It’s just semantics: what you have to offer (me)

I read a lot of emails from young people.  Mostly those emails come from college students or high school students who are looking into the college I work for.  Most of the time, these emails are well-enough written; they’re nothing spectacular but they get the point across and I don’t usually notice their semantics or grammar at all.  Their writers can usually use some practice, some additional finesse or more concise wording.  But they’re young and inexperienced and so I forgive them their sometimes poor semantic choices and slog through the rest of my inbox unperturbed.  But every once in a while I read something that gets me.  Usually it’s from those high school students.  They write about “what can your program/school/university offer me.”

In some ways, it’s a pretty straightforward and harmless question.  And the answer is important for that student to know.  They should be aware of the resources and opportunities that are provided by any school they consider attending.  University is expensive and they should be aware of the pros and cons of their investment.  But what grinds my gears is the way they ask that question.  It’s never, “what does the school offer?” It’s always, “what does the school offer me?” This changes the question for me.  It shifts the burden from the student to the school in a pretty selfish way.  My university offers a lot of really excellent things and I’m usually happy to talk about them.  That’s pretty established.  But by adding “me” to the end of the question, the student makes me feel like the University needs to be doing these things expressly and only for that one particular student.  Not for the student body as a whole.  Not for the community.  Or the wider world or for the sake of scientific discovery or the general pursuit of “better”.  But for that one student.

Universities exist to educate students. But they also do a lot more than that.  I think that by asking “what do you offer me” you limit the university to one purpose and one pretty selfish goal.  So drop the “me” and ask the bigger question:  What can’t universities offer?


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