The Gordon Gekko Guide to College

It’s not uncommon to go into someone’s office and find fun and inspirational quotes.  Whether it be handwritten on a Post-It Note or hung up as a canvas photo. I love quotes, however, as always I like to put my own spin on things. On that note, let’s talk for a moment about the iconic character Gordon Gekko and his contributions to higher education that you may not be fully aware of. Gordon Gekko? Who?  Read on.

I’ll never forget the day a student walked into my office and said “I have a question for you but it’s for a greedy reason.” I immediately looked up at him as it piqued my interest.  Greedy?  What is it?

“I want to get into graduate school, but I don’t know how to ask for a letter of recommendation”
“That’s not being greedy!” I reassured him.
He told me that for him it felt greedy because for a lot of his time in college he was focused on helping others out.  I grabbed a black marker and wrote on the whiteboard in my office “GREED IS GOOD.”  I left it there for months to remind myself and anyone who came into my office the powerful underlying message of my conversation with this student.

Greed is Good. If you’re of a certain age that phrase conjures of images of the Gordon Gekko the iconic character immortalized by Oliver Stone in the cult classic Wall Street. I love that movie more than you can ever realize but it’s not for the reasons you might think.  Why do I love this film? To start with Gordon Gekko and I have a connection in that we both have the same birthday which is May 6.

We’re both Taurus’ and May Taurus’ at that, meaning that we like stability, are stubborn, and can sometimes be our own worst enemies. Spoiler alert this is clearly illustrated in the Wall Street film. However, Gordon Gekko’s words of wisdom and quotes are wonderful fodder as I work with my own students.

Now if you are a student especially a first-generation college student I urge you to put an imaginary shell up to your ear because you are about to hear something very different than the diatribe of the film.  Are you listening?  Good. Now do you think I’m going to talk to you about Insider trading? Corporate Greed?  Charlie Sheen? He’s also in the film, too.  I’m not going to tell you about any of these thing because remember I work with college students.  I’m not on Wall Street I’m on a university campus and I’m a higher ed blogger who interacts with students from all over the world.  I can tell you that whether or not you want to believe it Gordon Gekko was really on to something with his quotes in the film.

Take for instance these wonderful gems that he imparted on my generation, and I would like to impart this wisdom on my own Gems.  I call all the students I work with Gems because they are Gems. So if you’re a student reading this, Hi Gem!  Disclaimer: my interpretations of these quotes might be slightly different that of what Oliver Stone intended.  Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his interpretation of these quotes and while I may not win an Oscar I’m telling you there’s some sage wisdom going on here as it relates to college students.

  1. “What’s worth doing is worth doing for money.”One time beach cleanup? Sure. Occasional go talk to your old high school or community college?  Yeah, go do it. However, if it’s something you’re doing to be doing on a regular basis whether it’s research, tutoring, etc. then you should be getting paid.  But it’s for the community!  Hello, aren’t you a member of the community? Guess what, you and the community have rent to pay, groceries to buy, tuition, and if you drive include gas in there.  Oh don’t even get me started on that one.  You are a college student and college is expensive. So please, if something is offered to you and it’s unpaid seriously consider what’s in it for you?  Ask if there’s money to pay you a small stipend or an honorarium and let them know that you’re on a budget. I’m not taking about just a financial budget because you also are on a time budget, there are only so many hours in a week.  Saying yes to one thing means say no to another thing.  If it turns out that you cannot get paid, consider what’s in it for you besides the good karma. Also remember that when you do eventually apply for jobs, internships, or summer research programs whoever is looking at your resume is going to expect to see paid positions and if you’ve got a full resume of unpaid positions then they might not be willing to pay you what you’re truly worth.  I’m just being honest here, think about it, if you’ve seen that someone is willing to do all of this work for free then why would they be eager to pay top dollar?  I’m just saying.
  2. “The most valuable commodity I know of is information.” Another one of Gordon Gekko’s nuggets of wisdom. You have that information which is why it’s very likely people are asking you to do things.  Whether it is teaching or tutoring math or helping with a coding project.  If you notice that people keep asking you to do things it’s because you have skills my friend, and guess what these skills are valuable, and you should be getting paid for them.
  3. “Buy a decent suit you can’t come in here looking like this.” Another controversial conundrum. Yes, I know in some tech companies’ office attire isn’t an issue but guess what?  I guarantee you there will be a time when you will need a suit.  More and more schools now have professional clothing closets that provide clothing lending programs to students that need to borrow professional attire for interviews, networking, or other professional events.   Here are some examples:Cal Poly’s Professional Clothing Closet
    University of Northern Colorado
    Columbia University

    If your school doesn’t have this type of service why not advocate for one?  Start off by contacting the Career Center on your campus. You might find out that a) that your school has this type of service already, or b) you might walk away with a job as a result of your forward thinking! Even if you don’t wind up with a job you can continue to be involved and this could be an outstanding illustration of your forward thinking and leadership both of which are great things to highlight to future employers or graduate schools.

