

Shortly after I accepted the position, I met someone who told me that one of her coworkers had attended Grinnell. “Did she like it?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” came the reply. “She said she smoked a lot of weed.”

By the time I had that conversation, I had already learned a lot about the college and had visited the campus during the interview process. The students I met struck me as thoughtful, intelligent and engaged, so I knew I wasn’t taking a job at what was simply the academic equivalent of a Cheech and Chong movie.
But the fact that this was the defining characteristic of Grinnell College for someone only marginally familiar with the school strikes me as problematic, unfair and unfortunate, just as the #1 party school designation can give outsiders a rather skewed view of Penn State.

When a student submits a resume for consideration, his or her college typically appears on the top line. If the potential employer recognizes the college as a respected and highly-ranked institution of higher learning, that is a huge plus. If the potential employer wonders whether 3.24 is the applicant’s GPA or B.A.L., that’s not good.

Never mind what national rankings say or what people connected to the school know to be true about its academic rigor—in the real world, what matters is reputation.

This is why it is so important for students to represent and exemplify the best aspects of Grinnell to people they encounter off-campus and to the visitors they meet on campus. This is why students should have a vested interest in not voting themselves #1 party school or making the availability of weed part of its social gospel.

This is not to say that students need to shun intoxicants or that the colleges and universities need to police the social activities of its students; I’m not trying to harsh anyone’s mellow here.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t regale your non-Grinnellian friends with stories from 10/10 or Hundred Days or the time your team lost to the Sparkle Ponies at Grinnell Relays (and you will lose again this year, mark my words).

My point is that how we articulate our values as members of a particular institution has consequences and we should be very much aware of that. Listening to the NPR story about Penn State demonstrated that many students mistakenly think they’re serving the greater good by advertising PSU as a place in which beer consumption and public urination take precedence over, rather than coexist with, academics and social service. This might make a college seem enticing to other teenagers, but it’s less impressive to those who will review applications for jobs, fellowships or graduate school.

I feel like Grinnellians do a very good job of representing themselves and the College, and I only want that to continue. I’ve come to know Grinnell as a place where students work their asses off for their education and self-gov themselves off their asses when they need a break, and I get that. But when it comes time to prepare the face you meet to meet the faces that you meet, all I ask is that you put your best face forward.
Grinnell College deserves wider and greater recognition as one of the country’s finest liberal arts institution—it doesn’t need to be recognized as the #1 Party School in Poweshiek County, even if that title has also been earned.