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We’re Not Selling Anything: Identity Crisis and Student Fundraising

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We’re Not Selling Anything: Identity Crisis and Student Fundraising

From the basement of O'Hare Hall, Fordham students manning the phones enjoy a reception that is varied, to say the least.

From the basement of O'Hare Hall, Fordham students manning the phones enjoy a reception that is varied, to say the least.

Fordham News

From the basement of O'Hare Hall, Fordham students manning the phones enjoy a reception that is varied, to say the least.

Fordham News

Fordham News

From the basement of O'Hare Hall, Fordham students manning the phones enjoy a reception that is varied, to say the least.

By David Kennedy, Contributing Writer

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One Sunday morning earlier this year, a man I’ll never see screamed at me through my headset. “Stop wasting my f–ing time,” he said, then hung up. The monitor’s timer clocked the call at just under a minute. Beside the timer, I could read his full name, his address, his email address, his “giving history,” and what year he graduated college. I still don’t know why he was so angry at me. I never will. I took the headset off and went to the bathroom to catch my breath before I started dialing again.

This was when I had a job cold-calling alumni from the basement of Fordham University’s own O’Hare Hall. It was an office with wall-to-wall desktops, officially called “The Ramline”. I had applied the previous semester because I hadn’t worked in over a year and I needed money. I had read online that the hours were good — three shifts a week for three hours at a time — and it was available to Fordham students in a not-quite-a-work-study-position kind of way. So what if it sounded soul-crushing? I thought, “Maybe I’ll learn something.”

So I went in on the first day of training, and before we ran through the script, my new manager, a twenty-something whom I’ll call K, turned to us and said, “I just want to clear something up: We’re not telemarketers.” Apparently, the distinction is that even when they’re not robots promoting some scam, telemarketers are always selling something. This was news to me; I thought I was selling my soul. Additionally, since our script was designed to forge genuine connections between Fordham and its alumni, we were not telemarketers.

I took all this in with mixed feelings. The emphasis on semantic differences between telemarketing and fundraising registered to me as corporate doublethink. Both are essentially about getting people’s credit cards over the phone. However, I also realized that I would have to internalize some of this doublethink if I was going to make it as a “student caller.” I couldn’t think of myself as a telemarketer if I was going to do this job. I couldn’t even joke about it.

I might have clued into these aspects of the job faster if I had ever worked in the service industry before. Of course they didn’t just want me to read off the script; they wanted me to act. Suddenly, I was professionally obliged to affect an unconditional fondness for all things Fordham and to maintain a chipper attitude while on the clock. Some of my coworkers seemed to have an easier time with this than I did. A lot of callers could flip their moods like a switch, changing mid-sentence from the sleep-deprived sullenness of an overworked student to the airy, inoffensive chirp known as the “phone voice.” I could never do a phone voice. I often wondered if the uncanny ability to smile through the phone signaled a person who was better at connecting with people or just one who was more comfortable abiding corporate doublethink. It probably just meant they were more moved by their obligation to remain cheerful at work. Meanwhile, the prospects weren’t even obliged to be civil. They could swear, complain about Fordham, be nervous or even be verbally abusive, and student callers were required to respond by cheerfully and tactfully soliciting money from them.

So in order to maintain goodwill towards prospects while still effectively doing my job, I started to practice certain coping mechanisms. These included smiling during calls in the hope that it would make me sound happier, and echoing the arguments of my supervisors, that student fundraising is a good cause because most of the money goes to scholarships. Most importantly, I needed to maintain the belief that I was trying to genuinely connect with prospects, even if the script was dishonest. And it worked for a while. At least it allowed me to do what I had to.

As I got acclimated, the not-telemarketing job became something like channel surfing. Occasionally I would get to have a conversation between oceans of static, dial tones and the occasional fax machine, which, when called, would produce a screeching sound loud enough to turn heads from across the room. It was like accidentally calling a monster.

Gradually, fundraising started to become entertaining. In the middle of my shift, a retired nun would pick up and tell me her life story, or a recent alumnus would explain how she’d gotten a job at Comedy Central the last minute before graduation. These more pleasant prospects tended to give me lots of advice. A nun spent a lot of time evangelizing to me about The New York Times. One man congratulated me just for being an English major: “That’s good. People don’t appreciate language anymore.”

It only occurs to me now these prospects were being so generous with their advice precisely because we weren’t really connecting. This was roleplay. They were an older person speaking from a vantage point of experience, and I was a student. For them, I was a symbol. I was broadly a symbol of youth, specifically of college, and more specifically of their college, or what college was like for them.

This practice of reducing me to a symbol was especially prevalent with the angry prospects, which, ironically, made them easier to deal with. Often as not, they didn’t have a problem with me as an individual. They had a problem with student loans, or the Catholic Church, or Fordham itself.  Sometimes, listening to a prospect’s anti-Catholic screed was more entertaining that getting life advice from them. Slowly, I managed to distance myself emotionally from what I was doing, but it was often still personal.

My most genuine conversation at The Ramline was also easily my worst. The prospect was a southern businessman, and to this day, he’s still one of the rudest people to whom I’ve ever spoken. He stopped me five seconds into my intro to tell me he voted for Trump. He belittled me for being liberal — “You’ll be a Republican once you grow up and get a little money” — and for being an English major — “No money in that. You should switch over to finance.” Like a lot of nicer prospects, he seemed to think he was giving sage advice, but he was doing it by mocking things that I loved. And I had to suppress my rage and listen to him.

I wasn’t allowed to hang up until I asked for money, but he wouldn’t let me finish the intro. Interrupting me for the umpteenth time in under a minute, he said, “This call’s about money right? I’m not going to give you anything, and I’ll tell you why. Because scholarships are handouts. Your generation just wants to have everything handed to you, and I’m not financing it. I never had scholarships. I worked through college.”

“I’m AT work!” I snapped at him. It startled him. I hung up to avoid getting cursed out. Though he didn’t seem to realize that I was included in his indictments of liberals and my generation, I knew he was insulting me.

I quit working at the Ramline shortly after that call, though not specifically because of it. All told, I worked there for less than three months. I never even got particularly good at it, although I made enough money to justify hiring me in the first place. I’m still not sure whether I should be embarrassed by that or a little proud of it.

I didn’t reflect until much later on just how much the call center interfered with my ability to connect. I really wanted to reach out, but prospects could only look at me as a symbol, or someone playing a specific role in their lives, and I, in turn, was not allowed to be honest with them. Even after I stopped working there, I found myself giving defensive explanations to friends and family members about what my job was. I would always start by clarifying that I wasn’t actually a telemarketer. It was a little more complicated than that.

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