I’ve always been confused as to why seemingly no one outside of a few hours’ drive from Williamstown has heard of Williams. Coming from Minneapolis, it was almost a given that people would assume I was referring to William & Mary when I told them where I was headed for college. And now, living in Chicago, I get blank stares more often than any sign of recognition when I talk about my alma mater. And honestly – I like it that way.
We’ve all seen what happens when someone has attended a name-brand school, whether it’s on screen or in the flesh. “Harvard undergrad!” they’ll say, with that look. The look can mean any number of things – an assumption about your intelligence, your
background, your politics. But that’s just the point – it’s an assumption.
When people don’t know of Williams or have only heard of the College as “another Middlebury” or (God forbid) “just like Amherst,” if you can look past the initial frustration of the complete lack of recognition, it’s shockingly freeing. While any interaction is rarely free of judgment or snap assumptions, a significant layer of suppositions is peeled away when your college is not one piece of a larger American cultural context.
When I was a sophomore at the College, a group of Korean journalists visited campus for a week or so. The Asian studies department (of which my major, Chinese language, is a part) largely played host to them, meaning that a group of strangers with no clear tie to my courses or the College floated around my daily language classes for a few days. Our professor eventually explained that the College had topped the Forbes list of U.S. colleges that year and that had garnered a huge amount of press overseas. The journalists were sent to do a story on the unknown college that had knocked many more internationally acclaimed universities off the top rung of the ladder. Why didn’t they know about us, and how could we possibly be so successful without the recognition that accompanies such academic rigor?
I still don’t have the answer to that question, but – as we all learned many times over in the classroom – the question is often more important than the answer, and this is one of those times. Without the initial set of assumptions and understandings of academic excellence and overachievement that we’ve all witnessed on campus, others are left wondering, “What is Williams, and why do I care?” When your background is an unknown to many, you’re left needing to prove yourself, to start from the ground up, to build your own foundation without resting on the laurels of your college diploma.
Don’t get me wrong – the skills, knowledge and community each and every one of us were exposed to on campus, for better or for worse, laid a portion of the foundation of who we are and where we were going. When others don’t understand that piece of the puzzle, however, you are forced to show others what that aspect of your background has yielded. You need to explain – or better yet, show – the value of a liberal arts education, the importance of the ability to write a rock-solid two-page paper on anything and the good that comes of being exposed to so much information academically, socially and culturally in such a short period of time.
Oftentimes, the people you interact with won’t remember Williams. They won’t attribute your success to the College – as well they shouldn’t, as it is certainly your own. They won’t tie your flexibility in thought, your ability to connect the dots across topics and disciplines, back to your four years in northwestern Massachusetts. They will remember you and those abilities and skills and ways of thinking.
Williams offers us the ability to write our own story, and to succeed without the baggage of a name brand. And frankly, the College isn’t as much of an unknown as we always seem to think. For every 10 people that have never heard of it, there are one or two who connect with the name, who know the backstory. And the connections made with those people, in my experience, are so much more meaningful than connections had with people who have heard of Harvard, Yale or Amherst. The College isn’t part of our shared cultural knowledge as a country and society, and as such, those who know of Williams truly know it in some sense.
As you head home for the holidays, or out into the real world come June, steel yourself. Except for the pockets of NESCAC-driven communities in Boston, New York and the like, there are few places in the country where you’ll be able to say the words “Williams College” and have a whole room of people nod their heads in understanding. Embrace that as an opportunity – to prove yourself and to represent the College – and keep an eye out for the other roaming Ephs. Meeting one will always, always make your day.
Meghan Kiesel ’13 lives in Chicago, Ill.