Let me share with you the story about how I was suspended from college for a whole year and thought that my life was over.
In May 2006 over the span of two weeks, I lost my professional mentor, my opportunity to study abroad, one of my closest friends, and my fragile identity – all as the direct result of my actions.
Growing up, I was a by-the-book smartass in school. I never got in trouble. I never missed classes, period. I sucked up to teachers and narc’d on my fellow classmates for the smallest “violations” of academic integrity. I enthusiastically sat towards the front row, with my hand raised to virtue signal to the teacher, to my classmates; and to my insecure self that I knew all the answers. Once in elementary school, I gained recognition from D.A.R.E. for writing an essay about the importance of not doing drugs, despite not having a clue what drugs were. (Fuck D.A.R.E.)
For many of us, the misery that we experience from our failures and fuckups is magnified by our inability to detach from the situation at hand. We become captive to the moment and usually think that things will not get better any time soon. THIS is the big one. 10/10. Game over no continue! Only with the passage of time- sometimes days, sometimes weeks, months and maybe years; do we then come to the realization that these “life-changing” events are worth only 2 or 3 fucks out of 10 on the irreparable damage scale.
(As an aside, Tim Ferriss- a modern day renaissance man and the Charlie Rose of our generation, offers great insight into overcoming our fears and has a practical exercise that I think everyone should try: (https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/))
I was in wrapping up my final essay for Spanish class the morning everything went to shit. School was almost out, and despite sleepwalking to a 2.85 GPA in the fall, I was ready to finish sophomore year on a high note. Months earlier, I was accepted into a prestigious study abroad business program in Madrid, Spain. I was as stoked as any frat bro could be stoked.
For me, the opportunity to study (and party) in Spain represented the ultimate validation of my efforts at school. I first picked up Spanish in 7th grade, and worked hard to impress my teacher whom I had a crush on. I received a Spanish highest honors award (pity Asian vote?) graduating high school. At Penn, I was the only Chinese student taking Spanish 390 as a sophomore. Jimmy Wang, big swinging dick and a complete idiot. I was well on my way to a C+, but nevertheless, I hammered out that paper excited for my future adventures in Spain come the fall.
My close friend McNasty (let’s call him that for the sake of this story) rushes into my room that May morning. McNasty, John Galt and I were frat brothers and formed a triumvirate during our underclassmen days. We were best friends, shared the same hobbies, the same humor; and were racially diverse (Arab, Jew, Chinaman. Incredible connection there!) McNasty is short of breath and has a pale gaze. He says,
“Jimmy, I fucked up man…”
“McNasty, what’s going on?”
“I cheated on the final, and got caught. Professor Magneto (don’t sue me Marvel) pulled me into his office today, and made me tell him everything.”
“Shit. How did it go down? What did you say?”
I was a teaching assistant for the class in question that McNasty and several of my other fraternity brothers took in the spring. I aced the course as a freshman, and then worked with Magneto over the prior summer to refine and improve the curriculum for the next group of students. He recognized my effort and enthusiasm, and I felt appreciated and recognized, having contributed something meaningful to the department. I was paid an adequate wage as a TA and enjoyed free food at faculty meetings.
“I don’t remember all the details, but he threatened to dig up everything, so I ‘fessed up. I also told him that you helped me with some homework assignments.”
“Yea, I remember that, whatever.”
My white Sony Ericsson phone rang (its 2006). It was Magneto, and he requested my attendance in his office ASAP. I had an uneasy feeling about what was to come. During my conversation with Magneto, I remember being a complete wreck. My hands were cold; I stuttered constantly and struggled to make dignified eye contact.
I learned from Magneto that McNasty had completed his two-hour final exam in just over one hour. This raised red flags with the proctors, who upon grading his paper, saw that his responses were in outline form and matched verbatim with those of the grading rubric document- the SAME rubric that I had access to on my computer.
Magneto asked me if I had helped McNasty to cheat by providing him with a copy of the final exam. I was in shock and denied it vehemently. I think that Magneto wanted to believe me, but the setup looked suspicious, and two twenty year old college students from the same fraternity involved in the same incident do not usually get the benefit of the doubt.
Remember the homework help that I mentioned earlier? On more than one late evening, McNasty would come to me unprepared, asking for help on homework due the next day before class. No problem, I said- I was eager to help my friend, my brother, but rather I planted the seeds of disaster. Instead of diligently rehashing the core concepts involved in the assignment to my friend, I took a shortcut. I sent McNasty the grading rubric to the homework assignments through school email, in the hopes of saving both of us time. The five assignments amounted to only 5% of the class grade, so I dismissed this work as bullshit and a time-waster.
The following week, I met with Professor Magneto again. This time, he authorized the technology department to review my school emails and usage activity. The timestamp showing when the final exam document was downloaded proved my innocence by revealing that McNasty had accessed my personal laptop while I was in class and obtained a copy for himself. The investigation into my school email account also proved my guilt in sending McNasty homework grading rubrics on multiple occasions, in violation of the non-disclosure agreement that I signed when I took the TA position.
In light of these revelations, two thoughts dominated my mind. First, “What the fuck McNasty you terrible cheater! Why didn’t you just take your time, get a near perfect grade, and be on your way?” Second, “McNasty you snitch, you betrayed my help, my trust and then sold me out when things were looking desperate. We’re brothers, and you could have spared me by keeping your mouth shut.”
From my perspective, McNasty had the opportunity to: 1. not steal confidential materials from my computer, 2. to take the materials but then not use them, 3. to take the materials, use them, and then confess afterwards out of guilt. Instead, McNasty was caught red-handed and only confessed to me his guilt after he had already ratted me out. In doing so, he violated our friendship and trust in each other by abusing his priority access to my personal possessions.
