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I have been offered an award to be presented to me at my graduation this summer at an English university. The award is not for academic achievement per se. It's for gaining my science degree despite having suffered significant illness at a crucial point in my degree. The award is for a student who has overcome a significant obstacle (which could be anything) and successfully completed.

Specifically because the cause of my problem was illness, this nomination has made me feel acutely self-conscious (even before I've received it). I've spoken to student friends and family about it. They all give predictable advice - "we understand, but accept the award, it's good for your CV!". Any possible benefit to my "CV" doesn't begin to enter the calculus for me.

This was a significant illness, and I struggled hard to be "normal" again. This award would make it hard to feel that way. I would find an allusion to this episode, particularly on a day such as graduation, rather difficult to handle. I doubt very much that the specific motivation for the award would be stated at the ceremony, but even so...

I realise my academic department are trying to be generous towards me and recognise my efforts with this award. It is a good university and they care about their students. I am going on to postgraduate study at the same university. The award is sponsored by an alumnus who themselves had a significant problem during their studies. Can I decline politely or is this a no-no? Could it be seen as self-indulgent to decline?

Update: I wanted to thank all of the posters here for empathic, thoughtful and surprisingly non-judgemental answers. This is clearly a well-regulated and insightful community.

Many of these answers conflict, and some posters have admonished others, but I wanted you to know that I have read everything carefully, that I am open to seeing this from all perspectives, and that I have found almost all answers and replies helpful.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jun 19 at 2:41

13 Answers 13

171

I suggest a third way:

Write a concise e-mail to whoever is handing out the award that you would prefer to receive it silently for the reasons you cited (not wanting to be reminded of your disease), i.e., without being mentioned at the ceremony, but via mail or similar.

This has several advantages:

  • You spend at most as much energy on this as declining the award, probably less since you do not have to worry about how to politely decline it, etc.
  • You avoid what you want to avoid.
  • You will never face regret for not taking the award and in the future you are completely free to use it or not (for your CV and similar).
  • 56
    The main reason to consider accepting this award (the likes of which often carry a smell of rather a self-serving act of the institution) is to consider its effects on others in the future - you may act as a motivation for people to come after you to overcome difficulties. In my opinion that is the main consideration for OP to take - so, not to consider their own perspective in which such an award clearly does not seem to send the right message, but if they want to help sending a message to others in a similar situation in the future. – Captain Emacs Jun 16 at 12:43
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    It is a bit disingenuous to say "you are free to use it or not." If a university makes an award, the fact that it exists is in the public domain, just like the rest of one's academic record. Any person or organization has a reason to check the OP's academic record will therefore discover its existence. – alephzero Jun 16 at 19:50
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    @alephzero Wouldn't an organization checking up on a CV mostly just be confirming completion of a degree? I would be surprised if anyone found out about the award by themselves. Perhaps this is a location difference (I'm in the USA)? – Tashus Jun 16 at 20:52
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    @alephzero there's public domain and public domain, or to put it another way, there's a big gap between broadcasting and secrecy, with plenty of room to acknowledge but not declare such an award – Chris H Jun 17 at 8:31
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    @sgf raising awareness that significant obstacles can be overcome. – Alexandre Aubrey Jun 17 at 13:43
44

I would find any allusion to this episode, particularly on a day such as graduation, rather difficult to handle.

It's up to you what decision to make about the award, but it sounds like you might really benefit from talking to a counselor about your feelings about your illness and recovery. Your school may have free or discounted counselors available, or your insurance might cover it. It's completely understandable that going through such a difficult experience has left you with very strong feelings about that experience, but you might want to work to get to a place where remembering that this happened and that you survived it with great resilience is something that you can handle hearing sometimes and even be proud of. The award itself, either accepting or declining, isn't the important thing here. The important thing is your feelings about your experience and your mental health going forward.

