Follow-up: Classism at Wesleyan

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Classism is complex, no doubt. Talking about money is supposedly tactless — hey oh last weekend’s This American Life – but Americans do it all the time. And even if we didn’t, a person’s wealth or, more accurately, assumed wealth, is presumed through many a factor — where they’re from, what (who) they wear, their skin tone, their manners, their speech, their prior education, the list goes on… Many Wesleyan students feel a discomfort when confronted with issues of class; this discomfort may be born from being privileged in one’s upbringing, feeling a lack of understanding of class issues, or being keenly aware of the difficulty of living on a relatively low income in the U.S — and this is certainly not an exhaustive list of sources of discomfort in discussing class. But however complex, uncomfortable, or delicate the conversation, it’s time everyone at Wesleyan recognizes and becomes sensitive to the fact that Wes is no haven from classism.

As an introduction to wealth inequality in America here’s a video. For thoughts on class at universities, check out this recent magazine article from Yale. Also, this excellent exhibition at Skidmore (and source of the photo above) titled “Classless Society” provides some great fodder for thinking about class.

At Wesleyan, the general concept of classism is usually articulated in relation to quests for social justice on campus. For example, a search of the Argives for “classism” will return Wespeaks and pieces such as this and this. Of course, during the last couple years, issues of classism have become more specific: the elimination of Wesleyan’s “need-blind” label, calls for alumni to halt their giving, and recent USLAC efforts and protests of the conditions under which university employees work (for more on this subject, read BZOD’s great three-part series, or check out this post about the Privilege & Policy forum on classism).

1002588_10151723365390509_1599490200_nOf course, experiences of class difference are not limited to these pretty well-publicized, institutional level efforts. With this in mind, the goal of this write-in was to give voice to some of the more every-day influences of class difference students experience. Many respondents felt the need to start at the beginning:

Now, this leads me to my Wes experience. Naive as I was I didn’t realize what I was in store for at wes. I thought that I was achieving something my parents never even dreamed of accomplishing because they grew up in even worse conditions. I thought that that accomplishment would be celebrated here…That has not been the case. I felt it first among “friends” last year. Mainly in regards to family education as a factor in my socioeconomic status. I lamented to them about how I was frustrated with picking classes because two I needed to take overlapped and my friend said, “Well what did your parents say about it? Did they help you decide which?” and I laughed and said, “No, they don’t ever help me pick classes. I barely talk to them about what I’m taking.” He looked shocked and said, “They’re paying for you to be here they should have some say in what you take.” I stared at him confused and said, “Actually they’re NOT paying for me to be here. Financial aid, loans, my own money, and some scholarship/slight distant relative support is paying for it.” but then I laughed trying to keep it light and said, “Besides, they couldn’t help even if I tried they can’t exactly help me pick anthro classes when they don’t even know what anthropology is.” I said laughing (knowing my family makes fun of each other all the time). He stared and me with almost disgust and said, “..Your parents don’t know what anthropology is?” and rolled his eyes… I was dumbstruck.          – Anon ’16

I thought that university would be The Great Equalizer; finally, I had managed to crawl out from the grips of poverty, and  I was pursuing higher education to ensure its permanence. But when I got to Wesleyan, I didn’t have the same private-school background (What does the adjective “Kantian” mean?); I didn’t have extra time to read the newspaper or classic literary works to ameliorate this lack of cultural knowledge (Working a campus job and studying took up all of my time); I anxiously fumbled for ways to duck out of invitations to $6 dance shows, and when they were free, I was too exhausted from school and work to go. Despite being on the same campus with the same resources as wealthier students, the gap that had separated us previously remained.      – Jess ’15

For many students, arriving at Wesleyan abruptly exposes them to differences based on incomes or backgrounds other than their own. Obvious, I know. But there’s something important to be recognized about someone from a wealthy background being exposed to someone who went to a sub-par public school that happens to have no background in anthropology as well as someone who struggled to pay for the ride out to Wesleyan suddenly being expected to shell out loads of money for food and shows in order to chill with their friends. Experiencing and recognizing income discrepancies is important for all of us.

