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What My Mother Didn’t Tell Me About College

My mother, Carrie Ponder, was a strong believer in the value and power of education. She worked hard to ensure all eight of her children graduated from college. She came from a generation of Black parents who saw education as the great equalizer, a way out of poverty, and an accomplishment no person could ever take away from you.

My mother was brilliant, resourceful, and a great collaborator. Unfortunately, her upward mobility was stifled by her lack of a college degree. Although she attended Alcorn State University for two years, she frequently found herself teaching others how to do the job (teaching coordinator, school probation assistant, cook, or her various positions at the women’s shelter) at the next level above. Her mobility and earning power were limited by her lack of education, and she wanted to ensure that didn’t happen to her eight children. Consequently, she focused on preparing us for college so we would have a better life. The college diploma was her north star, and she was successful in helping us attend some of the best universities in the world, including Princeton, Penn, The University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Northwestern, NYU, Columbia Chicago, DePaul, and Illinois State, to name a few. We have all attained advanced degrees, a greater testament more to her than to us.

What she didn’t tell me was there was more to college than getting that piece of paper. This is not to imply she held something back. Rather, her focus on the degree might have eclipsed some of the other things she wanted to tell me, or maybe her limited college experience simply didn’t equip her with the knowledge to tell me. Or perhaps she thought I’d see her example and pick up many of the things she didn’t explicitly say. Here are a few important points I wish my mother had overtly shared.

Carrie Ponder

The Degree is Only Half of the Formula

While the first half of the formula is to get the degree, my mother didn’t tell me that the second half is to get the people. I believe she knew when I attended Princeton, I would meet new and different people, and I did. However, I didn’t know that I was supposed to work as hard at getting to know those people as I did at getting to know my textbooks. I didn’t realize that the degree and the people were the key to opening up opportunities. And because of that, I squandered opportunities to grow my network.

My mother continually grew her network because she talked to just about everyone she met – at the grocery store, laundromat, or on the bus. Doing so helped her find opportunities for all eight of us. At the time, I wasn’t astute enough to understand that making friends was different from networking and I concluded that college was the perfect place to do both. I later learned that my mom wasn’t just increasing her network for selfish reasons; she was also increasing her network to make a more meaningful impact on society. She knew that she had something to offer, they had something to offer, and when combined, it couldn’t help but improve more than just her situation. My mother used her network to help others and shared her knowledge and resources with everyone she could. In hindsight, she was signaling to me by setting a wonderful example.

Networking is Part Art and Part Science

Maybe because it came naturally to her, my mother didn’t tell me that networking is part art and part science – the difference between making friends and developing a network. In college, the art is found in just being an active participant in college life; you are bound to meet people and bond with them. I was good at this part of socializing, the part where I just met people organically. I was a member of student government, played intramural sports, was in a dance troupe, and I don’t think I ever missed a campus party. Those events produced some of my lifelong friends.

The science part is found in deliberately putting yourself in situations where you meet people you would not have otherwise met. The novice networker will focus on learning as much as possible about the other person. The more experienced networker focuses on letting others know them. If a person knows who you are, they are more likely to invite you into their life and introduce you to their network. There is no environment quite like college where you can do that. I wasn’t good at this part because it required planning and purpose.

Where I could have deliberately expanded a study group partner into a trusted classmate or friend, I just worked on getting the assignment done to the best of our ability. I didn’t try to allow that person to know me beyond the assignment, and that was a missed opportunity.

I also spent very little time deliberately cultivating relationships with professors and administrators. I thought college was a meritocracy; if I did well in class, that was enough. But it wasn’t. These are the same people who can provide recommendations and connections. If they respect your work and feel like they know you, that goes a long way outside the walls of the institution.

I didn’t know that when alumni came to speak or were part of an on-campus activity, I was supposed to create a connection with them even if they were in an industry that didn’t interest me. I didn’t understand that someday I would be an alumnus, and building those relationships early would simply increase my possibilities. According to HubSpot, 85% of jobs are filled through networking. A CNBC study reported that 70% of jobs are never published publicly.

As a film critic, I have seen plenty of Princeton alumni who are leading media organizations, writing for publications, on-air personalities, screenwriters, producers, and actors. This network is valuable for everything I do in this industry. But if they don’t know me, the possibilities for collaboration are smaller.

The Degree is a Prerequisite, Not an Equalizer

The degree will not necessarily put you on an even playing field. Just because you have the degree doesn’t mean you are automatically in the club. My mother’s generation, better known as the “Silent Generation,” those born between 1925 and 1945 believed that a degree would even the playing field. The desegregation of the educational system was one of the most important issues during her twenties, and it was thought that equal access would result in equal opportunities. My mother believed she was held back professionally mostly due to her lack of a degree. 

However, we all know people who have the degree and who have been passed over for some reason or another. We have seen other requirements put in front of us that make the degree more of a prerequisite for consideration. And many of us have experienced people we felt were less qualified than ourselves being promoted over us. I’m not speaking anecdotally when I say people hire people who are similar to them, people they like, or people who are referred. If most jobs are not listed, it is abundantly clear that a person must find a way to be in the consideration set, and the degree alone is simply not the answer. Unfortunately, not being explicitly told this impacted my ability to navigate a landscape I believed would be fair and objective but is a lot more complex than that.

Now I Get It!

There is no value in getting the degree if you don’t also get the people. It all boils down to college as an opportunity to gain credentials and a community. My advice is to absolutely work hard to learn everything and obtain the best grades while in college. AND, get to know the people – classmates, professors, and alumni, as they will turbo-charge that degree. Along the way, do not take the service staff (cooks, groundskeepers, campus police, and others) for granted as they will be an important part of helping you get that degree. Many of them are there to be of service, but know they welcome the opportunity to get to know you versus just serving you. You will be amazed at how this part of your network will be an important part of your college experience.

Yes, part of all of this is about improving one’s individual opportunities. Still, as I discovered with my mother, inevitably, that network will help you make a more meaningful impact on the world. Hmm…on second thought, maybe my mother did tell me most of these things in her own way. Maybe she just wanted me to discover some of this on my own to ensure I internalized them versus only witnessing them. Thanks, Mom! Just Something to Ponder. 

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