  • 5
    Downvoted because the answer seems to make unsubstantiated assumptions about OP's mental health. OP may wish to or already be seeking support, but not wanting to have a personal trauma spun into a public spectacle is not a sign that it is necessary. – Kami Jun 18 at 13:00
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    @Kami - I can't downvote your comment, but it seems to make an unsubstantiated assumption that talking to a counselor somehow implies mental health problems. Not true. – J.R. Jun 19 at 14:01
  • @J.R. The explanatory link you provide is from a website promoting a subscription based counselling app... I bet they think everyone should seek counselling, a bargain from $260 monthly...!? Of course in the real world many people visit counsellors while their mental health is good for many reasons. That has as much relevance to this discussion as this answer had to OP's real question. The answer mentioned 'mental health', so of course my response did too. I'm baffled that you somewhat passive-aggressively copied the structure of my comment but didn't read what I was replying to... – Kami Jun 20 at 7:04
  • I don't "assume" anything about OP or think that it's "necessary" for OP to talk to a therapist. I think Kami would do well to more carefully read the question and my answer. I do think therapy might help based on several clear expressions of anxiety in the question. Some level of anxiety is a completely normal and expected reaction to the kind of experience that OP went through. My reference to "ongoing mental health" was not meant in the sense of a serious mental illness (which is also ok!) but in a more general sense that we all go through times of better or worse mental health. – Noah Snyder Jun 20 at 8:43
  • I had originally replied to Kami and deleted it because I didn't think a big argument under this answer is helpful, but now that it's already here I wanted to clarify. I'm also only suggesting what I would do myself in OPs situation. – Noah Snyder Jun 20 at 8:44
30

Usually the advice is indeed to accept awards offered to you, but in this case I can understand you wishing to decline it - and you are perfectly in the right to do so.

My advice would be to talk to your academic advisor, ombudsman, student counsellor, or whatever this role would be called in your institution, and tell them the same thing you posted here - that you are honored that they want to present the award to you and that you are grateful for that, but that you cannot accept the award. Just do it in time so that they can still nominate somebody else, and I cannot imagine that your department will have hard feelings about this.

As for the "CV value" of an award - yes, in principle every award helps your CV, but I suspect the value is often overstated (and, mind you, it will only really help for your next career step - for instance, applying to grad school - later in life basically nobody will care about awards you won during your undergrad). I personally don't think it's worth it if it makes you feel less good about yourself.

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    "Later in life basically nobody will care about awards you won during your undergrad" - not just that but by putting it on a resume/CV, you're inviting prospective employers to ask about it and clearly, that's not a discussion OP wishes to have. – aleppke Jun 17 at 15:26
  • @aleppke "you're inviting prospective employers to ask about it" that's quite of a drama the way you put it. Most people will just notice it en passant, to which you can laugh it off and take the praise. No need to make a big deal out of it. – gented Jun 18 at 12:53
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    @gented OP has clearly stated that the topic makes them uncomfortable and they do not wish to draw attention to it, let alone have a discussion on it. If this was something they could laugh off and ignore, they wouldn't have posted this question. Employers can and do ask about things listed on a resume so if you're not prepared to fully discuss something, don't put it on there. – aleppke Jun 18 at 15:51
  • @aleppke I don't know what type of employers you have experience with but I have been both in Academia and industry and never have I been asked - except en passant - anything that wasn't a project or my education. – gented Jun 18 at 15:54
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    @gented I'm not guaranteeing that everything on a resume will be asked about. I'm simply stating that anything listed on a resume is considered fair game to be asked about. Whether it actually comes up is up to the individual interviewer but if OP doesn't want to take that chance, it's better to not include the award in the first place. Remember, this is an extremely sensitive and personal topic for them and they don't want to draw attention to it. They're not looking for advice on how to get out of conversations about it, they're looking to avoid the conversations altogether. – aleppke Jun 18 at 16:26
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I'll add my two cents. Universities are constantly having awards and honors turned down. I have more inside information than most academics would, so I have to be careful about what I say here. But if I could be open, I could site several examples at every level, where a university thought they were pleasing someone and they weren't. Billionaire donors who didn't really want a statue of themselves in front of the building which they funded. Special recognition for being the first black/woman/gay professor who got a Nobel/best-seller/whatever. Corporations and funds who didn't think that that sort of publicity was exactly in line with the public image they wanted. And a number of students turning down awards and even money because they didn't want to accept anything from a entity that was for/against the Palestinian state/gay rights/abortion/puppies.

