It felt that if I were to reach out my hand, I could touch the tension in the infamous WSA general assembly meeting that took place on Sunday, Feb. 15. I gave a quick glance around the room, scanning faces, and then re-fixed my eyes on a unique pattern in the carpet on the floor in front of me. I listened to the words being spoken, recognizing the heavy emotion and trying to decipher what was being said.
And then, after a confrontation between a few students, an accusation of classism shattered the glass. The conversation erupted into chaos. A mass exodus left me in the room with half of the WSA. The rest were outside the front door, some screaming, others fanned out through Usdan.
The fight in the WSA started with a proposal for a resolution to provide more resources for first generation students. Some WSA members started asking about how we could assist the parents of first generation students. A few students thought that the nature of the conversation was insensitive, others thought that the proposals to help the parents were valid.
The conflict was all about classism, the nearly unspoken undercurrent that lies underneath much of the activism here at Wesleyan. The definition of classism is prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes, policies, and treatment towards a socio-economic group. What this means is a lot more difficult to pin down. I propose that a lot of classism conflicts here at Wesleyan are about misunderstanding due to underrepresentation of first generation students and the ignorance of those who had parents who went to college, not because of any overt malicious intent.
I can’t speak directly about what it feels like to be a first generation student. I only have stories told to me. One student’s family couldn’t understand why they were going to college and were very unsupportive of the decision. Another student’s parents are supportive, but work so long and hard that they don’t have the time, ability, or energy to learn about Wesleyan, and simply can’t come to campus for a visit. Many of these students come to college without much or any support network, and feel like they don’t truly belong. This was reinforced for some first generation students at the WSA meeting where it was insinuated that there is something “wrong” with them and their families.
But I can speak directly about what it was like to come to college and feel like I did not truly belong, that there was something wrong with me. I’m 30 years old, at least a decade older than the students in my class. I couldn’t help but think that I should have graduated from college eight years ago, and constantly ask myself where I messed up in my life.
Don’t get me wrong: coming to Wesleyan (an unbelievable opportunity that I’m immensely grateful to have) with other veterans was a relatively easy transition; I have an excellent support network. My scholarship, The Posse Foundation, did an outstanding job preparing me to come here. And the students and faculty here have been more than welcoming, so there should be no reason why I feel like an outsider. Needless to say I fully support giving extra resources, especially a longer orientation for incoming first year students, because they were so invaluable to my successful integration into campus.
But there are times that I still feel like a real outsider because of my age, and it isn’t for any logical reason. I recognize that I simply took a different path in life, one that taught me a lot and benefited me greatly. The fact that this feeling defies all logic only adds more frustration. But there are days, or periods of time, where I wonder if I am only pretending that I’m here at Wesleyan. That I’m a 30-year old in the WSA, a 30-year old writing for a college newspaper, a 30-year old sitting in classes that I should have mastered a dozen years ago. I sit in my room and wonder why I am doing this, and if I shouldn’t just relegate myself to being a quiet student on campus, happy to have this opportunity. By recusing myself from campus I could avoid some of those painful questions.
In this sense, I do know what it is like to be a first generation student, who doesn’t feel like they quite fit in. When over half of the student population can afford a tuition that is more than what most Americans make in a year, one can’t be surprised that there is a bit of culture shock for students who are here on aid. This is the classism: Wesleyan is a school for the rich, and many of our institutions are set up with affluent students in mind.
It is important to recognize that every student had to work hard to get into Wesleyan, poor and rich alike—which makes classism at this University difficult to understand. Rich students didn’t necessarily have an easier path to Wesleyan, they just received better preparation. Private schools, neighborhoods with little to no crime, parents who have experienced college in America and who are therefore able to provide a different type of advice and support. Similarly, every student sits in the same classes, has the same homework assignments, writes the same papers and takes the same tests—there is no classism there.
It is also important to understand there should be no feelings of guilt from coming from a wealthy family. It is noble for parents to try to set up their children with benefits. Classism is not about jealousy, even though sometimes it comes across that way.
Instead, it is that worry of not belonging, which feels a like a knot in the stomach. At times it can be ignored and hidden; there is no visible identifier of a student on financial aid, and there is a certain amount of comfort in being able to hide it. But when that worry is exposed, as it was in the WSA meeting, it can be extremely emotional and unnerving.
This is all to say that simply talking about classism at Wesleyan is a minefield, emotions run high and deep. It is a lot easier to point and say there is a problem, to draw awareness to the problem, without actually talking about the problem itself.
I will say this though: graduates of Wesleyan go off to be leaders in this country. We become CEOs, politicians, movie directors, authors, writers, thinkers. Wesleyan has something to offer everyone, regardless of class. Wealthy students need to know what the struggles are for those who are poor so they can be more effective, empathetic, and socially responsible leaders. Cross communication is critical.
The wealthy students need to understand that first generation students don’t need, or want, to be treated like charity cases. They worked extremely hard to get here. They rightfully earned their place.
First generation students need to realize that rich kids didn’t skate through their private schools and jump off their private jets onto Wesleyan’s campus with martinis in their hands. They worked extremely hard to get here as well, and almost always have positive intent when talking about first generation issues.
We simply come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives that we need to learn and understand. We all own a piece of the puzzle and it is our responsibility, especially those of us in leadership positions on campus, to talk about that piece of the puzzle we own without becoming emotional, and without becoming insensitive. We owe it to each other.
My favorite motto of all time is “failure is not an option.” When these conversations become difficult, when those emotions start bubbling to the surface, we need to keep that in mind. I understand if some students can’t stay in the conversation and have to leave the room—that is not a failure. But up until that point we need to keep our heads on straight, and those who can remain in the room need to press on. Those who choose to be spokespeople for their respective causes should be commended for their bravery and effort. In these difficult conversations, it is important to remember that classism at Wesleyan is mostly due to ignorance, not malice, and as a result the only way to combat it is to talk through it.
There was failure in the WSA meeting by everyone who was in the room that night, one that I hope is never repeated. The leaders on campus have a responsibility to educate others, as the subject matter experts. Going from zero to being offended and confrontational in twenty minutes is simply not an option for leaders, and ignoring signs that the conversation may be encroaching on sensitive territory is also not an option.
Stascavage is a member of the Class of 2018.