This past New Year’s, a friend introduced me to Henry.
Henry enjoyed camping, hockey, and Canadian Club. He was fairly tall, about six foot two, and had a mop of unkempt brown hair. He went to a high school in Toronto and, barring his obsession with the Montreal Canadiens, was rather similar to most of my other friends. Except for one thing: Henry went to Harvard.
When people heard this, their ears perked up. Henry was a pretty popular guy at that party—I remember counting at least seven girls who were more than happy to share their digits with him. “He’s not that cute,” my friend Sarah said. “But it’s so hot that he goes to school there.” Others agreed.
I’ll admit, I was impressed. But then I started to think about it. Why were we all subject to this weird Ivy League fetishism? Why do we swoon when we hear that someone goes to Yale, but not when they’re from McGill? We keep getting assured that the quality of Canadian postsecondary education is on par with other prestigious American universities, but if that’s true, why do we always feel the need to convince ourselves of it? Do Princeton or Stanford students say the same things about U of T or McGill or UBC? I doubt it.
The difference, I believe, is something inherent to students in Canadian undergraduate programs. We do not share the same sense of expectation or entitlement. This might sound like a good thing—no one really likes those smug Ivy League trust fund babies—but I think this sense of expectation is an important, even necessary, part of competing in an increasingly global economy. And it often comes from studying at a prestigious American university.
Rotman professor Reza Satchu would agree. His course on entrepreneurship stresses the importance of exposing students to models of success, and his recent summer program, “The Next 36”, brought Canadian students together to experience the process of starting and managing a new business in the real world. Most striking, though, were his reasons for starting the program. In an interview on CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Satchu shared his experiences coming out of a Canadian undergraduate program and working on Wall Street.
“I remember thinking, as I’m surrounded by all these kids from Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, that these kids must be so much smarter, so much better educated,” he said. When it turned out they weren’t, Satchu recognized that they did, however, have two advantages coming from an Ivy League institution. The first was the exposure they received—exposure to leaders from a variety of fields, especially outside of academia. “The second advantage, which was a direct result of the first, was a far more expanded set of expectations. They don’t want to just write a book, they want to win the Pulitzer Prize.”
It’s important to recognize the difference between that and simply having goals. There is an additional virtue that is created through the institution—one that Canadian universities don’t successfully inculcate in their students or their programs.
I look back at the week I spent lodging with a friend at Claremont McKenna College in California. CMC is by no means a large institution—there are just over a thousand undergrads—but it is considered one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the US. I went to my friend’s classes and events, and by the time I caught my flight home I had seen and heard Karl Rove, Harry Jaffa, and David Foster Wallace (who was a professor at the nearby Pomona College).
I remember thinking how privileged I was, just to be there and listen to them speak. I could feel that it was more than simply educating these students; it was preparing them for a successful life outside of university.
Michael Di Leo