Where are you from?

We have all asked and been asked this question countless times, whether in Usdan, at a party, or meeting someone new. In those first awkward moments, where you are fumbling for things to say you reach for the basic, seemingly rote questions like, “Where do you live on campus?,” “What classes are you taking?,” or “What’s your major?” But “Where are you from?,” desultory as it may seem in the moment you’re asking it, is actually a crucial question pertaining to both our identity as individuals and the identity of the University as a whole. 

While interviewing students for this article, one of the first questions I asked was whether they had noticed any geographic trends in the Wesleyan student body; most noted the robust population of kids from New York, California, and New England.

“I’ve found that a lot of people are from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles,” said Samantha Schreiber ’19.  “I’ve met a lot of people from other places, but it’s more just like one here, one there, not groups of people”

These personal experiences and observations are confirmed to be true when we look at the breakdown of the demographic the University’s admits state by state. According to data from the past four years, New York and California have in fact consistently supplied the highest volume of applicants, admits, and matriculants. With a range of 0.8 percent, the percentage of admitted applicants from New York State have comprised around 20 percent of each admitted class since the Class of 2016. 21.5 percent of all matriculants in the past four years come from New York. With a slightly larger range of 2.2 percent, California, meanwhile, has generally made up about 15 percent of admits, and 12.5 percent of our current student body.

When asked to explain these trends, students gave a wide range of answers, ranging from contextual to cultural, Long Islander Ella Israeli ‘17 wondered if the large population of states like New York and California factored into their sizable representation in the Wesleyan student body, and also whether Wes’s proximity to states in the Mid-Atlantic and New England drew students from those regions.

Dean of Admissions, Nancy Meislahn confirmed this. 

“First, remember that New York and California are two of the largest, most populous states in the country” she says “Research on college-going patterns tells us that most students attend college within about a 200 mile radius of their homes. Something like 80% of students in college in the US are enrolled either in their home state, or a contiguous state.”

On the other hand, Schreiber, a Brooklyn resident, proposed that the trend reflects the alignment of Wesleyan culture with coastal culture, particularly that of New York City.

“I think [Wes] is a very liberal school and people are very artsy and unique here which helps because New York is very eclectic, and I’ve heard Wesleyan described as an eclectic school,” she said.“The vibe that the Wesleyan gives off is similar…to one New Yorkers are attracted to.” 

Nic Fernandez ’19 who was raised in Inwood, a neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, echoed that sentiment, ascribing the large numbers of kids from NYC to the very hipster, very free, and very open spaces that are cropping up in New York due to gentrification and the similarity between those spaces and certain aspects of Wesleyan.

When we consider the circumstantial explanations alongside these cultural ones, we arrive at what is apparently a chicken and egg scenario. Does the “eclectic” or “hipster” element of Wesleyan’s culture cause the influx of students from coastal areas or does this influx produce the culture?

Alongside these influxes of students from New York and California are also deficits in representation from areas like the South and Midwest, which, according to the the Class of 2019 Profile, have consistently made up less than 10 percent of the admitted class. Connor Aberle ’19, from Mandeville, La.,  was one of the 7 percent of Southerners admitted to the Class of 2019. Like Schreiber and Fernandez, Aberle looks to cultural explanations to explain these trends in the data.

“People on [the coasts] value education differently” he said. “People in the South overemphasize STEM fields and affordable education, and I think people in the North look more towards, I don’t want to say quality, but a more specific education.”

After thinking about it for a moment, Aberle considered this issue in a broader context, extending outside of Wesleyan.

“I don’t know whether conservatism emphasizes pragmatism, whereas liberalism emphasizes idealism,” he said. “And institutions like Wesleyan are very idealistic, and STEM-oriented universities are more pragmatic.”

Aberle makes an interesting point that perhaps what dissuades Southerners from coming to the school isn’t so much the school itself, but rather the philosophy that underlies the kind of education it provides.

Aberle, Schreiber, and Fernandez are all first-year students, meaning that they have recently made transition into college. In each case the environments of their hometowns have played an important role in shaping their transition and their experiences at Wes.

One important factor that can affect a student’s transition into college is the number people they know either entering the University from their class or who already attend the school. Aberle, for example, knew no one at the start of his first semester, while Schreiber, who comes from a neighborhood where the University is highly popular, knew 10 kids in the class of 2019 alone and 10 more upperclassmen. During her first few months at Wes these relationships proved useful in acclimating to life in college.

“It think it helped me a lot because…I had a lot of resources,” she said. “If I was lost or scared, I had people who had been through [similar experiences] that I could go to. In terms of the new students, there were other people who were just as flustered or stressed or scared as I was, but I already knew them so we could sort of stick together and navigate [Wes].”

As Claudia Kahindi ’18, an international student from Kilifi, Kenya, explained, not knowing anyone coming into Wes can make matters more difficult.

“It took me a while to have friends, and then there is always thing you don’t know as a freshmen that you need help with, and the people you help you out are usually the people you know,” she said.“I struggled a lot with classes and resources.”

