I usually start my opinions with a short story or a setting, something to evoke the tone. Writing about classism in the application, I recounted when my college interviewer sat across from me and said that I should pay for five round-trip flights. When I wrote the piece about social life and wood-frame houses, I described the shitty apartment that I shared with two friends where the landlord stole my laundry money and left black mold in the dishwasher for a few months. To set the tone for this piece, I’ll share when I sobbed in the ResLife office.
I had gone in to discuss the shutdown of Haven Hall (Wesleyan’s only first gen/low-income hall) and to see what we might be able to do to save it or reopen it later. I was going to be composed and direct, but then she asked me what I felt and it all came gushing out in one horrifying display of emotion. I could not get my lip to stop quivering or my voice to stop cracking. She got up and grabbed the tissue box. You know, the capital-T Tissue Box, and at that point I knew it was over for me. So much for composure. She was kind and understanding and told me all of the reasons that they had shut down Haven Hall.
Maybe you can’t relate to my experiences, but you could relate to my emotions. That’s the first trick of opinion writing. Getting the reader to feel is the first step to making them care about the opinion’s main issue. “There is an economy of outrage on this campus.” This is what I told the ResLife director. This was my excuse for why I made an emotional, angry post on Facebook. Outrage is only so useful because something else will eventually come up and then we will all be outraged together over that. So, once I hook onto outrage for that fleeting moment, I try to make it count.
The next step in writing these pieces is to provide context. Haven Hall is a program hall located in the basement of the Nicolson 6 dorm and is intended for first-gen and/or low-income students. It also guarantees housing over school breaks to its residents. Recently, ResLife sent out an email to students who were going to live there next semester claiming that there was not enough interest. The email elaborated that students were selecting to live there for the location rather than the mission of the hall.
I posted this email on Facebook in the WesAdmits groups, saying that I was disappointed in my university for shutting this program down because it erases one of the only spaces on campus meant for first gen/low-income students. In the post, I also suggested that Haven was not receiving traction because it was located in the basement of Nics, where upperclassmen likely did not want to live.
Now it’s argument construction time. A well-constructed argument should be a catalyst for channeling the outrage, so that it doesn’t go to waste, so that it doesn’t fizzle out into complacency. I thought the argument for this would be self-evident, but apparently it is not.
I talked with the director of ResLife, and they explained their rationale. I want to be clear that I am not attempting to work in opposition to any one individual or any one group on campus. If we are going to be outraged, I want to channel it productively, which entails engaging with an issue critically. That is what I’m attempting to do here. So, I will present the opposing argument fairly in order to gain trust from my audience.
Here are the reasons ResLife gave me for closing down Haven Hall. First, Haven Hall was closed down because there was not enough interest (only one-fourth of residents would have been there for the mission). Second, Haven was set up as a hall rather than a house because they were concerned with the safety of students during breaks (wood-frame houses are more likely to get broken into). Third, ResLife suspects that the lack of interest was not due to its being a hall (the rationale here is that it used to be Film Hall and that Film Hall had no lack of applications). Fourth, they suspect that the lack of interest was due to first-gen/low-income students not wanting to “out themselves” as first-gen and low-income.
And here’s the part where I address each of those points one by one.
In regard to Haven not being a house because of safety issues, this seems an easy enough solution to fix. Right now, students who live in houses that apply to live on campus during the break remain in their houses, given that there are enough people living there for it to be safe. If Haven were a house, I would assume that the same rules would apply. If there were enough people for it to be safe, then they would be able to stay in the house. If not, they would have to be moved to a hall temporarily for the break. Safety issue solved.
Additionally, making a comparison between Haven and Film Hall is not fair. Film was likely a topic with much more interest since there are likely more students interested in film than there are first-gen/low-income students. To make the assertion that first-gen/low-income students are afraid of “outing themselves” is an odd point to me. I have never heard an actual first-gen/low-income student use this term. Just to test this, a friend of mine made an informal poll on the First-Class Facebook page. So far, every person who responded has indicated that they avoided Haven Hall specifically because it was not a house. When asked, only one person expressed that they were worried about being identified by their peers as first-gen/low-income. This indicates that both arguments—that students were not concerned about its being a hall and that students were worried about being “outed”—were false assumptions.
Once I’ve engaged with opposing arguments, I present my own.
This is related to a rhetoric of space. Rules about who can occupy what spaces indicate how the institution values different people. Right now, Haven is arguably the only physical space that first-gen/low-income students have to themselves on campus. And it feels very much like a centralized hub of information, community, and knowledge for helping students who have not traditionally had that space on this campus. In addition to this, Haven was given a certain amount of funding every year—funding which went toward events and community building that affected people inside and outside of the hall. The funding and space have been taken away from Haven because of lack of interest, which was inevitable given Haven’s location. I think that this small space that Haven was allowed to occupy is being taken away while spaces which are seemingly menial in comparison (take Full House for example) are allowed to exist and thrive unquestioned.
Now that I have gotten you to be both emotionally and mentally invested, now that I have hopefully gotten you to care; this is the part where I present a solution, some form of action that you can take to help. And what a coincidence: like so many times in the past, I do have a solution to present.
ResLife said that in order for Haven to reopen, we would need to get 20 people to agree to live there. This is over capacity for the hall, but they wanted to make sure that they can completely fill it. ResLife means that if we want Haven Hall to reopen exactly as it was, this is all we need to do. But I don’t think that restoring Haven Hall to its present state is the best course of action. Rather, I would suggest a few things. Firstly, I would make it a house. I know this is a lot to ask for. Houses don’t just crop up out of nowhere, but this is the only way to get upperclassmen interested in Haven. If safety is an issue, it would be no problem to apply the same rules that ResLife currently applies to other occupied houses during the break to Haven.
Also, Haven should be open to freshmen, like Writer’s Block and 200 Church. This way, freshmen who are interested in joining the community will have access to the resources and support they need to navigate an unfamiliar environment. This all sounds nice, but what I think it will take for this to get accomplished is a lot more than Wesleyan is ready to handle.
Now that I have offered a solution for readers to support, I am supposed to construct a snappy or inspiring ending to wrap everything up. But I don’t think that I can do that this time. I have constructed this story many times now with the same formula. It is designed to get students and admins invested in something, it is designed to help people go from outrage to action, but the fact of the matter is…it doesn’t particularly work.
Wesleyan is built around systems which historically favor the wealthy. Income has only recently come into the public consciousness as an issue that needs to be addressed. As a result, the first-gen/low-income students are still a heavily circumscribed group on campus. I don’t know how to change that. For students, outrage is easy to come by, but rarely is it channeled towards actual change. Perhaps this issue is in vogue right now, maybe you are outraged, maybe you want to help. But that all eventually fades. Haven, too, will fade from the public consciousness. Student will forget, activists will get tired of working against the systems in place that making propping up such a program difficult. Articles such as this, which put on a façade of completely understanding an issue and arguing for its advocacy are only another drop in the outrage ocean. I can hope that this article will incite real change, but it is a naive hope. We can try to bring Haven back, but the likely reality is that next year Haven will still be a thing of the past. That is the formula. That is how it works.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.