Lainie Rowland: Anything but a cheesy column

Guest Columnist
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

My senior year of high school I wrote a paper for my AP Language class trying to figure out what makes going to college worth the money. I could not actually answer the question, so the resulting paper was tragically bad. I argued that experiences combined with academics define college, making it a unique experience worth the investment for those ready to take advantage of it. A canned essay searching for a silver bullet-type answer, it read like a cheesy college brochure written by a pseudo-intellectual without a high school degree. Which it was. Not only was my argument flimsy and poorly articulated, but it was also premised on a set of hypothetical first-hand experiences that I obviously could not back up.

Fast forward four years, and here we are. I hope I have already convinced you that my writing has improved since then (and if I have not, you should probably stop reading). In addition to some technical improvements, I now possess some first-hand experience that could inform a legitimate answer to the question I first posed in that shamelessly titled essay, “Not for School but for Life we Learn.”

Surprisingly, though, I do not feel any more capable of offering a definitive answer to the question than I did four years ago. In the jumbled mess of my original paper, I touched on the importance of developing social skills and a professional network as a means of extracting value from a traditional college experience. I have certainly done that at Brown. I talked about “getting your money’s worth” by engaging with professors and academic advisors. Again, I have done that. Learning time management? Check. Leadership roles in clubs? Check. Got my money’s worth.

From what I can decipher, high-school Lainie placed a premium on career readiness as a means of justifying the expense of college. Re-reading my paper, I cringed at one particularly laughable quote — “Colleges are smart; course requirements exist for a reason, and the classes needed to fulfill a major can be the foundation for many different career paths.” Open curriculum aside, Brown was a worthwhile transaction in this sense insofar as I am now able to say that I have secured a job. But this narrow, contractual answer feels unsatisfying. I went to college knowing it to be a concrete path toward gainful employment, but that does not make college “worth it” as much as it plainly describes the nature of the society in which we live. And I still have trouble making the argument that the many intangible elements of the Brown experience — all the cliches about friendships and late nights and misadventures — can be put on one side of an equation in order to balance the cost of attendance on the other side.

Rather, I will say that Brown was a great wingman for many of my best relationships, whether they be social, intellectual or otherwise. Brown staged a setting conducive to four years of deep learning. Brown also provided a wealth of resources for my endeavors. But both the growth I have experienced over the past four years and the role of a college education in bringing me to this point are intangible and hard to define. Ironically, the clearest thing they have in common are their contributions to my increased ability to embrace uncertainty.

If I were to write the same paper now, I would spin off some jargon about the utility of a college degree as a signaling mechanism and as a vehicle for preserving the current distribution of wealth and power in the United States. I might even entertain some philosophical yarn about utilitarian methods of defining and calculating worthiness — the narrower the definition, the easier the fulfillment. I would also acknowledge that a school like Brown is well-positioned to prepare us for a career, life and so on. I would write that even the understanding I have developed while here about what it is like to go to Brown — what’s great about it, what’s frustrating and what to get at the GCB — does not make me qualified to deliver a judgment on my broad question. Other than being marked by a degree ceremony, the end of my college experience provides no singularly profound message.

I would like to think that my willingness to accept this open-endedness is reflective of my increased comfort with a world enmeshed in ambiguities and uncertainty. If that is the case, then I suppose I have come full circle. To that end, maybe walking through the Van Wickle Gates has some inherent metaphorical meaning. But this time around, I do not have to write a cheesy essay to prove its worth. So I wrote this one instead.