Kahindi added that after arriving at the University, she was able to find some help.

“There was a senior, a Nigerian-American…and she helped me a lot even though we were not from the same country,” she said.

Underlying Kahindi’s friendship with this senior demonstrates a recurring theme: geographic origin can serve as an important point of connection for burgeoning friendships. Aberle, for example, notes that he feels a special bond with people who are also from the South.

“It’s like having a distant cousin,” he said. “What I think is unique about the south compared to New York State is that it’s so spread out. I can relate to a Texan but I’ve never even been to Texas…as opposed to New York and Westchester where I feel like you occupy very much the same space often. When I’m stuck with my Southern friend in a room [where] two New Yorkers are relating, we feel together in that.”

Not everybody, however, finds these geographic divides to be particularly present in social life. Khephren Spigner ’18, from Laguna Hills, Calif., attributes the mixing of students from different geographic areas to the University’s small size.

“Socially [geography] has hindered nothing between social groups” Spigner said. “Wesleyan is so small it creates an instant cohesion between everyone as we are all we have in Middletown.”

Talking about geographic diversity can easily become nothing but a cold, statistical state-versus-state comparison. And while this data may be interesting and reflective of larger trends within the student body, these statistics have little meaning if we don’t consider what it truly means to come from New York or Kansas or Kenya.

“With geographic diversity also comes other kinds of diversity, like socioeconomic diversity, racial diversity, and religious diversity,” Israeli said. “ All of these things come with geographic diversity but at the same time you don’t need geographic diversity to achieve those things.”

Israeli’s comment urges us to be cautious of using generalities to erase the intricacies of individual experience. For example, Israeli described her hometown of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island as “a red dot in a sea of blue” during the most recent election, essentially challenging the potential assumption that kids from New York are automatically raised in a liberal environment.

Essentially, it all boils down to perspective rather than simply filling quotas for each state, a distinction Meislahn was quick to make.

[It’s] not so much [about] the state or zip code but what can others learn from students with very different lifestyles and backgrounds?” she said. “To put a finer point on it, think about someone who grew up in the middle of the Adirondacks, attended a regional public school (with a graduating class of less than 50) and had go to the local community college to take calculus (not offered at the high school)—from New York, yes, but what a difference from life at a comprehensive high school on Long Island or a private school in Manhattan!”

These different perspectives can even be seen within the same town or city. New York City, for example, is a big, diverse place, and within that vast  social framework, someone’s experience is shaped by the neighborhood they come from and the kind of school they go to.

“I feel like although I’m from New York City, because I’m from a lower socioeconomic neighborhood, I don’t necessarily get the same experience as someone from the Upper East Side,” said Nic Fernandez who graduated of the High School for Math Science and Engineering at City College, a specialized public school in Manhattan.

In addition to socioeconomic differences, Fernandez also ascribed this difference to educational opportunity.

“There’s a difference in education-level, not just between high school and college, but while within college,” he said. “I see kids party from Friday to Saturday and yet still get their homework done, but I can’t balance social scene life and academic life as well as kids who already know the rigor or who already understand how to balance that.”

When asked outright if the University was geographically diverse, students had varying opinions. Some, like Aberle, said no, while others like Schreiber, Fernandez and Spigner, didn’t seem to think it was as pressing of a problem.

For Aberle, the lack of people from the South compared to New York comes at the detriment of the diversity of discussion and thought that permeates the campus.

“Where you grow up greatly affects the way you think and the way you process that information and when that is missing on campus you can only have so complete a conversation,” he said.“You are missing a certain element.” 

Brooklyn-raised Tyler Clarke ’18, who works as Overnight Housing Coordinator for the Admissions Office, has views similar to those of Schreiber and Fernandez: she doesn’t think geographic diversity is particularly divisive. She is, however, also careful to distinguish that where you are from might also play a major part in how you view the issue.

“I personally don’t find it a problem, [but] being from New York definitely makes that easier,” she said. “I can imagine that other students want more geographic diversity which is definitely understandable.”

The Admissions Office seems to be aware of these geographic defecits and are currently working to create more diversity through a variety of initiatives.

“Currently, VA, MD, IL, FL and TX are high-priority recruitment states for us,” Meislahn said.  “We have increased our presence, actively recruiting and traveling to visit students, schools and community-based organizations. [We] place a high priority on students from these states for transportation assistance (TAP) to come to Open Houses in the fall and to come to WesFest or visit another time in April.”

Kahindi was quick to point out that the solutions to problems of geographic diversity, particularly for international students, don’t necessarily lie in the admissions process.

“Instead of having geographical diversity, I think Wesleyan should first take care of the students who are here right now,” she said. “Wesleyan should ensure that the life of international students is a good one because then they will not even need to source for geographic diversity because we will spread the word.”

In the broader picture, for Kahindi, geographical diversity should be only a secondary priority, especially compared to the quality of life at the University.

“[Wesleyan] should not just have geographical diversity for statistics,” she said.“They should try to make our lives here meaningful”

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