Dan Grover: Many students at GW don’t fit the standard narrative

The University throws around a lot of slogans, but the one that always stood out to me is, “What we make is history,” with the image of a certain white, domed building looming in the background. Sounds nice, right? Both now and in the future, we get to build the next generation’s accomplishments and achievements, especially political ones.

But lately, I’ve been wondering what happens if we don’t follow that path.

GW reproduces the same narrative over and over again in our daily lives, but particularly when it comes to admissions. Students often come to class wearing their business casual clothes, either going to or coming from an internship. At the end of each semester, I see students shaking their Congress member’s hand filling my Facebook feed. We’re told that most students have at least one internship or career opportunity by the time they graduate. Officials also like to tout our volunteerism and political activism.

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Dan Grover

Narratives are important to institutions since they create an ideal picture of what an institution represents. But in the case of a school like GW, I can’t help but wonder what happens when the narrative falls apart, or if we might be better off without it. That’s why it’s important for students to recognize that in reality, GW’s narrative revolves around more than just Capitol Hill and the White House.

The image of a hyper-politically active and successful student majoring in international affairs, political science or even political communication is common, popular and seductive. But I’m also willing to bet that most of us would say this narrative doesn’t exactly line up with the way our college experience has gone.

I’m an English and creative writing major. Despite the fact that GW’s English department is good (like scary good), you hear almost nothing about it. We have world-class theorists and writers – not to mention access to an impressive literary scene in D.C. – but it all flies under the radar. An English student who goes to poetry slams and fiction readings certainly isn’t the dominant GW narrative – and yet, we exist.

The same goes for the rest of the arts: The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design is part of the University. But in our daily conversations, we don’t hear much about artists with exhibits around the city, or students’ ability to engage with studios and a world-class series of museums. And despite the new engineering building and the focus on research, the narrative around the sciences has yet to be fully formed.

Granted, my perspective is already different. I’m involved in the arts: I drag friends to Busboys and Poets or the Folger Shakespeare Library for readings, and I’m involved in some of the arts communities on campus. But this isn’t about getting more attention. Rather, it’s a reminder that plurality is important. For everything I know about the arts, I know next to nothing about the narratives of athletes or pre-med students. That multiplicity of perspectives is vital to a group as diverse as GW, and it’s what we lack.

There are absolutely points of contact between the standard narrative and reality. Plenty of my friends have interned, either on the Hill or across the city, and they’ve had amazing and worthwhile experiences. And certainly, political science and international affairs are popular majors here – meaning statistics somewhat validate the generic GW narrative.

But the extent to which it controls how we imagine ourselves as a University is really quite alarming. The narrative that to be successful means interning and leading student organizations can be problematic for students who are already maxed out just trying to get through classes.

Still, constantly seeing images of successful yet frenetically busy peers reinforces the idea that we need schedules so packed we can barely sleep. While we all might laugh about how little sleep we get, normalizing that stereotype can make it easy to feel like our college experience isn’t good enough if it doesn’t exactly match the image GW projects.

Now, I’m not saying toss the whole thing out. As I said before, institutional narratives are extremely useful for attracting a certain type of student and building a brand. And having a narrative about political activity in the nation’s capital isn’t the worst thing to be known for.

Perhaps the best way to go forward is to showcase the things that matter to us as a student body. It’s awesome that so many of us intern over the course of our time in D.C., but let’s talk about the variety of places – not just political – where those internships take place. We can mention the strength of our student actors (who were honored across the city) in the same breath as the strengths of politically minded students. We should do more to recognize great community service and activism projects like No Lost Generation, which supports Syrian refugees, and D.C. Reads.

We don’t need to create alternative narratives to the one that’s been so popularized around the University – they already exist, impressive and splendid in their own right. We simply need to remember where they are, and how to speak of them.

Dan Grover, a senior majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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