Continuing from where I left off in Part 1 about Penn State and Smeal and detesting the lack of personalization, I’d like to take a step back and talk about the history of the 2 words: “Rise Above”. These were (probably) coined for a student organization called Smeal for Life. And coined with much less thought or prerogative than it meant to me.
Like most everything else Smeal, Smeal for Life was much ado about nothing. But I was happy doing social media marketing for them. And for the most part, people were good and nice. Smeal for Life funded a work-study program which helped me financially for a few months (and hence, temporarily my morale). I didn’t understand why they existed or their goal, didn’t like their name or their design and I didn’t agree with everything said, done and discussed. I have a feeling it is another of those student organizations with some dough in their pocket, some administratives on it’s helm and I’m sorry but I really think it exists to “create jobs” for some people (I was a byproduct of that institute and I am thankful!). The organization doesn’t necessarily need to exist. But, it helped me and I am thankful. And if by creating this organization, Smeal was able to foster a stronger sense of belonging etc., it was totally worth it. But if it existed to make posters of the Honor Code and enforce Professionalism among the undergrads and MBAs at Smeal College of Business, lets just say it was a weak effort at best. Smeal for Life celebrated these weeks called Integrity week and Professionalism week when students–grads and undergrads in poorly designed white T-s walked the halls and asked people to come sign these huge banners of well-conceived, ill-illustrated, slogans of anti-greed chastity. It was my part of my job to play one of those white T-ed students and I didn’t mind. By then I learned to shut up and work hard, without letting a drop of Kool-Aid sink into my blood.
And in those weeks, buttons of “Rise | above” would be given out.
Besides the “We are”, these words “Rise | above” have meant more to me than anything else. I strive to live by these 2 words. In school, at work, at home. In life. Probably rising above a lot of things more than what the initial “author” had imagined, when he coined this for Smeal for Life. I loved the design. I loved the simplicity and the strength of those 2 words; amazed at how much that meant to me on a daily basis. Especially in the make-belief business-school world where we were swimming and floating in BS, the notion of rising above was exhilarating. Rising above pettiness, judgment, greed, small community needs like what-you-hear, what-others-think, need-to-please, fear-of-missing-out… everything. Not to mention, Rise | above speaks somewhat elusively to people like me who couldn’t care less about the top or being #1, but are enticed by the illusion that it’s lonely at the top. Who wouldn’t want to be lonely!?
Among other things “Smeal-kumbaya”, I hated signing the Honor Code and promise to be honest and professional. Not that being proper didn’t mean a lot to me. (Those who don’t know me in real life, I carry myself way better when no one tells me what to do; piss me off and I’ll be uncouth just to spite your high horses) I didn’t hate the signing because I was dishonorable or anti-establishment (I have a penchant for logical rules!). I despised the act simply because, in my opinion, a signature didn’t make me honest, I made me honest. My integrity came from inside, from my pride–pride of my family, my upbringing, my intelligence and knowing right from wrong and from having my priorities straight. Pride of being me.
Like my relationship with God is personal not communal, like my conversations with my dog are privileged, like my connections with my friends are not for public elaboration, my being honest is personal and I would argue that scribbling one’s name on a temporary* poster is NOT what kept me from going astray. But then it is just that- an argument.
You see, my early years were in an educational culture, where cheating was rampant; where corruption oils all gears. But that never made it okay. Just like every woman who grew up around me had been touched or molested, most multiple times and never for once meant that any of us enjoyed or condoned it. The rampant dishonesty irked me and the fact that it was a casual affair that was expected of everyone, nauseated me. And when I tried to express my disgust and question the system that fueled it, I became the weird one to my peers, even my teachers and administrators–the gatekeepers of honor. I was the anomaly. Only I was not. There were others- very few, very rare, very far between but there were other students and professionals who weren’t cheating, who were doing things it was supposed to be done, who focused on doing right more than being right.
When I came to a community where honesty was a way of life and trust the foundation, it was a huge relief for me. It was the antithesis of a culture-shock. I was finally somewhere I morally, emotionally and soulfully belonged. I had been living in perpetual shock (not sure if there is a word for it) and finally I was out of it. I was where I was supposed to be, doing things, the way I wanted to. Please don’t assume that honor takes a back seat because of my nationality. If anything it has always been higher on my priority list because I had to keep pushing for it, against the tide. I want to reiterate this loud and clear that my apathy for signing the Honor code has nothing to do with my ethnicity or what I am “supposedly used to”.
Coming back to the signing, did we really need an Honor Code? Signed by everyone and then hung on the wall? When someone behaved “dishonorably”, cheating on a term paper or being a social screw up, did it matter that several months ago s/he had signed their name on a cheaply designed poster? Does a signature really mean anything? Could we have risen above the need to dole out advice? The need to be spoon fed on right and wrong? Shouldn’t you have tried to bring in students with an inherent sense of righteousness- who wouldn’t need a dose of forced professionalism? I remember one of my professors stopping class, to say that as expert communicators, behaviorists and marketers it was our responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards; because we got to touch the most precious of all commodities–the human mind. Not sure how far we’ve come to become the experts he hoped we would, but conceptually he couldn’t have been more right. And I have nothing but respect and reverence for that “teachable moment”. Only I think the horizon needed to be broadened a lot more. We ALL touch the precious human mind, no matter what work we do or where we went to school and if we were lucky to sit in a class where “Uncle Ralphie” presided. So could we rise above signing honor codes and actually focus on hiring better, screening better and focusing more on being better?Somehow, in post-MBA life, the frameworks in various geometric forms** (you know the triangle, the 2X2 matrix, the diamond etc.), the faux claims, the ill-designed posters claiming honor, the naiveté of “managing people”, the uniformity of
never seem to be forgotten, but gone are the mantra of responsibility, the wisdom you might have gained from your pre-MBA life–your personality, your upbringing and childhood lessons, tricks you learned at your lower-paying pre-MBA job that no longer makes your Resume. My claim is to rise above making the MBA your one-stop shop for all of life’s big lessons. I would like to think we can rise above the need for “number one” and focus on cleaning the “number two”.For me personally, I know I took more away from Rise | above than I did from the Honor Code. I really hope we could rise above and just keep aiming higher.
* Temporary: Since it will hang on the wall for the 2 years you are in school and will be replaced by someone else’s pledge to honorable living.
**for the uninitiated every interconnected list with a number of items was portrayed in a n-gon where n is the number of sides