In the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, The Argus will feature personal essays on how life has change in strange, scary, or surprising ways. If you have a hot take, a serious reflection, a funny anecdote, or anything in between, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Universal Pass/Fail and Where I Stand
I want to make it very clear that I am not telling people that universal pass/fail (UPF) is the appropriate choice, but I would like to share my personal opinions and stance on it because, for the longest time, I had felt conflicted and, in a way, continue to remain so regarding the potential implementation of this UPF grading system.
Hesitancy initially turned me off from the concept of a universal pass/fail as I became fearful of the implications. Not only did it seemingly erase all the hard work that I had put towards improving my grades, but would graduate or medical schools take such grades? Would a letterless grading system put me at a disadvantage when competing with my peers at other institutions?
Who am I: Imposter’s Syndrome
I am speaking first and foremost as Elizabeth. While I am a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student of color, I do not and cannot speak for all FGLI students, students of color, or for any other group as I am only a single person, a single voice, with a singular perspective as a first year.
When it comes to investing in education, it is predominantly placed on the back burner. The reason is simple: Most students do not finish college. This is the type of community I grew up, where graduating high school is already a major life achievement. By finishing high school, many are already in a better position than their immigrant parents who never even had the opportunity of an American education.
Surprisingly, news of my acceptance to an elite institution like Wesleyan elicited varied and nuanced responses that I had not anticipated. Most were supportive, but lingering skepticism also remained in those who questioned the value of college, with some even discouraging me from applying to colleges, especially to ones like Wesleyan.
At first glance, it may be difficult to understand this pessimism, but these individuals who challenged my decision foresaw the impact of being thrust into a world in which I was not prepared for.
Yet for me, the decision to attend college was never about furthering my job prospective, nor the prestige, but rather the opportunity to escape a toxic environment and find a home that would accept and challenge me to think in ways I never considered.
I knew coming in, especially to a school like Wesleyan, that I would struggle tremendously. But I did not realize the full extent of that struggle, which left me feeling a myriad of emotions challenging me both physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The truth is, I have been struggling to succeed academically here since day one. For most, college is a difficult transition in a multitude of ways. Despite knowing this, I could not help but feel stupid, incompetent, and utterly inadequate.
Feelings of shame and guilt began to consume me. Here I was at a school like Wesleyan, yet not succeeding like the people around me seemed to be. I felt that I had no one to blame but myself for my own shortcomings. I was completely blowing it and had taken the seat of someone much more qualified, that I didn’t have anything to contribute to this campus. I began to believe that someone such as myself did not belong at a school like Wesleyan.
The Weight of Privilege and How I Hold It
However, being at Wes is such a privilege that I hold gratefully in my heart every day. Opening my acceptance letter from Wes was a moment that I will never forget as fear dissipated like a shooting star, replaced by feelings of excitement and disbelief. I never believed that I could afford college, let alone have the privilege of choosing a college like Wesleyan!
At the same time, I did not realize how much I had to sacrifice coming to such a school. At first, they were tangible things, like socializing and extracurriculars, but eventually, it became more personal as I found myself suppressing parts of my past and history. Not only did I share less about my family, but I began speaking to them less. The more time I spent at Wes, the less I began to have in common with my family. I became self-conscious of the way I spoke and the hobbies I enjoyed. I changed some of my values to please the people around me. It often feels like this school was not built for people like me, from the current response of the administration to concerns students have about not implementing UPF.
Most of my professors are STEM-based and they to me feel less forgiving when it comes to grades, homework, and assignments. They are amazing and super supportive, but extra credit isn’t really a thing and extensions are hard to come by when there is only one answer and other students don’t want to wait on you. This is just the reality of it – it doesn’t match up to the ideal world that is often advertised to FGLI students like myself. And perceptions and norms of classes carry a lot of weight—like how you are expected to do well in classes that you are passionate about, while seemingly balancing hundreds of other extracurriculars. For example, to some of my professors it seems like a “Pass” might as well be a D-, when someone may have done just as much work as getting a B- to earn that pass grade.
Inequities That Persist In Education
In a time like this, we need to stick together more than ever and support each other, but how can you do that if you first aren’t taking care of your needs?
This pandemic has given me a lot of time to reflect on the inequities that have always been present in society, but can no longer be “swept under the rug.” A few issues that have come to my mind recently are:
Speaking sincerely as a student who has lost her mind because of grades, I want us to reevaluate our opinions about how much grades matter. I know there has been a call for action to change grading policies at other institutions, but how can we expect others to change when we are unwilling to accept change ourselves? Everything in our world is in a constant state of flux, of change, right now. Some of these feel almost disheartening. And because of all of this, I’ve realized the true fragility of life itself.
Why are we bickering with our families over a Wi-fi connection, rather than using this moment to sit, talk, and communicate about the topics that you never had time to address because of the fast-paced culture within America? Discussions about fears, hopes, and plans for the future are vital, but far too often deferred. Now is the time to question what really matters right now. I know people who work in healthcare and essential services, who I cannot help, but worry and hope for them every day. I believe that it’s a selfish thing to have to worry about something as trivial as grades when many others have had that luxury stripped away from them. We need to focus less on the tangible and more on the connections we have with others, because we never know when we may lose them.
My Worries For the Future
In an environment that is very collaborative, we often forget that Wes is truly a school with high standards and hard academics. Whether you are FGLI or someone who is paying full tuition, you have all worked hard to be here and continue to do so. Not everyone has the opportunity to make their GPA look good especially during a time like this when much more than wealth matters. We are all human, but society does not put us all on equal standing. Honestly, I have struggled a lot during my time at Wes. Throughout this year, I have never felt like I was able to just fully learn, it was just driven by grades which made me miserable. I would enjoy the content, but the exams would utterly gut and destroy me. I want to go to medical or graduate school one day, but sometimes I worry I have so many barriers to overcome that I won’t be able to achieve my dreams. As much as the American Dream is a goal for many of us, reality often gets in the way. And this pandemic has made everything worse.
