Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The H-Bomb

It's said that Harvard students are reluctant to name their college in conversation, instead resorting to euphemisms such as "a college in the Northeast" or "in Boston". Why? Because of the extraordinary mixture of awe and envy that most people feel towards that school in Cambridge. Once the student mentions "Harvard", the inevitable response is a knowing "Oh, Harvard..." and the student is no longer simply a student, but the object of every preconception and attitude the other person possesses regarding that one university. All the stereotypes of intelligence and achievement, of arrogance and sense of entitlement, immediately come to the fore, and it's difficult to continue the conversation on the same footing with which it began. This phenomenon is known colloquially as dropping the H-Bomb, and to avoid it Harvard students often obscure the details of where they really go.

I feel that a similar situation exists regarding my academic program - a master's degree in electrical engineering in Haifa's engineering university. Before even arriving I had to deal with people calling me a "gaon" just for getting in here, and once here, EE has a well deserved reputation as the hardest subject in the university. But once I've named my university and subject, things get even worse. I am inevitably asked how far along in my bachelor's degree I am, to which I must reply that I'm in the master program. At this point, I get something very nearly approximating the "Oh, Harvard" response.

You see, there are about 2000 undergrads and 300 grad students in the EE department here. That basically means that only the top 15% of undergrads qualify for graduate study. Entering the Technion is an achievement, surviving the undergrad EE curriculum is an achievement, and qualifying for the masters program is the biggest achievement of all. So in everyone's mind, I form part of the elite of the elite of the elite. Once mentioned, my status can make people relate perceptibly different to me, at least temporarily.

Of course, this status is misleading. Unlike nearly all grad students here, my undergrad degree was obtained in the US. The EE program at my American university was much inferior to the undergrad program here. The admission standards here are apparently significantly lower for foreign students, because our presence helps the university to market itself as part of the international academic community. When I came I had an incredible amount of catchup to do, and two years later my total research accomplishments are little to be proud of.

When I explain this, people do understand. All I have to say is, "It's not like that. I got my bachelors degree abroad. It was a lot easier for me than for my peers here." And just like that, I revert to being a normal human being.


Ari E-B said...

The old "don't worry, I'm not very smart" routine. We're familiar with it here - we elected a president who used the same tactic.

Beisrunner said...

For Bush, even more than for me, it wasn't a "tactic". It was reality!