c/o Andrew Lu, Assistant Photo Editor

c/o Andrew Lu, Assistant Photo Editor

One day in the middle of the summer, I was aimlessly scrolling on TikTok when I came upon a former Wesleyan student ridiculing the school’s social life to no end. She described a divide between athletes and non-athletes that was so deeply ingrained in the culture that the dining hall itself was divided into rooms based on this distinction, as if the division was promoted by the school itself. Arriving on campus in the fall, I almost immediately noticed this in most sectors of social life, including in the dining hall. Shared eating spaces seem to be incredibly telling of the social makeup of a broader community, and exploring who we choose to complete the sacred act of eating with can say a lot about who we choose to surround ourselves with. 

So, when tasked with the job of conducting original ethnographic fieldwork and research on campus less than three weeks into my first semester, I turned to this divide in the dining hall for inspiration and answers, hoping to capture in tangible observations and data what I had experienced culturally since arriving at Wes. 

My original idea was simple: ask every person in the dining hall if they were an athlete or not, divide these results by table and location in the hall, and analyze these findings in the hopes of drawing some conclusions from the data. And so, that is what I did. I managed to drag myself out of bed by noon on a Sunday morning to survey over 200 diners enjoying their Usdan brunch. 

I will not bore you with the details of the exact methodology of my research—that is unimportant, at least here. Instead, let’s start in the middle of the action: I am halfway done with my survey work, moving from Usdan’s “quiet side” to its “loud side.” I will admit, I was terrified to leave the comfort of the dining room I ate in myself over 90% of the time. The idea that the athletes who ate on the “loud side” were big, scary, cliquey, exclusive, unfriendly, uninviting, and rude had been reinforced since before I matriculated. Interacting with every diner on the side of the dining hall associated with athletics was not a pleasant thought. But I wasn’t willing to let my research die so soon, and so I timidly made the trek to the world of the “loud side” and began my survey of its inhabitants. What I found there, however, shocked me and led me to reevaluate my beliefs surrounding the athlete-non-athlete divide at Wes.

Unsurprisingly, there were significantly more athletes on the “loud side” than on the “quiet side.” It was not the numbers that were so intriguing, but rather the diners’ reactions to my posing of the survey question. Most of the non-athletes scoffed or chuckled when I asked them if they were athletes, as if the divide between the groups was so large that the idea that I would even be asking that question seemed absurd. The athletes on the other hand did not seem put off by my question at all, and answered very earnestly, as if they did not expect me to assume they were athletes. From conversations and observations, most non-athletes seem to blame athletes for the divide between the groups, but these differing responses to my survey question may show otherwise. Obviously, this is a generalization. But the trends that governed my fieldwork illustrated curious differences in attitude between the groups. Was this because most non-athletes had experienced unpleasant interactions with athletes? Did they feel excluded? Or were predispositions about athletes taking over? The mechanics of the first two explanations are easier to understand, so I focused my attention on the third. 

As the athletes streamed out of the loud side in groups beside me, and non-athletes made their way out of the quiet side, clearly unwilling to interact with one another, I began wondering how much this divide was simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all of these students come to this school with the expectation of this division, they’re all but creating the division themselves. And the incredulity expressed by so many non-athletes when asked if they were athletes pointed perhaps to them as at least part of the problem. Of course, students who have felt excluded by the opposite group are an exception to this—I am mainly discussing the behavior of students who have never interacted with the other group and choose to continue to do so. Naturally, there may be other sources of this divide—imposter syndrome felt by recruited athletes at an elite academic institution, long practice schedules that prevent athletes from making other friends, and simply a desire to find companionship in people with similar interests. But also, it could be a product of the attitudes of non-athletes.

 As a non-athlete who has existed primarily in non-athlete spaces, I know it is common practice for non-athletes at Wes to blame our athletic counterparts for the divisions within our school:  because they seem more conventionally popular, social, or cliquey, they are an easy target for frustration. Some of us may have also had negative experiences with athlete-esque people in our past, or even during our time at Wesleyan. 

It’s important to remember that athletes are also in the minority. And while the word “minority” may come with implications and assumptions that we may feel uncomfortable using to reference Wesleyan student athletes, in this context, numerically, they are a minority on campus. And so, in some ways, they are an outgroup. It is easy to blame groups without numerical strength for problems that exist in a given space, and I think many of us, myself included, have accidentally done this. There is comfort in blaming athletes solely for the divided nature of our campus culture because we know there are more non-athletes to back us up than athletes to argue with us.

All of this pondering has left me with fewer answers than I started with. But it has also produced a request for this community: that we give each other a chance. We all complain about division, and yet we’re all responsible for upholding it through our attitudes and behaviors on campus. Dining hall groupings and responses to my survey question are telling of behavior in other areas of campus life, and of a much larger problem.  Perhaps if we attempted to approach interactions with people seemingly different from us with some necessary apprehension or caution, but not preconceptions or predisposed hatred, we would feel much more comfortable and connected on campus. We are (pretty much) all to blame in one way or another for this division, and so next time we rush to complain about it, we should attempt to stop and think about our place in this mangled web of a school community.


Akhil Joondeph can be reached at ajoondeph@wesleyan.edu.

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