What I'm saying is that universities are used to being turned down. They are adept at back-pedaling and adjusting for such things. The admins exist solely for the purpose of keeping good relations with alumni and donors, so whatever you do is what they want to help you with.

You can turn down the award with thanks and have no worries about repercussions. My opinion is that the extra line on your CV isn't worth much.

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    @BryanKrause Odd perception you have there. I'm not complaining about anything. He wants to know if it's OK to turn down the award and I answered "yes" and explained why "yes" was the right answer. I don't know where you get "rant" from. Maybe you're projecting. – B. Goddard Jun 17 at 14:57
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    This seems like a good and relevant answer to me, especially compared to a number of other answers which merely suggest that OP should accept something he considers a violation (albeit a well-meaning one) because apparently his illness and recovery are no longer about him. This answer lists (taking on faith they are true) examples of people who have been similarly uncomfortable with unwanted accolades, and have turned them down with no problems. That does seem to answer the question. – Kami Jun 18 at 12:45
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    This seems like a good answer to me because, on top of all the things detailed in the comment above, the answer does not make any assumption about the OP's feelings, reaction, experience .... it is just a very detailed and generic answer, that can be transposed to many situations, explaining that turning down an award might not be the issue one think it could. – m.raynal Jun 19 at 12:50
  • recognition is what it's all about (for others to see; not for you to look at). That's what keeps people from worrying about a statue they don't think they deserve (like @Pharap's comment on Mari's answer. See also my comment about how to do it gracefully even if you feel undeserving). - If you cure cancer; we're building a statue, and you can file all your complaints in the 'suggestion box' (the garbage). - Don't be humble to the point of being conceited. – Mazura Jul 1 at 21:31
  • @Mazura The OP's problem (or virtue) isn't humility but embarrassment. What if you got selected for an award for being the first hemorrhoid sufferer to earn physics degree? Such awards are meant kindly, but they are condescending, and condescension hurts. The OP strove to do just as well as "normal" people, succeeded, and they STILL look down on him and pat him on the head. – B. Goddard Jul 1 at 21:57
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They, the university, should have first consulted with you, not everyone feels comfortable about receiving awards, especially one connected to a personal serious illness.

But... you should feel proud nonetheless, and someone in the audience that day might be going through a similar situation, seeing you accept the award could give that extra incentive they need to persevere through the difficulties.

I would, in your shoes, seriously consider accepting the award, not for the CV but for that one person in the audience who might be battling their own demons and be on the point of despair. You are the living proof that it is possible to overcome an illness and still succeed with in one's studies.