McNasty was suspended one year by the Office of Student Conduct for his actions and received an “F” in Professor Magneto’s class. Several members of our fraternity taking the same class received incomplete grades while the investigation continued, primarily because of their Greek affiliation. My fraternity’s leadership, after much deliberation and a vote among all members, kicked McNasty out of the frat. The OSC dealt with me next.
I received two letters in the mail from Penn weeks after the tech department raided my emails. By then, the semester was already over and I was back in New York City. The first letter made my heart drop- my acceptance into the ICADE Business School was revoked due to the ongoing investigation by the OSC into my academic misconduct. This effectively ended my chances to study abroad. The next letter took some time for me to digest. After reviewing my case, the office of student conduct recommended to suspend me for one year as well.
I was furious. “One year? What the fuck! People get less than that for dealing drugs, assaulting others or molesting girls on campus. I gave McNasty homework help for 5% of a class grade. How does this punishment fit the crime?” I did not- could not accept the result. Most University administrations (particularly those in the Ivy League) are shrewd players in the game of educational politics and optics. They eagerly turn a blind eye towards underage drinking and hide student hospitalizations due to alcohol poisoning and drug abuse by billing students generously for their ER ambulance rides after the fact. These bills can tally into the thousands, but are swept under the rug through the mom and dad bailout fund. When it comes to academic integrity however, universities are only second to the Vatican in adopting a holier-than-thou attitude that reeks of insincerity and self-preservation. (We know many students cheat under our watch, but do not let us catch you!)
I traveled back and forth from New York to Philly a few more times that summer to resolve the ruling that was handed down to me from the University’s Office of Student Conduct. My parents wrote a letter pleading for leniency and I investigated previous rulings into violations of academic integrity that might offer some relief from my harsh sentence. In the end, our efforts amounted to little, and I received a one-year suspension with a small caveat- I could to attend classes after one semester’s absence. As long as I showed good behavior and maintained good grades afterwards, the OSC would commute my second semester’s suspension.
In our last written conversation, Professor Magneto imparted some wisdom to me that still stands out today. “It’s better to make a small mistake now when you are 20, than to make a big mistake when you are 40, are married, have two kids and a mortgage.”
What he said back then did not resonate with me yet. That summer, I hid in my room on most days, seeking an escape through video games or sleep. My hair fell out regularly when I took showers. I did not know how to communicate to the world the magnitude of the shame and humiliation that I felt. I was unemployed and did not find any work until August, when I sorted mail and answered phone calls as an administrative assistant.
Instead of traveling to Madrid, I returned to Penn’s campus in the fall of 2006 in secrecy from most people I knew. Through the generosity of John Galt, I shared his dorm room while I plotted my next steps. His would-be roommate, McNasty, was out of the house and absent from campus due to his suspension. I got a job “selling” mortgages and refinancing home loans for a company called First Financial Corp at the height of the subprime crisis in a small suburb a bus ride away from campus, but I didn’t put much effort into it and didn’t sell any mortgages (my hands are clean).
One particular memory that sticks out to me during this time is my parents’ freaking out that I would not finish school “on-time”. Like other Asian tiger parents, they previously boasted of my academic credentials and achievements to their friends. Were they upset because my reputation was sullied? I projected my fears and insecurities at my parents even though they did nothing but support me through this the most difficult period of my life. Back then, I did not consider that they worked tirelessly to put me through college financially. In all likelihood, they were concerned about my financial aid getting pulled away, or having to pay for an additional semester of tuition, which they did.
(In 1974, the Jewish Chautauqua Society aired a PSA on TV about hate, which had an angry man (who was a silhouette) walking with an angry expression on his face, and a weird arrow like symbol on his stomach. (It’s revealed once he gets closer) But when he gets really close to the screen, his head turns red as he gets angrier, and he explodes. The entire PSA also had creepy-like music, and a voiceover saying:
Hate–is a poison that corrodes, an acid that erodes
When you hate, who do you hurt the most?
McNasty was an international student, and this incident cost him almost everything. He flunked the spring semester, lost his right to study, and burned bridges with his friends the fraternity. I forgive McNasty completely. Like me, he was a naive and young twenty-year-old student who made a mistake that cost him dearly, but not everything. I failed to consider that my reckless handling of his homework help request might have emboldened him to dismiss the severity of taking more documents. This connection was also the trail that professor Magneto followed in implicating me for both the exams and homework assignments. I provided McNasty with the template.
Upon returning to campus the following year, McNasty and I reconnected, and we expressed our mutual remorse. But the triumvirate would never be the same. He eventually made new friends, graduated from college and found gainful employment. Today he is doing well by all accounts- we will always be linked to one another through our shared suffering that Spring of 2006.
Three years later, in January of 2009 at the height of the financial crisis, I am a super-senior still on campus, still looking for a finance job in an industry that just got turned upside down by the greed of men. My original cohort graduated earlier in 2008 and most of them moved up to NYC, fortunate to have full-time positions. I remember the awkwardness of sticking around in the frat, past my expiration date. The house threw a party during open rush in the hopes of securing new pledges, and my pal Nuggets said:
“Yo Wanger, you have a date for our semi-formal?”
“Nah, I’m going stag, Nuggets”
“I’ll tell my girl to bring a friend over. Double date?”
“Sure man, it’s all good”
“I’m telling her to warn her friends that you’ll fuck anything that walks”
“The fuck man!?”
My date was a sweetheart, and hot as hell to boot. We bonded over Metallica, had a classy dinner and then partied into the late evening. I walked her back to her car with her friends, and texted: “Hey Drea, I had an awesome time with you, let’s do this again.” I married her six years later.
Here is to Nuggets, John Galt, Magneto, and McNasty.