What I Believe Our Moral Imperative Should Be
That brings me to the idea of why mandatory pass/fail is the equitable choice for Wes.
The uncertainty is definitely scary. But at this point in time, inequality has become too much for Wes to morally allow the status quo. It is time for radical change. All students are going through difficulties and changes right now, so UPF would impact more than just FGLI students; academic struggles do not discriminate and can impact anyone. To me, choosing is a privilege and the term is very loaded. Having the choice and option to attend Wesleyan as a school to me feels like a privilege in itself, and reminds me that success is subjective. Even with all my struggles at Wes, I am perceived as wildly more successful than people I went to high school with, yet significantly less successful than some of my peers or many Wes graduates. Success depends on background, on context, and on setting. And the setting students are learning in now is significantly different than what it was for any other semester.
Why I Support the UPF
With UPF, at first, I was neutral and unsure because I personally see both the benefits and risks, until speaking with other students from other institutions. Talking with FGLI students and other students from peer institutions showed me that other schools are recognizing the necessity of a UPF system as the most equitable option. The matter of fact is that all students want to succeed, especially Wesleyan students. You all are most definitely the smartest and kindest bunch of people I have ever come to known. I am tremendously grateful for such a community. But the circumstances of everyone’s situations have changed, and because of this, we need to change our thinking and our system to help the most vulnerable: not necessarily FGLI, but those that can and have been impacted by COVID-19.
I recognize that other institutions are not and will never be Wesleyan; however, that same drive to learn and to succeed can be found across liberal arts colleges and peer institutions alike. In fact, many of those schools are recognizing that a UPF system does not detract from students’ motivation, but instead levels the playing field back to what it may have been when learning was as normal. In all honesty, at a place like Wes professors will also work to help in any way they can and get students the support they need to pass regardless of the grading system.
Although some FGLI students view grades as an empowering equalizer, many now do not have the same resources to access that success. This inequity is not unique to FGLI students, but any individual because no one is immune to the uprooting elicited by COVID-19. People are losing their jobs, dying, at risk of eviction, along with many other inhumane sufferings.
For some grades may be the one factor that a student has control over, but it is important to note what a privilege this is to be able to have such worries this time of crisis.
Diving in the Deep End: Uncertainties
I fully understand the impact that this UPF system will have on the entire student body and the last thing I want to do is take away this liberty to choose. The truth is, there is no guarantee of how this will play out. I’m not asking people to jeopardize their future. All the concerns people have against UPF are valid! However, we have to look outside our own lives to the bigger picture.
This is an unprecedented term. People are facing many different struggles and adjusting to a reality we never thought we would see. And we all have different needs. A UPF system is the best way to accommodate those needs and allow students to focus on what is most important, which for many may not be grades, but instead surviving and staying safe and healthy. Some people are in a less privileged position than others, and those differences are starker now more than ever. The term privilege has a very negative connotation when in reality, it is simply a marker of accessibility. It’s all on a spectrum. It simply boils down to this—some people have more privilege than others, and that is simply reality. Everyone holds some degree of privilege. In actuality, privilege is very fluid and ever-changing: You are born with a certain amount, but you can also gain or lose some.
I also think we are all missing the point of how this will not extend beyond one semester. Rather, this is an unprecedented semester! In an ideal world, no one would be faulted for choosing a pass over a grade, but the reality is that many on track for an A would not choose a pass. With the UPF, no one can fault a student for their decision. GPA serves as a way to measure success, yet in reality, they seem to reproduce oppression as it encourages students to meet the standards of what is expected for the majority. What is best for the majority is not always equitable. Just as my struggles cannot force others to bend to my will, the privilege others hold should not be the sole determining factor in a decision as impactful as UPF.
Thank you everyone who has read this, thank you to the people who have supported me. Thank you for doing your best during a time like this, whether it’s in your classes or taking care of your family or yourself, thank you. We’ve all had to make sacrifices and big changes and we all deserve to be recognized for our achievements. I truly believe that all students have the capacity to thrive and do amazing things, but this is an extenuating circumstance!
All of you are so tremendously strong. We are all going through something difficult at the moment, so don’t discredit your struggles (no matter how small they may seem), but also please do not discourage others due to your frustrations. Wesleyan is lucky to have you!
Call to Action
This pandemic has invoked many questions, but one question I find myself coming back to is this: why shouldn’t we try to make society more equitable? The cold hard truth and reality of it is that we are never going to achieve 100% equity; we live in a democracy, not a utopia. But that does not mean we should stop trying, because I believe that the whole purpose of democracy is to underscore the value of chasing your dreams, fighting for what’s right, and getting as close to equity as possible. My idea of Americanism and democracy may be different, but that is the beauty of living in America and especially being a Wes student. As an institution with principles rooted in equity, I believe it is our responsibility to at least make an attempt to promote and facilitate an equitable environment.
This pandemic has impacted everyone in a multitude of ways. To be honest, I am afraid, but hopeful. I am certain everything will get better, but when? No one knows and this is the difficult part. But we do not have to wait in complacency. Instead, we must ask ourselves, what can we do to create a better future?
I very much encourage students to think about their own experiences and what would really be best for them, but also to consider others who are vulnerable. I want all of you to stand up and make this decision for yourself, and for us to make this decision together. If we have the option to do more, then why not do it?
Elizabeth Ouanemalay can be reached at email@example.com.