“Why not take the children to any of the old traditional schools!” my mother expressed concern, once she heard I had different ideas. I did not commit but offered I would think about it. As my kids reached school going age, I started thinking of a school which had children not just from Uganda, but from all over the world, a sort of global village. But this was not something easy to explain to my mother who considered Catholic boarding schools as the ultimate choice. A longtime ago at an early age my folks had gathered me through a number of parochial schools, where morning chapel was compulsory and the stick was amply used to wire us into super pupils with astonishing grades. Well, I had since outgrown all that, and looked at life with a wider span.
Upon graduation with a Masters degree in one leading US state university, I started going around looking for a job. I happened to be attending a church with a number of influential people: state representatives in the Senate, leading business personalities, attorneys, physicians, academicians and senior managers. So, I approached one old gentleman who ran a successful financial firm. Immediately, he took up my case. “I see you have just graduated from my university,” he smiled, warmly. He called up a number of his old mates, and I could hear him chuckle, “I have a chap here just graduated from our old school!”
Easily, I found that in this state, one ticket a person needed was the university you attended. They were two prominent universities famous as rivals, particularly when it came to basketball and football games. Both boasted of a roaring passionate alumni who would buy yearlong tickets for any of those games. But that passion extended beyond university campus gates. Graduates shared a camaraderie, like kindred souls. Their cars and trucks bore mascots of their old schools. And, in fact, there was almost an immediate obligation to help out an old schoolmate, once one chanced upon any.
This was my first real experience how the school you go to matters. Here, in this state, it was not just the degree certificate that mattered, which of course counted, but also what school you went to. It was like once you came out then you were brothers ( or sisters). Yes, it has been years since I left that university and state, but tell you what even as of now whenever I bump into someone who went there and we discover a common origin, our eyes light up. “So, you too, are a Sooners!”
Once, in one of my graduate classes, a professor of public administration introduced to our class a book authored by Thomas R Dye, “Who is Running America?” I still have it on the shelf even after moving through different addresses. Once in a while I thumb through its pages. Why I found it so intriguing, to this day, was its central argument that power in the world’s most powerful nation was concentrated in a network of individuals who all but went to particular Ivy League schools. Yes, it looked like they all took out of their universities more than a conventional degree. Out of school they also came with friends who would go on to support each other through life, including ascending to the most important office in the world. How else do you start explaining how a son of an African student gets into White House? Well, among others, he happened to have gone to Harvard university!
Years ago I called up a retired Permanent Secretary, F D Gureme, who in his sunset years had taken to scribbling a popular column, “Old Man of the Town” He had just written something about his classmate while at King’s College Budo, Professor Senteza- Kajubi, the former Vice Chancellor of Makerere and Nkumba universities. He was a bit lonely as in his “Trojan –class” which had included a former Prime Minister, Eng Abraham Waligo, he was apparently the only one now living. “There was a time when we used to run this country,” he mused. “Everywhere you went you found an old schoolmate running the office. You could get any door open for you!”
I think schools give us more than certificates or degrees. They also gift us with friendship that open doors, once out of school gates. There was once a case in which I happen to be involved that made this so obvious to me. I had been hired as a Consultant to help one organization locate a CEO. We failed to find the right fit through normal processes. So I was tasked with head hunting. Now, one day, soon after, almost out of nowhere I came across an old boy, who just happened to be looking for his next post. Immediately I connected him to the Board. All I remember was unanimous assent. “After all he is from our school.”
So you can see why I didn’t know how to explain to my mother that my children were going to live in a globalized world, and if they could pick up friends from different nationalities, sooner but not later, it was all the better for them. In her world it was still grades that counted after faith. In my case I thought it was friends you made that counted more. Of course they could pick them from any of the old schools, as I had, but I thought theirs was going to be a less localized world than mine.
Well, in Uganda, national exams have just returned and I see a lot of anxiety about grades. Not much talk about networks the kids have built in their school journey and must continue. What I know and want to share a person can have a powerful degree with stars, but if they do not know someone to pass it along to the right decision maker, it might well end up with just a lot of dust. It is one of those things you get to know how the world works, along the way.