  4. Greed is Good.Repeat after me: What’s in it for me? Seriously WHAT IS IN IT FOR YOU?  When that student asked me to help him navigate applying to graduate school, he was practicing something called self-advocacy.  He knew he liked math and that he also liked computer science. He knew he had a keen interest in pursuing graduate school but he had no idea what applying to graduate school entailed.  He knew nothing about the unwritten rules and the self-advocacy that no one teaches you up front.  If you’re not a first-generation college student than many times this self-advocacy is instilled in you.  But if you are a first-generation college student often times its touch and go yet it doesn’t have to be.  When this student came into my office and said he was being greedy but was he really? He was taking up my time because he realized that I was someone who could help him.  The way I look at it he wasn’t being greedy he was being resourceful.  However, sometimes when we go after things, say no to things, or we take time for ourselves people might say “You’re being greedy.” When we protect ourselves and when we look after ourselves people might view this as being greedy?  So what do I say to that?  Greed is Good.I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this is what it’s like being a first-generation college student.  Its like the entire time everyone else takes the elevator and you must take the stairs.  Some days it seems like someone has added a couple of extra staircases.  Some days you stumble and are out of breath.  At some point you reach the point of no return and think to yourself, “Bring it on there’s no way in Hell I’m giving up.” After a while those stairs get easier because you have built up the stamina.  Once you get that degree you will celebrate but it’s not about the degree it’s about the realization that if you can climb those stairs you can get through anything that life throws at you.  But here’s the deal, there are people who will help you such as mentors, staff, alumni, and just people who want to see you succeed.  However, before you do, please read the next quote.

    5. “If you’re not inside, you’re *outside*!”  Although Gordon is talking about something completely different, he’s right on this end in terms of commitment.  In this context I mean you need to do what it takes to succeed in college.  This is by asking for help and advocating for what you need as a student.  I am surprised by the number of students who don’t utilize resources that you are paying for.  I have known far too many students who have not reached out because they either a) don’t know what’s available. or b) are shy about asking for help.  Please look at it this way, you are paying tuition so utilize these resources. I am specifically talking about things like:

  • Campus Disabled Students Programs. Test taking accommodations, note taking services, reduced course loads, etc.  Every school has this resource.
  •  Lending Libraries.  This could be everything from Textbooks to Technology. Can’t afford a textbook?  Is your laptop on the fritz?  Guess what? There are programs specifically for students to help.
  • University Health Services. Whether it’s an eye exam or counseling services you are entitled to these services so please make your health a priority and make those appointments.
  • Gymnasium.  As a student it’s very likely your school has one or more gyms. As you take care of your physical and mental well-being fitness is very important. Whether its swimming at your campus pool, playing tennis with a classmate, or hitting the treadmill use this resource.  After all, if you were paying for a gym membership you would want to use to use something that you’re paying for.
  • Food Pantries both on campus and in the community.  If you look up food insecurity on college campuses it is a common issue that does not get enough attention.   If you are a full-time student you may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program administered by the US Department of Agriculture.  It’s free to apply!!
  • Financial Aid – Again every single school has an Office of Student Financial Aid.  Even if you do not receive a significant portion of aid sometimes having even a small amount of unmet need will allow you to be eligible for outside scholarships. You can also consider filling out a cost of attendance adjustment.  For instance, take a look at some of the Cost of Attendance Adjustment Appeals that Baylor University allows such as the one time purchase of a computer, expenses due to participation in a study abroad program. or dependent expenses. I can pretty much almost guarantee that Baylor is not the only school that offers a Cost of Attendance Adjustment Appeal.
  • Menstrual Supplies. Period Poverty has recently gained more awareness in the past few years, so much so that there is now a Period Poverty Awareness Week in May. The cost of pads and tampons is an issue and according to a recent study 1 in 10 college students cannot afford pads or tampons. To address this issues a number of schools have created programs for students to receive free menstrual supplies.  If you attend one of the 23 campuses in the California State University system or a California Community College it is required by law that schools provide free menstrual products in at least one central location. However just because it’s the law a lot of other campuses are doing this as well.  Again, if your school doesn’t have this then this is an issue worth exploring and a worthy cause to invest your time into advocating for.

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