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    The university did consult with him. That's how the situation got to be where it is. – Buzz Jun 17 at 1:07
  • @Buzz it seems that the OP was only notified of this award. Was it face to face or via an email? I don't know about theses things but a consultation conjures the image of a conversation between the benefactor and the recipient of the award. In that case, the OP would have had the opportunity to express their reluctance and/or discomfort, and the representative could explain the motivation behind the award. – Mari-Lou A Jun 17 at 13:09
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    This award is not for the OP, +1. "consider its effects on others in the future" ... "the message that it sends to the broader university: It is OK to help people." – Mazura Jun 17 at 18:50
  • It could equally cause a person to think "this person can do it, but I can't, that makes me even more of a failure". Or there could be someone else who was equally deserving (or perhaps even more deserving) of the award thinking "how come this person got the award? do my problems not mean anything?". – Pharap Jun 19 at 2:50
  • @Pharap - that's why when you revive an award like this, in recognition of something, you're supposed to mention how you wouldn't be here if not for the help and support of xyz. And if you really want to shine them on, you accept it on behalf of them in the light of knowing only that you couldn't have done it w/o them, and in the hope that in the future no one will ever think 'this' person could but you can't. Fear of a more deserving person is throwing out the baby w/ bathwater; you begin your speech w/ someone prob deserves this more than me, but I accept on behalf... – Mazura Jul 1 at 21:12
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You have every right to object to any mention of or allusion to medical problems, whether current or historic. In the UK, medical data are subject to very robust confidentiality provisions (this applies even in respect of internal NHS systems -- I have opted out of NHS Digital, the computer system that facilitates sharing medical data between GP practices and hospitals... and Google... and the UK Border Agency), and nobody should be disseminating them without your explicit consent (this applies even if you are writing a confidential reference for someone's job application and even when answering questions such as "How is X?" in a social context), unless it were on an urgent basis to protect your "vital interests" (e.g.: if someone had a reasonable and good-faith belief that you are in imminent danger, it would be legal to share concerns for the sole purpose of preventing such danger).

You also have every right to object to being singled-out as having overcome adversity (even if no medical data are disclosed) in a public ceremony. If accepting the award in the ceremony is a condition of receiving the award, that would entail declining the award or graduating in absentia.

As others have said, it may be possible to receive the award without any disclosure of medical data and without being singled-out in the ceremony. If you opt for this course of action, you should be aware that a record of the award will probably still exist somewhere, so it may still be possible for somebody to discover that you "have overcome a significant obstacle" or whatever. You should check the wording of the award and how it is described in reports (presumably, when the donor made financial provision for award, there would have been some sort of document articulating the conditions).

I would suggest structuring your reply to the university as follows:

  • start by saying that you have not yet decided whether to accept the award, and require clarification of a few matters to help you decide;
  • ask for full disclosure of all documentation relating the award, including the official rules for how it is awarded;
  • say that you object to the award being presented in a public ceremony, because it would be "triggering" and make you feel uncomfortable;
  • say that you object to any medical data being kept on file in any archive or documentation relating to the award;
  • insist on the right to review (and veto) the exact wording of any official report on the reasons why you were selected for the award (as a minimum, the university will probably be required to write such a report for the donor); and
  • explain that if your aforementioned conditions are incompatible with receiving the award, you will have to decline.
  • 1
    Why do you assume the mentioning would trigger a traumatic response rather than just feel awkward? And wouldn't the latter suffice as a reason for not wanting to be mentioned publicly? – henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 16 at 18:47
  • If the UK laws and practical application are anything like USA’s, you may need to remind them in advance that it would be illegal for them to mention certain things. Our HIPAA is routinely violated due to carelessness or ignorance. – WGroleau Jun 16 at 19:11
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    Let's just settle down with the assertions about HIPAA and medical privacy. HIPAA covers a specific set of organizations and educational institutions are most definitely not bound by HIPAA by virtue of being educational institutions. Similarly, I'd be surprised to find that you would find that you are "protected" in the UK, especially as it sounds like the OP's illness was broadly known. As ever with legal advice on the internet: you get what you pay for. – Dancrumb Jun 17 at 1:55
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In situations like this I often find the best solution is to ask yourself which alternative you would regret the most, and which alternative you would regret the least.

Imagine yourself 5-10 years down the line.
Do you think you would regret accepting the award more than you would regret not accepting it?
Do you think you would feel 'dirty' somehow for having accepted it?

When it comes down to it what matters the most is how you feel about each alternative, not how strangers on the internet feel about each alternative. Forget everyone else (the award committee, the alumnus, your family, the potential attendees and everybody here on this website) and ask yourself how you see this award.

Is it a badge of honour earned for having made it through a particularly perilous trial,
or is it an albatross that will forever remind you of a dark part of your life?

