I’ll never forget my first day of basic training in the Army. I had just cleared reception battalion, a horrific in-processing experience that was roughly equivalent to spending an entire week trapped inside of the DMV. My fellow recruits and I were herded onto what they called a cattle truck, which was exactly as luxurious as it sounds, and dropped off in front of our company headquarters.
There we stood, all 150 of us, shoulder-to-shoulder, and a lone drill sergeant ordered us to stare straight ahead. The drill sergeant then disappeared and for a second, a wave of calm washed over the company.
Then, as if the air itself cracked and exploded, there was an eruption of energy behind me. What felt like 30 drill sergeants, in their uniforms and signature green hats, appeared out of nowhere and started screaming. Since we had been ordered to stare straight ahead, my vision was locked to where my eyes could move. Just inside my field of vision, a drill sergeant stood nose-to-nose with a recruit and started screaming at him.
“You want to play games? I like games! I call this game push-ups!”
The recruit dropped and started doing push-ups, tiring quickly.
“Oh, are your arms tired? That’s okay, I have a cure for that. Flutterkicks, go!”
The recruit spun around on his back and began kicking his legs.
It was a shock-and-awe introduction into life in the military and a way for the drill sergeants to see who needed their special attention. I distinctly remember muttering under my breath that it felt like a bee attack, the drill sergeants swarming around and stinging anything they didn’t like. And they didn’t like any of us.
After what seemed like an eternity, the drill sergeants had us move into a horseshoe formation around them.
“You have joined your nation’s army in a time of war, and for that you already have our respect. Whether you realize it or not, most of you will find yourself in a warzone within a year, and yet you still signed up.” The drill sergeant then explained we had already earned three ribbons simply by being willing to go to war.
I don’t know if this was a psychological tactic, correction then affection, or if they genuinely had respect for us, but I’ll never forget that sentiment. Individuals who are not forced, but decide, to do something that betters themselves and those around them deserve our respect.
Over the next nine weeks we learned that it didn’t matter what our backgrounds were or where we came from; we were to respect each other. The drill sergeants pounded it into our heads that race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic background were no longer dividers between us; we were all equal. That our promotions would be based off of who was the best at their job and worked for it, not based off of any privileges or lack thereof. Rich or poor, white or non-white, religious or atheist, we had one thing in common: We were going to be brothers and sisters in combat, and we needed to depend on each other.
Wesleyan shares a similarity to the army; we come here from all different backgrounds. No matter our race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, we exit with the same thing: a diploma worth about $250,000 in tuition. That is an asset we will all leave here with in our back pocket, a huge privilege over most Americans and, at the bare minimum, will enable us to keep ourselves and our families out of poverty.
Additionally, this University teaches us that we have a moral obligation to use that privilege to help cure the evils in this world: being ethical in our financial decisions on Wall Street, working in government to remove discriminatory laws, working directly with the poor, or working in STEM fields to develop new technologies that will benefit all. Each and every one of us will leave here with that power; it doesn’t matter where we came from, and the only person that can stop you is you.
The problems on campus seem to arise from the unearned privileges that we tend to focus on, while ignoring the glaring fact that we all earned a rare privilege as soon as we were accepted here. In particular, it seems, the rich receive harsh criticism for their unearned privilege of wealth.
But when I look at the privileged rich class, I see two distinct groups: those that we feel are using their money to better the world around them, and those that are not. Elon Musk uses his money to develop high-end, environmentally friendly vehicles and further space exploration. Bill Gates used his abilities to put a computer in almost every home, and now uses his fortune to fight disease and poverty. The Kennedy family used their “unearned privilege” to become elected officials. We want our rich to be these larger-than-life characters who use their privilege the “right” way.
On the other hand, we scorn those who use their money to buy jackets that cost more than a year’s worth of textbooks, or individuals like Martin Shkreli who use their power for greed. They use their privilege the “wrong” way, though one can certainly make the case that students purchasing the expensive jackets are keeping several middle-class jobs alive. If you don’t believe me, think about all of the materials and labor required to produce, transport, and sell the jackets, and what those jobs pay.
The rich have a choice of how they use their privileges. I return to the lesson my drill sergeant taught me: the rich students decided to come to this school knowing its reputation for promoting liberal values and social justice. Sure, it may be a fallback school for those who weren’t able to get into the Ivy Leagues, but for many, they made the conscious decision to come to this school to learn in order to use their privilege for good. They could have gone to a state school (or no school at all) and used their last name to shove into an upper-middle class job via nepotism, becoming one of those bosses that we all love to hate.
So what does that leave us with? Privilege can be good or bad, based on intent. A white student who graduates and starts a company that hires based on meritocracy and an appreciation for diversity is a win. A poor student who overcomes student debt, returns home, and helps improve the standard of living for their family and their neighbors is also a win.
“Privilege” should no longer be a dirty word, as it acts as a derisive force that creates conflict and shuts down conversation. Instead, it should be viewed as a tool, albeit one that can be used for good or for bad, and we should leap at the opportunity to help each other be better citizens. We should encourage a community inspired by Bill and Melinda Gates, not by Shkreli.
Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.