Too many times, responses to students speaking up about frustrations related to class sour the possible discussions that one would hope follows. Example regarding cafeteria workers here and a student’s PERSONAL experience here. I urge everyone to stop with the railing against the supposed “other.” Stop throwing people into either “wealthy” or not so much categories. And something of note: though we left this write-in open for a long period and tried to widely advertise, every single one of the responses was from a student who either self-identified as low-income, middle-class, and/or struggling financially while at Wesleyan. Given that in the class of 2014, 46% of accepted students received some form of aid,  that leaves around 54% that didn’t. I know I wanted to give those not on aid, those who may not think about classism often, and yes, even those who feel the need to bash class-neutralizing efforts in anonymous comments, a chance to submit their experiences. I’m a little disappointed in the one-sidedness of the responses. That said, I think reading through the experiences submitted is important to every person at Wesleyan, regardless of socioeconomic background.

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Yes, low-income students of minority ethnicities from the inner city exist. So do middle to upper class white men and women and genderqueers from Connecticut. But to lump people into groups like this is sincerely unproductive. And furthers the danger of assumptions based on identities, etc. And as evidenced this soon into this post, assumptions made — whether expecting someone to be of the same class or railing against someone having a hard time living on a low income at Wes — without regard to class or making assumptions based on it can be painful. And this takes place both at the institutional and personal level.

I am a student of color at Wesleyan, and because many of students of color have jobs at Wesleyan, I think many of us run into the question, “Aren’t you a RA?” I’ve been getting the question since freshman year. Because I’m of color, there seems to be a stigma that I need money or I must be on financial aid. There also seems to be a stigma that all students who have jobs are of low income. Sometimes, you find that people make themselves superior to you because you’re working and they aren’t. This kind of superiority comes in forms of guilt (“Poor you, you have to work your way through college.”), or blatant action (“Technically since I’m paying full tuition, does that mean I’m paying for you to be here?”).

There seems to be an idea at Wesleyan that people who work like I do are either financial aid/of low income. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is what ideas come from that. I have had experiences where people (of whom I assume to be of a high income) have treated me as though I work FOR them, because I am student employee of whatever institution within Wesleyan University. I find that fellow students ignore that I am an STUDENT employee, not full time, so classmates ignore me in uniform or I feel look down on me. I find myself making sure that those classmates that see on any of my jobs acknowledge my presence, despite the fact that I’m in uniform. I’m not ashamed of the fact I work, why do you feel guilty that I’m working? Or do you actually look down on me as you would any other “worker”?

If that’s how I feel as a student employee of Wesleyan University, you can only imagine how this kind of thinking effects the actual workforce of the institution (custodial staff, Bon Appetit workers, etc.). – Marjahn Finlayson ’15

It [takes] more than just intellectual or financial resources, however. The emotional and psychological effort to succeed at school with little support from my single mother seemed insurmountable at times: I spent time worrying about my first-ever final exams and where I’d live over the winter break, or if my mom would be able to pay her bills. Who could I talk to about these issues? Other low-income peers? Sure, but we were all floundering. CAPS? Sure, but to have friends who could commiserate outside of a one-hour session in a psychologist’s office would have been more than welcome. –Jess ’15

The University assumes that we require health insurance. In order to not get sued the University charges students $800 in insurance. This is an amount most low income students like myself cannot afford. – Cesar Chavez ’15

Work and work-study are crucial to this subject. At one point, I held 4 work-study jobs on campus. I remember telling this to a classmate, only to hear a sigh and “Well, that explains why I can’t get a job.” At first, I was mildly infuriated– I had to hold 4 to make enough to support myself and needs. Then, after further conversation, I lost most frustration toward the classmate and displaced it all into frustration with Wesleyan and the system within which it exists. Not qualifying for work-study and being unable to get a job while feeling the need for one would leave me angry. But also, I don’t receive any financial support from my parents so I shouldn’t feel bad about taking on jobs — it certainly disadvantages me to work more than I study. And, in my experience, there are many work-study students on campus who find one job is not enough. Beyond that, those who aren’t work-study find themselves at a lower priority because the job situation here can barely support those on work-study — and by support I mean giving them a WHOLE $4.50 an hour while the government pays the other $4.50. It’s infuriating, right?

