Vassar graduate and award-winning writer Meghan Daum has plenty to say about her college experience, and not everything reflects positively. From “wrangling” her way into undergrad to failing to seize academic opportunity along the way, she describes her four years in Poughkeepsie with guilt. After all, why gloss over it? Students, take note.
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Meghan Daum is the author of four books, including her recent collection of essays The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, which won the 2015 PEN Center USA Award for creative nonfiction. She has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Vogue.
In the spring of 2017, Meghan was the Bedell Distinguished Visiting Writer in the Nonfiction MFA Program at the University of Iowa. Currently, she serves on the adjunct faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Though by any account, Meghan is an highly-regarded writer, she’s still had an up-and-down career path, marked by equal parts success and disappointment. We sat down with Meghan to learn about her time at Vassar College—and why, when looking back, she feels regret and a past sense of misdirected ambition. Her thoughts are almost surprisingly candid, as though the 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient shouldn’t be this relatable while calling her undergraduate experience entitled (she’s not), independent (she is), and very different than what today’s creative writing students may encounter.
Where did you go to college?
Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Why did you decide to go there?
It was the most prestigious school I managed to wrangle my way into. I had terribly uneven grades (awful in math and science, excellent in English and the arts) and Vassar was the kind of place where I could make a case for myself to the admissions office as an “interesting” person. Which is sort of hilarious because I was from a bland, vanilla suburb and not really all that interesting myself. I aspired to be interesting. This was back in the late 1980s when it was easier to get into college than it is now. I’d never get into Vassar now. I also wanted to go there because Meryl Streep went there.
Where else did you apply and get in?
Let’s say there were a couple of “easier to get into than Vassar” schools that rejected me.
How has your education helped you in your career (or not)?
Part of the reason I wanted to go to Vassar was that I had an idea (not a very fully-formed idea but it loomed huge in my mind nonetheless) that going there would deliver me into a certain kind of elite arts class in New York City, especially if I took certain kinds of classes and hung out with certain kinds of people (I wrote about this early in my career). I was 100 percent right about this. I got internships that helped me get jobs in publishing and media that helped me meet people who would eventually help me get published as a writer. This is privilege in action. It’s how it works and it worked for me.
What would you do differently now when it comes to college?
I have a lot of guilt around my college experience. I had good friends and learned a lot and began to develop myself as a writer. But I could and should have learned more. I didn’t take enough advantage of the academic opportunity. Vassar was and is an excellent school, but I was inordinately focused on internships and taking the train down to New York City and hanging out and planning for my future as an independent adult. I hesitate to admit this in writing because it reflects quite badly on me, but I’ve written about it before (in fact just recently), so there’s no point in trying to gloss over it.
I probably should have gone to a big public university, lived off-campus, had a part-time job, been around graduate students and older people as well as undergraduates. Vassar wasn’t much bigger than my public high school had been. At that time in my life, all I wanted was independence and to feel like a grownup. A small liberal arts college ended up not being the best delivery system for that. On the other hand, would going to a big public university have delivered me into the social and professional class in NYC I so desperately craved? Maybe not.
What advice do you have to students who might want to go to Vassar?
Study hard, because Vassar is really hard to get into now. Also, do all the reading, go to all your classes, see every lecturer or visiting artist/scholar/whatever that comes in to give a talk. (I will say: I never missed a visiting lecture when I was a student there. I got to see Mary McCarthy, Vassar class of 1933!) Don’t be a snob. Make sure you get to know all kinds of people. Get to know your professors. They’re extremely accessible and they’re extremely smart and accomplished.
Go to their office hours as often as you can. By the way, if you go any kind of college whatsoever, private or public, your professors are going to be excellent, since academic positions are incredibly competitive now. There’s extraordinarily good teaching just about everywhere.
What advice do you have to college students who want to have a career like yours?
You should build a time machine and go back to the early 1990s, because that’s when I started my career and the rules and whole business model was different back then. I wouldn’t presume to tell people how to do things now.
You should write with as much intellectual honesty and fearlessness as you possibly can. Say the thing that you know deep down to be true but that most people, for whatever reason, aren’t saying out loud. Say it respectfully and thoughtfully, but don’t pull your punches, either. Don’t be afraid of people being angry with you. For every person who gets mad at you online, a hundred people are probably cheering you silently.
Also, if you build a time machine please let me in it. I’ll pay for gas.
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