116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There is such a thing as a “dumb question.”
Perhaps we want to believe this isn’t so. However, we nonetheless fear what certain questions will reveal about the inquirer.
For example, the CEO of your company presents at a meeting of department heads. She repeatedly uses an unfamiliar acronym; it’s integral to her presentation.
You get a vague idea from context, but the exact meaning is indecipherable. Do you risk some sly, beneath-the-table Googling? Do you nod knowingly in what you hope are the right spots? Or do you stop her, ask that she breakdown the acronym and reveal you don’t know what she’s talking about?
My hope is such situations are safe spaces to ask clarifying questions. Surely, we all prefer “dumb questions” to unnecessary mistakes. If I have the question, maybe someone else does, too. We learn by asking questions. The one thing we all know is that no one knows everything — right?
Unfortunately, asking the question could hurt — particularly if some aspect of your physical appearance makes others view you as different.
In my own experience, I’m often — no, usually — the only person in a meeting who looks like me. Questions others might characterize as dumb will put my professional reputation at risk.
When I opt to take the risk, I do so strategically. I base my wager on the reasoning that mistakes will cost me more than revealing my ignorance.
This phenomenon has a deep impact on students of color who seek internships. These short-term workplace assignments are essential to gaining career experience. In some fields, internships are required. For others, the internship is the way to make industry connections.
The parameters of an internship vary by field. The National Association of Colleges and Employers notes that there is no definition of “internship” or consistent criteria. The common advice for obtaining a “good” internship is that students use connections like parents, family friends, professors and alumni of their institutions. Students also are directed to internship job postings in their desired fields.
The student’s goal is to find a placement that provides practical, real experience that will give a good sense of what their prospective career will offer. Some of the most coveted internships pay ridiculously low wages (or nothing), clock long hours, require moving briefly to a large city and provide no living expenses. Among the common challenges students are warned about range from how to avoid low-paying grunt work to how to obtain constructive feedback from supervisors.
Students of color are less likely to have the resources or connections to navigate the internship process. Before dealing with a manager who sends an accounting major on repeated coffee runs, such students must determine the feasibility and map out the costs, find allies and mentors and summon the courage to ask questions no one else seems to have.
This doesn’t make them “dumb,” or unqualified. They lack access. They don’t know what to do, and their starting point may not look like someone else’s. As a result, they don’t necessarily know what kind of internship they want, because they may not know what’s possible.
I certainly felt this way when I was an internship-seeker 20-plus years ago. I was the last senior in my major to obtain an internship and was reduced to cold-calling any business remotely related to my chosen field. I eventually found an unpaid position — 16 hours per week, in addition to work and school.
With time and more awareness of the different needs of some students, gaps still exist. “C,” one of my employees, needs an internship to open career opportunities in his chosen field. He is African American and graduated from college 18 months ago — right before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He diligently and eagerly explores internship leads.
A few weeks ago, C asked to talk. He said he had a “difficult question” and that he was “scared” of my possible response.
This alarmed me. C is smart, kind and easygoing. He jumps into new tasks with a refreshing willingness to learn. When faced with something new, he often says, “I don’t know, but I believe I can figure it out.”
What could be wrong? C told me he had an internship offer — “a dream gig,” he said. It required him to put his life on hold and move several hundred miles away for at least three months. If it went well, it could be longer. C asked if I could hold his job; it was, he said, the only way he could think of saying “yes.”
First, I assured him we’d be happy to have him return after his internship. If the internship results in a full-time job, we’d call that a win, too. “Don’t worry about your job; it will be here,” I said. I couldn’t imagine saying anything else to any employee.
C was relieved. His other employer — a large company with thousands of employees — immediately dismissed him when he made the same inquiry. The human resources manager told him the company couldn’t encourage similar leaves of absence.
He still had some doubts.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” he said. “I’m not even sure it’s real. Does it sound like, maybe, I’m being scammed?”
I could see why he thought that. The hiring manager had assumed he knew the ropes and understood how such things worked. He was afraid to indicate otherwise.
He was concerned about looking dumb if he asked for details about the living accommodations that had been mentioned vaguely. Likewise, C knew he’d be compensated, but those details also were murky. Repeatedly, C said he didn’t have any context for this --- no one he could ask about such things or guide him in the right direction.
We figured out some ways he could get the information he needed. Eventually, he pieced together a plan that would allow him to take the shot.
I was relieved C talked to me, but what if he hadn’t? What if he simply decided this dream was out of reach? How many students have mountains of potential but lack the resources or support system to even think about exploring it?
Karris Golden was raised in Waterloo and currently tends an acreage in rural northeastern Iowa. She is a seasoned world traveler with varied interests, from financial literacy to home repair.