 I am not on work study so finding a decent on campus job has been near impossible. The middle class is repeatedly targeted. Serena ’14

People complaining about work-study students taking “all the jobs.” –Anon ’16

For some background, I work three jobs (all through work-study). My parents are as supportive as they can about me going to school but neither of them went to college, they barely graduated from high school (late). My father works hard but does not make a lot of money. – Anon ’16

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Of course, before work-study comes applying for financial aid and making up the difference between the expected amount to be paid and the actual funds available for tuition and housing.

Despite this though the most shocking thing was the response from others. Upon telling them I might leave the university no one really understood or sympathized. The most common responses. “Well how are you here now?” valid question, “Well I was going to not come back but my mother begged her brother (without me knowing) for the money for the semester. He put it in my account without consulting me. Then lectured me about not knowing the value of money and begging for it and how he didn’t have it and was about to be laid off. And that I would have to work for him to pay it off. I reluctantly agreed but do not feel comfortable and refuse to go through this again. I won’t take hand outs from people who cannot afford to do so and clearly do not want to. I won’t let someone control me over money. People have tried to do that before (aka my prom date-when I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it he said he would pay. He then tried to decide on my dress, how we would get there, and who we would go with because “well I am paying for your ticket”. Needless to say I refused to go to prom after that.)” Their response, “Well…can’t you just accept it and get over it?” NO. Another question, “Well can’t you just take out private loans since you’re maxed out on the federal financial aid loans?” my response, “No, I have no one to cosign for me since my parents filed for bankruptcy a few years ago and can’t take out any type of loan (no credit.)” Their response, “…You can’t find ANYONE with good credit? That seems unlikely.”      – Anon ’16

2011 Reunion and Commencement. Zilkha gallery, center for the arts.College is fucking expensive, especially Wesleyan. We all had to work to get here and had to find some way to pay. It’s easy to dismiss stories those struggling with gaps in aid funding as frustrating because we all have to work to make our relationship with Wes work financially; but doing so ignores that the struggles of less privileged folks may extend far beyond begging/owing their parents for the money.

This wasn’t specifically AT Wes but when I was filling out financial aid forms for Wes, my mom and I got into so many fights because the process was so incredibly stressful. Financial situations are sometimes a lot more complicated than the forms make them seem so trying to figure them out, while in school, with a mom who can barely read English is super difficult. There’s not enough resources on campus to help with such situations. –Anon ’16

A boy who lives on my floor comes from a very affluent family in [redacted]. I was talking to a friend of mine about financial aid and I commented on how I received a very generous package, which is the reason I am able to attend Wesleyan. He overheard me and got very angry, arguing that people “like [him]” who pay tuition are paying the way for “poor people” to go to the school and that it was very unfair. I went to my room and cried because it was so vitriolic for no reason. –Michael Ortiz ’17

To me, the tricky thing about classism is that it doesn’t manifest itself as specific remarks aimed at hurting people as often as some other forms of oppression. A lot of people here just are not aware of what “wealth” means. Think of all the kids who are adamant about how non-wealthy they are, when in fact…they are wealthy. For example, I feel very uncomfortable when people start complaining about how they receive no financial aid, given the fact that I receive very much financial aid. It hurts me when I realize that people complain that their families have to pay so much money to go to this school – which is ridiculous, of course, but not the point – but I think that even after a lot of these people pay for school, they still have more money than my family does in the first place. In a way, I feel like these kids are saying that they truly believe that their wealth entitles them to this education more so than I am entitled to it – that the living standard my family has and has always had is not good enough for them, and they should not have to stoop to that level just because they want to go to a nice, fancy college.  –Alicia Gansley ’15

