I’m sure everyone’s heard of the college admissions scandal that’s made the news this week. I went to one of the universities involved (the University of Texas). I did get in fair and square, and although it’s a lot harder to get into now than it was then, I probably still would have been automatically admitted since I was a valedictorian and National Merit Scholar.
I didn’t even know until I got to school that there were courses you could take to learn to take the SAT. I just took the practice exams in the registration book, and I think I got a book from the library with more practice tests. Then I got to the university and learned that there were things like advanced placement courses you could get college credit for, as well as test prep classes. I was from a small town that didn’t have any of these options. I couldn’t help but wonder what my score would have been if I’d had that kind of help.
Then there were the things people with money could take advantage of once they were at school. There were entire businesses providing notes and materials for classes — professional note takers who went to the big lecture classes (we had some classes with as many as 800 people in them) and took notes that students could buy so they didn’t have to attend the classes. The fraternities and sororities supposedly kept files of the notes and past exams for these courses to help their members.
But I think my first real awareness of just how unfair the world could be came when I was applying for internships in my field, broadcast journalism. There was one highly coveted internship with the Austin bureau of one of the Dallas TV stations. That intern not only got to do real work, but it was a rare paid internship — a whole $4 an hour. I went above and beyond to apply, not only going through the formal process of submitting an application, but since I had press credentials for the state legislature, thanks to another internship, I got into the capital newsroom and approached the correspondent to talk to him about my application. He called me in for an interview, then had me come back for a second interview. He liked my work samples and my resume tape. I had high grades, good previous internships, and had even won a scholarship granted by the company that owned his station. He made it sound like I had the job and he’d be getting in touch with me to finalize it.
About a week later, I ran into one of my professors, who asked what I was doing for an internship that summer. I told him it sounded like I had that one. He then told me that, actually, someone else had been hired. The photographer at the bureau next door had brought his younger brother with him to work and sent him over to talk to the correspondent. The younger brother was a bit of a screwup who’d dropped out of the school he was in (he hadn’t made it in to my school) and was looking for something to do. Not only was his brother in the business, but his father had been in the business and was influential. So he got the job on the spot.
Then when I’d graduated and was looking for a job, I heard about an open position at the Dallas bureau of one of the networks. My real career goal was to be a field producer for a network — not being the on-camera person, but doing the groundwork to prepare the story — so getting in at the ground floor at a network seemed like a good idea. It turned out that this was more of an administrative/clerical job, part time, and at minimum wage. The bureau chief liked my resume and my tape and said I had the ability to do what I wanted — but I would probably never make it. He was willing to hire me, but he discouraged me from taking the job because it wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go. I’d have a better chance getting a reporting job at a local station and hoping for a big news event that would bring me to network attention. Otherwise, all the jobs were pretty much filled by network executives hiring their friends’ kids, and their friends hired their kids in return. If I didn’t have some connection with a major corporate executive or politician, I would have a very hard time making it in the business.
After that, I started looking for other jobs in addition to reporting jobs, and after I got tired of going to interviews with news directors who were enthusiastic about me but admitted that they couldn’t hire me, I took a job in public relations. It was probably for the best because what I really, truly wanted to do with my life was write books, and I’m not sure I’d have had time to write novels while traveling the globe, doing the groundwork and investigation for TV news stories. But I do have to wonder how many talented, bright people there are who missed out on opportunities because they didn’t have connections. And then there are all the people without the smarts or talent who got opportunities handed to them and probably wasted them. I don’t think that guy who got the internship I was on the verge of getting ever ended up going into the business, in spite of his connections. As far as I know, he didn’t even finish school. For him, it was just something to do with his summer to keep him out of trouble and make his father happy. For someone else, it might have opened the door to a career.
I guess this is something I’m also thinking about because the book I’m working on is about someone struggling to get past doors that have been shut to people like her. I do seem to be writing a lot lately about people upending unfair systems.