“So, where did you do your undergrad?” he asked.
“Oh, a small private school in Virginia,” I said, hoping it would satisfy him.
“Oh really! I used to live in Virginia! Which school?”
And there it was. There was the question I had been dreading this entire conference. There was the question I had somehow artfully avoided for the past two days, despite all of the new acquaintances I’d made. He—a very productive research professor whose work I had been citing for my master’s thesis—had asked it directly. It was my fault: I had mentioned something about meeting my wife as an undergraduate student, and that opened the door. Usually, I was more careful about mentioning that time period, but it was late, I was exhausted, and he was someone I wanted to get to know. In any case, there was no escaping it this time.
“Liberty University,” I mumbled, hoping against hope that he hadn’t heard of it. “It’s a small religiously affiliated school in Virginia. You might not be familiar with it.”
“Oh. Yeah. I’m familiar alright,” he replied.
And there I was, and the end of day two in the three-day conference experience—my first national conference since starting my Ph.D. program in 2010—and I was outed. Someone knew my secret. It was only 2011, but Jerry Falwell Sr.’s reputation still loomed large, even four years after his death. Even then, being associated with the legacy of the “moral majority” was not safe in the academic world.
Fortunately, that particular professor seemed to sense my discomfort and changed the topic to the mountains of Virginia. Despite my shame, I still had an abiding love for the mountains, and that conversation topic was safe.
Ultimately, that story is as accurate of a description as I can give about my undergraduate years and how I relate to them now. Six years after that incident, I still have that same sinking feeling anytime someone asks that question.
Truthfully, Liberty was a good experience for me. I did get a great education. I did get mentored by supportive and brilliant faculty. I did establish friendships that I still have. I did meet my wife there. I did deepen my faith there.
And life has been good since leaving Liberty. I got into a competitive Ph.D. program straight out of undergrad. Throughout my Ph.D., I was mentored by one of the kindest and smartest researchers I’ve ever known. Before I finished my pre-doctoral internship, I was offered a tenure-track position—the job I’d been wanting for 7 years. Now, I am an assistant professor in a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology. I have my own lab. I have my own students. Life is good.
But somehow, none of that has changed my fundamental reaction to my alma mater.
Every time the topic of my undergraduate education comes up, I go back to that conference in 2011. I still answer that question with the generic, “a private school in Virginia,” and guess what? Sometimes it works! Sometimes, I get lucky and whomever I’m talking with takes that answer and doesn’t press further. But, sometimes it doesn’t, and I’m outed all over again, left wondering how the other person is going to react. I find myself thinking, “Are they going to assume that I’m a right-wing fundamentalist? Are they going to judge me for going to an evangelical school?”. It’s virtually the same feeling as 2011, except that now, there’s not a chance that whomever I’m speaking with hasn’t heard of Liberty University. Thanks to Jerry Falwell Jr. and his love for Trump, everyone has heard of Liberty University. The fundamentalist school in the mountains of Virginia is a universally known commodity in the world of higher education, and whether I like it or not, everyone has an opinion on the school.
I’m perfectly aware that this may be just my issue. My experiences were great, as was my education. But, academia has a way of exploiting your deepest insecurities, and clearly this is one of mine. But, I’m also aware that most people have pride in their alma maters. I have good friends that look forward to their undergraduate homecoming every year. I have no idea what that feels like. I also have a lot of friends who have seemingly neutral opinions of their undergraduate years. But, the only people I know that are genuinely ashamed to admit where they did their undergraduate work are graduates of Liberty University, especially now.
Recently, there’s been a lot of attention around a group of Liberty grads mailing their diplomas back to Liberty to protest Falwell’s seemingly blind allegiance to the President. Some have praised them for their message. Many others have criticized them for what they’ve called a meaningless protest. Ultimately, it is just a symbolic gesture, a gesture that Falwell himself has pedantically dismissed. But symbolism matters, and that’s all that diplomas are: Symbols.
Hanging in my office in my department, you’ll see my M.A. and Ph.D. proudly displayed next to my internship completion diploma and other honors and awards I’ve received over the years. My undergraduate degrees have never been hung up, and they never will be.
I’m proud of that.
At the beginning of this week, a colleague reached out to ask about the diploma returning phenomena.
“Josh, you went to Liberty, right?” she asked.
“Yes. Yes, I did.”
“I just read an article about a bunch of graduates returning their diplomas in protest. Have you heard about that?”
“Yes. Yes, I have.”
“I think that’s really brave. I’m sure the school will ignore it, but those grads are really saying something about themselves and who they are and what they stand for.”
As I thought about those students who’ve taken a stand, with a smile and sense of pride—a sense of pride I’ve never felt before when talking about my alma mater—I replied.
“Yes, yes we are.”