My parents’ credit scores were dismal. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had to take out massive loans to cover the entirety of my Weseducation. I was fortunate and my grandpa cosigned the first two years of loans.  When he died during my sophomore spring, however, I had to find a new way. I’m the proud owner of $113,000 of debt– half to Wells Fargo and half to the grand ole federal government. It is a constant stress. I made a difficult decision when I chose to go into debt at Wesleyan rather than attend a large state university for nothing. I don’t regret it; Wesleyan is home and I have flourished here. It was a personal decision and I don’t question anyone who tells me to stop complaining because I chose to add this stress to attending college– but I absolutely question the system in which my only option to attend the university of my choosing that I was able to get into ends with my owing income for the next 35 years.    –Izzy Rode ’14

For starters I am forced to take out loans to cover my education at Wesleyan. My books are not covered in the tuition so I am forced to charge it to my account, I am spending money I don’t have. I do have an on campus job but work study only allows me to work so much. After I meet the required amount of money I can make through work student, about $2000, I can no longer work anymore. Wesleyan should be providing more financial aid to to poor students rather than hoarding the money towards the endowment. Lastly there is no support for low income students. Neither from the administration nor from the student body. There is shame with been labeled as poor. In the past I have tried to get students to talk about these issues but no one will. They are too afraid or ashamed to do so. Those who are afraid fear that if this issue is brought up it will divide the campus community even more. –Cesar Chavez ’15

On top of the paying for tuition and room and board (sidenote: no one mentioned this in their responses, but it is critical to mention that Wesleyan’s 99% residency statistic comes with a hefty cost of room and board that places a burden on everyone. Granted, I fucking love Wesleyan housing and am sitting in my ff217c7d42f607d3f4992a77ce0f10bdlarge room in my HOUSE, housing at Wesleyan is a pricey, pricey system), there’s the added expenses of simply being our age.

“During orientation week, I went to go buy alcohol with my new friends and no one had cash except me so I spent half of the money I brought to school (which was supposed to last me for awhile) on alcohol that day. Barely anyone paid me back. I guess people assumed I could “afford” it.”

“People always suggesting to eat off campus or go buy alcohol.”

“Professors/administration never rewarding students for juggling jobs + academics but rewarding sports players who also handle academics.”

“As a CSS student, I look around the room and I can guess that people mostly come from non-low-income backgrounds and have a lot of social capital due to their parents and the high school they went to.”

“I became interested in taking the LSAT. I learned prep courses can cost up to $2,000. The friends I have at Wes who have gotten into good law schools all have parents who happily shelled out the cost. I am not so fortunate.”

“Being told the only reason people shop at thrift stores is because that’s in style right now. Being asked “You’ve never eaten that before?” Being expected to pay money as a compensation for any favor ever.”

It’s not easy, financially, being our age. On top of that, we have all come from different backgrounds– and our aid awards or lack thereof are entirely linked with our background rather than current space here– and have been shoved into this small space without so much as a primer on classism or what we may encounter.

I don’t feel I have personally been exposed to classism at Wes, but I feel that it is something that is not completely discussed. I think students from underprivileged backgrounds often cannot afford many things that students from wealthier backgrounds can and I think that affects their college life and leads towards “classism” of sorts just simply based on the “segregation” that comes from this separation, but I think it is a hard thing to fight. –Anon ’16

I don’t “experience” classism that often in that people directly attack me because of my class. There’s just a general culture of wealth at this school that imposes itself on everyone all the time. – Alicia Gansley ’15

We need to talk, Wesleyan. Class differences in America are alive and well. And at our small, private university, they are exacerbated by a lack of discussion and exposure. Some of our student body– those on full scholarship or significant aid, those who are first-generation college students, those who come from places where “Wesleyan University” doesn’t register as anything, to name too few examples– came to Wesleyan expecting there to be differences but not necessarily anticipating the prevailing assumption would be that we all have resources. It’s hard, folks. That said, exposures to class like the ones discussed here are opportunities: there should be no shame in regard to financial background– for anyone. Don’t expect or assume when it comes to money. Just talk about it. 

