Mercer grad and former VOICE Editor-in-Chief Sara Gatling transferred to Columbia University where she graduated cum laude in 2013 with majors in English and Comparative Literature and Hispanic Studies. Gat has been working steadily since graduation, and is currently paying her dues as she enters the competitive field of staging and prop design.
It was an amazing experience to be one of the few Mercer students to transfer to an Ivy League college and I was honored to attend Columbia University. But my time spent at Mercer was crucial to my success, in large part because of the incredible quantity of bureaucratic bullshit I had to overcome to get out of there. All those irritations and daily struggles you face with the bursar, the registrar, your advisor — cherish those moments because dealing with Mercer’s wacky antics is just the training you need if you hope to survive in the “real world.” The reality is, the real world looks a lot like Mercer.
Here is a short list of the things that irked me at Mercer, but ended up paying off once I left.
MCCC LIBRARY RESEARCH CLASSES
I research like a boss thanks to whomever decided to make those inane library skills classes a part of every single intro class I took at Mercer. It’s not that the class isn’t useful, but once is enough and I think I sat through at least six of them. You know the one I’m talking about: you take a field trip to the library to have an attention starved librarian tell you that TMZ is not a scholarly journal and that research databases contain the secrets of the universe.
The benefit of taking six of the same skills class was that the monotone oration of the librarian worked as a type of hypnosis, so you better believe the whole diatribe became firmly engrained in my memory. I could probably recite the full length class myself if you wanted me to. By the time I got to Columbia I researched effing circles arounds those kids while blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back. Take enough 101 classes and you’ll leave Mercer the Earl of EBSCO, the Princess of ProQuest, the Jackanape of Jstor.
THE BROKEN ADVISING SYSTEM
One encounter with a Mercer academic adviser (along with personal accounts from students wasting time and money on courses they didn’t want or need to take due to ill advisement) and I was convinced I could do a better job on my own. I developed a whole system involving color coding and hoards of tabs in an Excel spreadsheet. This level of organization can’t be taught by professors folks, only through experience.
I hear since I graduated things have only gotten steadily worse with advising. Aparently several systems have been implemented to “fix” the problem, from giving students life “coaches” (how very Oprah of you, Mercer) to making all full-time faculty members advisers, regardless of the fact that a lot of the toothless old fart professors couldn’t tell you what you need to take to graduate in any major unless you want the list from 1973.
THE ALL AROUND Bureaucrazy 101
Little known fact: DMV employees, TSA agents and the staff that works in Mercer administrative offices are all cut from the same cloth. If you are hope to graduate, sooner or later you will just learn how to interact with cranky people. Sure you can resist, but the logistics of your college career are in your hands.
Piss off a flunky on the second floor of SC and they can drag out any process they want for months, passing the buck, giving you more paper work, etc.
I know several students who missed their Mercer graduation because they had no idea that in December they needed to submit an application to graduate if they expected to walk in their leprechaun gowns in May.
The application needed to be checked over by the All Powerful Marge Archer (or someone else, but Marge was the best). Oh, sure, it’s possible you got a blast email at some point telling you you needed to do it –but as the snow sparkled down on your back porch Christmas lights, you probably weren’t paying rapt attention to that tiny paragraph shoehorned into one of the thirty dozen emails you got each week. Just getting off that infernal email list after I graduated took me almost a year.
If it hadn’t been for all Mercer’s bullcrap, however, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been trained to constantly ask people at Columbia about graduation procedures, financial aid deadlines, secret handshakes that only people raised with a silver spoon in their mouths already know when they get there.
Mercer forced me to learn to look out for my own best interests and to ask for help where I could find. I can spot someone knowledgable and helpful at 50 paces.
AND ANOTHER THING
Here’s what you don’t realize; after you leave Mercer, you will never have the same kind of access to your professors again.
At four year schools professors are required to always be working on research and publications; professors are under pressure to “publish or perish.” Their whole career literally hinges on how many esoteric articles they can squeeze out.
The effect of this is that a main priority for university professors is not usually their students. Some of them clearly don’t even like students, except for their three or four hand-picked brown-nosing graduate assistant protégées (there were of course exceptions, whom I feel deserve due credit).
A large portion of my courses at Columbia involved the professor coming into class and lecturing…and that was it. No more fun Jeopardy exam review classes and Dum-Dums lollipops, guys.
You could try to talk to a Columbia professor after class, but they’d usually be in a rush. Any inquiries and most, if not all, grading was handled by Teaching Assistants, graduate students that help out as part of their indenture to the university. Bless their hearts, there’s nothing wrong with TAs as people, but they’re not really getting paid and they have no experience teaching. TAs are not professors.
By contrast, at Mercer I spent tons of time talking to professors. There are exceptional professors at Mercer with whom I generally felt welcome to drop by and talk about my ideas or get help brainstorming for papers.
When I had panic attacks, my Mercer professors cared. They answered my emails. They helped me get into Honors classes and introduced me to the idea of going to a University other than Rider, TCNJ and Rutgers (it can be done!). They were the real deal, and if you care about your education, get your ass to office hours, you only hurt yourself if you don’t.
I made the most of my time at Mercer, and I worked hard. I joined clubs, became Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, put myself out there. But I wasn’t some prodigy, someone so different from you that you can say “Oh, she just got to Columbia because she was a genius to begin with.” No. I came to Mercer because I had no money, got kicked out of one high school and almost didn’t graduate from the second for skipping too much gym. I did what the rest of you do, I worked. I worked in a dry cleaners, babysat, lived with my needy family. I lived in a near constant state of exhaustion and was always close to a nervous collapse.
There is no substitute for that kind of experience if you want to succeed in college and in life.