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Ivy League Humility in the Midwest

Just thought I would share an observation about transplanted Ivy League graduates. When I lived in the Northeast and someone would ask me where I went to school, I would always say "Cornell." Just as if I had said Dartmouth, or Brown, my response would lead the other person to make certain assumptions about me. Maybe I scored highly on the SAT and got good grades in high school, maybe I was an elitist, maybe I was smart. Who knows what exactly would go through their heads?

In the Midwest, especially since I work in a community in which no one attends Ivy League schools, I respond differently to the same question. I often say something like, "I grew up in Connecticut and went to college in New York." If pressed, I say that I attended Cornell University. I'm not sure when I adopted this approach, but it's not just me. One of my friends here, a Manhattan native and Yale graduate, will say that he grew up in New York City and went to college in Connecticut.

In these cases, the assumptions made by our interlocutors are different. They wonder what life was like in the Northeast, or why we ended up in Saint Louis. In an area in which people confuse Cornell University with Cornell College, and many have little idea where those schools even are, it's oddly freeing to move through these kinds of conversations with a blank slate.

I'm proud of my alma mater and my intention is not to hide my educational background. I share stories from college with my students, and I enjoy when visitors to my classroom comment on my Cornell banner. But my goal in Saint Louis is not to be the smart guy who swoops in to change the world, but rather to become part of the community here. Like others, I have found that it becomes easier to fit in when I leave it at "I went to school in New York."

Elie Bilmes | Posted on October 02, 2011 (#)

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