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  • Nicole Okai

    Just to add to the conversation, this recent article speaks about class at another collegiate campus
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kellynoel-waldorf/i-came-to-duke-with-an-em_b_4277969.html

  • aaa

    I personally think that Classism is simply not a problem that is as serious as it was described in the blog. Wesleyan has been trying it’s best to keep it at the lowest profile as possible comparable to anywhere else in the world, and personally I’ve never experienced people looking down at someone else simply because they come from an economically disadvantaged background. What’s also important to notice is that the protest here in the blog would draw unnecessary attention to Classism among students which might make the situation worse.

    This is like “occupying wall street” in some sense. If you are not happy with your background and felt oppressed in such an environment, try to work hard and gain respect, set yourself in a good stage in the job market and try to impress the others who may started some steps ahead of you.

    • Student

      Regarding your opinion of “unnecessary attention” called to the issue of classism at Wesleyan–as a low-income student, I’d say that this is a very valid topic; your suggestion for low-income students to, in essence, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” is a much more difficult endeavor than you make it out to be.

      If you are not happy with the “unnecessary attention” called to this issue, talk to other low-income students and try to put yourself in the shoes of those who have started some steps behind you.

  • person

    while i fear everyone is going to attack me for simply putting this out there, i do feel somewhat looked down upon for having come from a wealthy family. people tend to view your acceptance and position at wesleyan as a given because you can pay your whole tuition (which could be true). I sympathize with those who cannot pay. i honestly feel im a entitled jerk to just be here with lower income students (who i view as more impressive people). i really do view myself as not worthy to go to school with kids who work so much harder than me to even be here. and i feel that as a wealthy student i am viewed by many students as someone who had it easy in life (which is true) and never experienced issues. i have had some rough things happen to me in life. i am a lucky person, but i just feel this perspective tends to be forgotten.

    • Samira

      I think you bring up an absolutely valid and real feeling that other people at Wesleyan may also feel. As Sneeze wrote in the post, which I also agree with: “to lump people into groups like this is sincerely unproductive. And furthers the danger of assumptions based on identities, etc. And as evidenced this soon into this post, assumptions made — whether expecting someone to be of the same class or railing against someone having a hard time living on a low income at Wes — without regard to class or making assumptions based on it can be painful.”

      Making any assumptions about life experience or ideology based on someone’s (presumed) class can alienate many people. Yes, voice should be given to people who come from all class backgrounds in our campus discourse, but this shouldn’t be done in a way that values one experience over another. I think it’s unfortunate that you feel less ‘worthy’ to go here because you didn’t have the same journey to get where you are now as someone else. Certain experiences are really, truly hard for some people, and everyone has these kinds of experiences regardless of what class background you come from.

    • :)

      its not the class you’re from it’s the class you’re for

  • Anon

    Yes! Great article. I hope this gets discussed more. Would love to hear from students that identify as a member of other socioeconomic statuses.

  • $tructure

    Such an important post I’m so happy that someone has finally written this. It would be a grave mistake to reduce the issue of class inequality on campus to a lack of integration or understanding though. We have to remember that in the context of the class struggle these people genuinely do have different material interests that are not necessarily alligned. The goal should not be for working class students to be ‘assimilated’ into the the oppressive culture and institution that created this injustice in the first place, we need to talk about liberation. Wesleyan itself is a neoliberal institution predicated on perpetuating the hierarchical class structure of society plain and simple to – miss that is to leave an essential part of the puzzle unspoken.

    Big up to captain sneeze for getting the dialogue rolling

    • sneeze

      I agree! Though I do think that liberation of the kind you’re talking is only possible to a certain extent given that Wesleyan is a private institution–simply attending Wesleyan is an assimilation into the oppressive culture. That said, it would certainly be beneficial to Wesleyan and its students to recognize this and work (HARD) to move away from fitting so neatly in its perpetuation of societal structures.

      And thanks for the up, dear. In my experience, the Wesleyan student body, administration, and faculty shy away from conversations about money and class, making it difficult to even bring up the enumerable ways in which Wesleyan perpetuates the system.

  • anon

    Very well done, important discussion

  • sneezefan

    You’re rocking it, sneeze! All of your posts have been AWESOME.

  • Overdue

    thank you for this; much needed and well written!