If I had to write a book on ‘Things that they never told me about in b-school”, it would run into volumes that no one would read. I suspect that a lot of these things that ‘they never tell us about’ are not meant to be known to us at that time anyway. Some things you realise only with time, some things are experienced and understood only in the context of the right time-frame.
Being a student is something that is a way of life for most people under the Indian education system (only because I don’t know if it is different elsewhere). From our earliest memories, we are used to being the low life in the complex matrix of teachers, assignments, back-benchism (yes, as a noun), bullies, exams, practicals, notes, lessons, grades, degrees etc.
At twenty-something it abruptly comes to an end and you suddenly have to learn to live your life as ‘not a student any more’. Oh, yes I know there are people who go back to school but once you’ve had a taste of this side of things, you are transformed for life. I particularly feel it when I attend an alumni meet. The transition from aspirant to candidate to student to alumnus is not a smooth one. It hits you in sudden doses.
I worked for some time between my graduation and masters so I went back to college with a certain “must keep my eyes open and not miss a single minute of the experience” attitude. I had realised that old adage about ‘the best years’. Even so, the stark differences take some getting used to.
Attitudes change. Drastically. People and times change of course. But I’m talking about universal attitude towards a person when he/she goes through this aspirant-candidate-student-alumnus cycle. Suddenly the higher powers-that-be who couldn’t be bothered with granting you five minutes of their time to discuss your admission/work/placements are queuing up to shake your hand. Of course all of this is dependent on what you’ve done and how you’ve done it since they last left you.
I initially thought of this as akin to the ‘leaving the nest’ syndrome. But family is different. At a professional level, one’s alma mater is the equivalent of family but they aren’t bound to you emotionally in the same way. Hence you get used and abused and when the roles change, its time to return the favour.
Do I sound cynical? Well, it is disconcerting to find that the same people who misplaced your certificates (and ensured endless running around to universities, registrar offices et al for you), graded you badly because they thought you should have been home learning to cook instead and did so many other callous things…are introducing you as ‘someone the students would do well to follow, a fast-track professional, someone with a bright future, a worthy alumnus of this college etc etc’
But that is still bitching about faculty. One of my early mentors told me “You’ll find lots of contacts in college that could lead to jobs, business opportunities and such useful things. But you won’t find friends.” It really hit me at the alumni meet. Six months out of college and very excited about meeting my old classmates again, I arrived at the alumni meet. I’d been on the other side long enough, the organizers, the alumni group, the nameless, faceless students who ensured that the institute had links to all those who had walked through its halls. And now, I was about to sign my name in the Visitors book for the first time. I felt like a moth caught in a chandelier. Someone I didn’t recognize called me to invite me, someone else had a name tag ready for me, disembodied hands stuffed a bag of college paraphrelia into my arms and pushed me into the hall. And inside the hall, there was the same gathering I’d seen in the past years. Except the bunch that used to sport the Volunteer tags now had respectable Visitor passes. And everyone was flashing visiting cards.
I have attended several alumni meets now. And there are patterns that I didn’t catch at first. Patterns that repeat. The person in the centre of a crowd isn’t the one who was the most popular student. It is more likely to be that slimy lizard who stole your reports and who was the first one in the batch to get promoted.
What about your seniors? Ah, this is really interesting. Some of those creeps who bullied you all through the first days and then forgot you when you needed a mentor, suddenly want your email address. Oh and maybe ‘get together sometime for a drink and discuss some business opportunities’. And those great people whom you had fun with, who did give you some tips about your interview seem to be avoiding you. I guess it isn’t easy to deal with the idea that someone you gave a leg up to, zoomed past you.
What of those who fared more or less the same way as you did in college and now too? They are there of course….with uneasy looking smiles they tell you that they want to ‘circulate’ and that they’ll catch up with you later. Which they don’t. You may bump into them over dinner and conversations are guarded. And probing. No friends in this game, rivals it is always.
Of course all conversations revolve around who is doing what, who switched jobs and why. Everyone joins in, even those who haven’t worked since they quit college. Everyone has an opinion. And an agenda. Visiting cards are passed out, phone numbers exchanged. Everyone knows everyone else as well as someone’s boss, colleague, client, supplier. There is this seemingly casual camaradie while they bitch about a common contact. But each one is storing what the other is saying to be circulated back to the subject of common scorn.
I was stripped of my illusions at that one meet that happened the year I took a break from my job. It was close to the time I quit and a lot of people hadn’t heard about it. So I greeted the usual wave of handshakes coming my way and prepared for the charade ahead. Except most of those smiles visibly faded when they realised that there was no job/sale/contact coming their way. A few people actually cut me mid-sentence and walked off ‘to say hello to so-and-so’. The next year of course changed again. A new job, a new visiting card brought a few new handshakes and all the old ones too.
I still attend alumni meets. I guess I’ve become a part of the system too. There really are useful contacts to be made and maintained, even if I can’t stand them at a personal level. I no more get that very juvenile kick out of seeing my teachers faces when they realise I didn’t turn out a wastrel after all. Some things don’t matter with time I guess. I do like meeting the new kids on the block. I particularly enjoy talking to students. Maybe I just like advising people but yes, I do remember that there were a few people whose words changed the course of my life at one time or another. If sharing an experience eases someone’s way, I consider my debts repaid.
After each alumni meet, I like to take a stroll through the old campus. A college always looks weird when it is empty. But it feels even funnier to see strange faces sitting inside classrooms, lounging in hallways and generally belonging to the place that used to feel like second home to me once. The empty building just looks like I stayed back for a late class, after everyone left. I used to do that sometimes. And after I finished up work, I’d relax over a chai and dream about my future. Standing in that future right now, realising that all those dreams came true….is a good feeling. It makes even the alumni meet worth it.