Subtle classism in a university environment

By Timothy Scalona

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(photographymontreal / Flickr) (Public Domain)

There are some aspects of our character that are just so deeply rooted, ingrained and developed in our environment, that they are difficult to ascertain. The way we react to and perceive the world around us is largely dependent on our history and status in society. However, this isn’t set in stone. We are creatures of change, and it is my belief that anyone can reevaluate preconceived beliefs or notions; we must question what is presented to us as the truth. That is the only way to move forward as people.

Arriving at the University of Massachusetts as a low-income, previously homeless student, I began to see both the blessings and flaws of the environment that I had found myself in. Six years ago, I largely had no place to be, as I moved from hotel to shelter annually as the oldest of six siblings in my family of nine. In that time span, I found the stark reality of the environment that the poor in America’s youth find themselves in―isolation, a persistent lack of food and healthy food options, constant instability and stress in a shelter system that prioritizes state affordability over human lives, a growing lack of trust and exposure to drugs and prostitution. Above all, I had begun to recognize the gap in culture between those who are  poor and those who are middle or upper class. This cultural divide stems from a financial privilege that is largely ignored in our society. Even on a university campus, which, with a melting pot of diverse persons and ideas, can be argued as a microcosm for the society of the real world, this unconscious divide is still apparent.

To give some context with a personal anecdote: UMass is my sanctuary from the chaos of “home” life; it provides me a way to pursue my goals and form real connections without the constant stress of financial instability. The beauty of attending an institution like ours is that one’s past is irrelevant. We have the ability to redefine ourselves in any way that we choose. However, our rooted behavior and notions cannot change if we do not recognize them ourselves.

As a low-income student, I can affirm that the way students refer to food, housing, politics and education is a subtle indicator of a financial privilege that is both largely unrecognized and, under some circumstances, further widening the class divide. As a Vox opinion piece neatly states, “when students from lower- and working-class families get to college, they face an experience largely shaped by more privileged people.”

In my experience, an extremely notable example of this is in knowledge of food. After six years filled with a daily barrage of microwavable meals as my sustenance for the day living in hotels, I had little exposure to the various types of food that UMass dining offers. For example, I had never had lobster, sushi, egg rolls, nor stir fry, until I started eating at the dining halls. Whenever this was mentioned to peers, I often received shocked expressions and comments―microaggressions―as if this was abnormal and I was an outlier in a sea of people more cultured than I. In a very thought-provoking opinion piece by the New York Times, “How We Are Ruining America,” this point is affirmed: “American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is ‘You are not welcome here.’” As an educational institution, UMass caters to more privileged persons. However, I would say that the blame does not lie in our school itself, but rather in widespread income inequality rampant in the University culture.

Another example is the ability of students to get actively involved on a campus that is rooted in financial stability. If one must work multiple jobs during the school year to provide funds for tuition, necessities, or otherwise beyond textbooks, dorm accessories and alcohol, they are less apt to take part in many campus organizations that their more privileged counterparts are able to participate in. Even more so, lacking the financial security that allows one to purchase textbooks themselves in many cases increases the risk of failure, a US Public Research Group study found. Beyond the classroom, the “unpaid internship” mantra that is said to be a milestone in one’s college career, is often limited to those with resources.

Overall, to exist in an environment that fosters growth and is financially secure is a privilege. Some can skip class periodically without qualms, knowing if all else fails monetarily they are still able to retake the class, or can spend large amounts of money, only to have the funds later reimbursed by parents. While they are irresponsible behaviors, they largely present the disparity between financial security and a lack thereof.

It is not my goal to demonize the middle and upper classes, as it is my belief that many of these behaviors are unconscious. Rather, I aim to change the story. We have to close the gaps that a university environment can create for poor students. Whether that be in recognizing that not everyone has had a past filled with gourmet dishes or a past of luxury and access to necessities, and realizing that language is both a weapon and a tool.

So the next time a peer of yours cannot go out to a party because they have to catch up on school work, the next time that someone is not able to go off campus to a restaurant to eat, the next time that you feel apt to mention your many beach houses or your trust fund, be cognizant of your language. Low-income and poor students blend in and mostly make themselves invisible to survive. The more our covert classism is recognized, the easier it will be for people like me to be open about the history that has shaped us.

Timothy Scalona is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]