We cannot make that decision for you,
only you know how you feel about it and how you think you may feel in the future.

5

You have to look as yourself as a brand and to your reputation.

I was once offered a performance award in an academia setting, and I equally did not had the slightest wish to attend the ceremony, for several reasons not pertinent to these answer.

I decided to go just for my reputation, for the sake of good relations, and not annoying anybody. Nonetheless, the ceremony itself went ok, people had a good impression for me being there, my family was proud of me, and I got to put it on my CV.

Do not forget in the academia world forging alliances and reputation counts a lot. IMO, your family is offering good advice, go for it!

3

If you don't want this award, just let them know. I'm sure they will understand. I can't see it affecting your future career either way, to be honest, so if it makes you uncomfortable, just politely decline the award. I don't see this as being at all self-indulgent; you didn't ask for it, you don't want it, and you have absolutely no obligation to accept it.

3

This award does not help me to feel normal

Declining the award will not make you feel any more normal either, if that is your underlying problem. Take the award and make whatever you want of it in the future: there will be plenty of occasions where you will indeed deserve something and will not get it, so do not overthink it too much, see this chance as to balance it out.

I have myself suffered a significant illness during my Academic time and was on and off praised for having overcome it. Just take the good things whenever people do not mean bad - then time will heal up your emotional suffering.

1

I see that many before me have come with very good comments, but I feel that I have one thing to add (if I didn't miss it).

If you don't feel good about accepting it but consider accepting it to further your career, think about how you will feel every time you apply for a job and the interviewer asks "oh, I see you got this award, tell me about it". That means that you'll re-live the pain you're feeling now every time you apply for a job. And the reasoning "but I don't have to include it on my CV" kinda ruins your argument about it furthering your career.

This is just a thought from me. But basically I agree with stuff mentioned above

  • you didn't ask for it, you can decline.
  • you're not rude to decline such a sensitive award.
  • we cannot decide for you, it has be your own decision and you'll have to own that decision.

I feel your pain and I really hope that you have found comfort in these comments and that you feel better.

1

I can see two points of view to address. When you accept the reward for overcoming the dificulty you are publicly marked as "the one who had the dificulty".

One point is, that very few people want to be recognised as they-who-suffered-that. People tend not to display anything they are not comfortable with. From that point of view, declining the award is acceptable.

The other point is why does the university want to award you?

  1. They acknowledge your higher-than-usual effort to get the degree. Maybe there is a cash to compensate part of your extra expenses.
  2. They want to show, that your dificulty can be overcome; that the difficulty is a challenge to beat, not a terminal.
  3. They want to show themselves as a supportive institution.

Your comment on the sponsor shows to me that second point is significant there. They want to motivate other people to embrace and fight their difficulties and not give up. The more people overcoming something the more willingful you are to trying it as well.

The choice is yours; noone can force you to pick one way or anither. Think of you as an example for youngsters, if you like that.

If you don't want to attract further attention to the difficulty, you can not-mention it in your CV, LI profile, etc. You can let your photo be only in the Hall-of-Fame at the university surrounded with other awardees.

0

I realise my academic department are trying to be generous

Do not fall for that (common) mistake!

Try and accept that the university people are probably right in seeing your great accomplishment, which to you may not (yet) feel like one.

The award will be good for your CV, but remember that you really did earn it. They don't give it to you despite your struggle, which may or may not continue, but because your graduation was objectively a great accomplishment attributed not only to your learning skills but in addition much to your personal strength and endurance.

They wouldn't even consider you for the award if they did not know that you succeeded with your graduation despite having a much greater burden to handle than is expected from the 'average' student.

I doubt very much that the specific motivation for the award would be stated at the ceremony

Like above, trust in them that they know what they're doing! They are very well aware about the sensitive nature of the issue, as they are about their decision to award you.

protected by henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 17 at 16:55

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