BY CHLOE JENSEN '20
Despite its history of wealthy students, Mount Holyoke – like many elite colleges and universities in the United States – claims to be great for low and low-middle income students and families with their stellar financial aid packages. I would challenge that notion and say that we are in dire need of a conversation about class and classism.
Although I have only attended Mount Holyoke for a little over a semester, I have definitely noticed many recurring instances of classism and how little it is addressed in conversations. In many ways, this is something I expected when I decided to enroll: I knew that MHC was a school built on high- and middle-income students and their success. Mount Holyoke is an elite, expensive school. We are one of the few private schools in the country that meets full demonstrated need. According to the US News & World Report, 66 colleges and universities claim to meet full demonstrated need. Although we offer these tremendous need-based financial aid packages, there are still problems, such as wealthy students' lack of understanding and the administration's lack of empathy toward lower-income students.
At Mount Holyoke, classism does not look like the classism we see in the media, but is still very alive. In conservative communities, conversations like "we need poor people to stop mooching off the government" and "poor mothers should be ashamed of themselves for having a baby they cannot afford to feed" are all too common, and are intended to hurt lower-income families. At Mount Holyoke, I do not regularly hear comments degrading and shaming poor people and their lives here (although I certainly do not want to silence anyone's experience, if that has been the case for them) and I would say that many MHC students, even the higher-income students, have good intentions: many wealthy students would say that they genuinely care about the well-being of poor students. However, manyhigher-income students simply do not understand the daily uphill battles that low-income students fight to simply attend college. This is where their faults mostly lie.
Because higher-income students have been raised with privilege, it is difficult for them to understand low income students' experiences, even if they would like to empathize. Many upper-class students have lived their entire lives knowing and understanding that they will always have some level of financial stability. For many of them, it has never been a question as to whether or not they will be able to afford basic necessities, go to great private schools or exemplary public schools, go on vacations or attend college. And in many cases, many of their friends and communities have also had similar amounts of wealth. Perhaps the only glimpse they have had into the experience of a lower-income student was not being able to afford to take a vacation one year or reading"The Grapes of Wrath" in high school. This means that these students often make comments that reflect their lack of understanding of the lives of low-income students, such as "Oh, you're so lucky to be on work study! I wish I had money to spend," or even "Why don't your parents just buy thing x for you?"
One example of an encounter I have had that many of my other low-income friends have also had regarded summer internships and unpaid labor. I was having lunch with a group of friends and several acquaintances having a conversation about our summer plans. Several people in the group talked about volunteering for various organizations, working with their parent's company or taking an unpaid internship while one of my friends and I talked about returning to our summer retail, minimum-wage jobs. Upon expressing my summer plans, a couple students seemed supportive, while several others suggested that we get "real jobs": unpaid internships like theirs, and even offered to help our search. Because we have to earn money to contribute to expenses for the following school year, many low-income students do not always have the option of volunteering or working an unpaid internship, even if it relates to our prospective careers. While these other students had good intentions, their understanding was lacking, and their comments only made me feel more alienated as a low-income student. And after having conversations with several other working-class and middle-class students at Mount Holyoke, my observations seem to extend to my peers as well.
These instances reflect issues that extend beyond the lack of understanding of the lives ofpoor students, such as the struggle many of us face to fund our college costs, the lack of work study hours and the lack of voice we have as low-income students. If we start this conversation, students with more privilege will elevate our voices and help ease our worries.
Although I feel the burdens of classism everyday at Mount Holyoke, I would be lying if I said I do not have class privilege that some of my classmates do not. Both of my parents are college educated and received advanced degrees. Until recently, my mother was an adjunct (or guest lecturing) professor, which meant that very often, our family struggled with finances. However, my mother's education most certainly impacts my success in college today. Thus, while my family often collected food stamps and did everything we could to stretch out my mother's paychecks, there was always an expectation for my siblings and I to attend college, an expectation that usually does not exist in low-income families. Over the last two years, my family's income has increased, as my mother was promoted from an adjunct to a tenure track professor. Additionally, I am a white, able-bodied cis woman. While I feel the burdens of classism, I will never feel these burdens like people who face intersecting barriers.
In just a semester, I have witnessed many conversations about important issues regarding privilege and diversity. The experience of lower-income students is also worth discussing.