On Aug. 26, I zipped up my suitcases, tearfully hugged my little brothers, gave my dogs one last squeeze, and flew 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to New York. A couple days later, I watched my parents reminisce as they dropped their first born off at college. It felt poetic, like the series finale of my childhood. I wasn’t nervous. I felt prepared, knowing I would instantly make tons of friends, join all sorts of clubs that I loved, and excel in all of my classes. College is the best four years of your life; what’s the point in worrying?
I quickly came to realize that I was far from prepared. The illusion of the prep school was shattered. Coming from a private, all-girls school, I’d been told I was over-prepared, that college would be a breeze, and if it wasn’t, I could just transfer. I’d been told I was the “perfect type for college,” that I’d settle in easily. I was bred into the illusion that I wouldn’t have to try.
But moving across the country, away from everything familiar, away from friends I’d made in elementary and middle school, away from parents who’d always protected me financially, is a lot harder than anyone made it out to be. When I found myself, a couple weeks in, calling friends and parents every day out of homesickness, I thought the best solution would be to contact every person I know who’d gone to my high school and ask if I was normal. I wanted to know how long it took them to make a close group of friends, how well they did in their classes, how happy they were. Their response was, again, that my high school should have prepared me. “Don’t worry! In a month from now you’ll be having the time of your life!”
After hearing responses like these about a dozen times, I became fully aware of how incredibly sheltered I was. As depressing as it may sound, the most important lesson I’ve learned from my first month at college is that I’m not special.
Recently, I’ve been thinking back through the six years I spent at my secondary school. I remember administrators telling my class that the opportunities given to us would put us ahead of other kids our age. I remember justifying doing homework until the early hours of the morning with my parents’ prideful reassurances that I worked harder than other 15-year-olds. I remember feeling that I was so “special,” so uniquely over-prepared, because I went to an elite LA private school. It was not until I arrived at Wesleyan that I realized this was an excuse, a way to justify my family’s enormous financial investment. I had learned to equate intelligence with the type of school I went to. Donning a pleated skirt and polo every morning and walking to class with better paid teachers obviously did not make me more capable than other students, but the people around me had convinced me it did.
Don’t get me wrong; there are definite privileges that come with private school education, especially in Los Angeles where public schools are grossly underfunded. In January of this year, LA teachers went on strike for seven days for better pay, smaller class sizes, and overall greater investment in each student. But coming to Wesleyan, I’ve noticed a clear logical fallacy. Over time, I had been taught that having better resources, facilities, etc. was synonymous with higher intelligence and greater capability in general. Even worse, it felt to me as if this incredibly elitist thinking went beyond academics. Subconsciously, I felt as if going to private school, with the vast majority of my friends also attending my or other private schools, made me more socially equipped.
I don’t think the private school system in LA or anywhere else is evil. I loved my high school; I love my friends; I loved my teachers. I don’t think this elitist way of teaching students to believe themselves superior is intentional or conscious. Furthermore, I know that not all private school students, from LA and elsewhere, have experienced this same phenomenon. However, for those that did, I think it’s important to recognize where this privilege and elitism lies. In the process of assimilating to Wesleyan, I’ve come to the quick realization that I am no better, no smarter, no more capable than any other student here. While I may have had access to better resources than my peers in the public school system in Los Angeles, there is no evidence that I tried harder, that I got smarter, that I’m more capable or deserving of being here.
While I believe this air of elitist, classist superiority is significantly better at Wesleyan than at my high school, it’s definitely still pervasive. I’ve come to recognize that the primary step in dismantling this type of thinking is to acknowledge that it exists, that we come into Wes with a variety of biases and assumptions about our own standing in relation to other students. While the problem of classism and elitism within the Wesleyan community probably runs much deeper than I’m aware of one month in, the first thing I can do to attempt to counteract it is reflect upon how my high school has influenced how I act in college, and I suggest that those experience similar feelings do the same.
Sophie Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.