Accepting the majority

In recent years the College as an institution has prioritized valuing and recognizing the distinctiveness of the experiences of students who do not fit the traditional mold of a student at an elite liberal arts institution those who are not white or upper-class, or whose parents did not attend college. The experiences, challenges and perspectives of students who do not fit these stereotypes should be valued. However, the ways in which we as a College community champion the causes of students who count themselves in some way different at crucial times in an individual’s college career prove hugely detrimental to the building of our community and creating a positive learning environment.

As a legacy student without financial aid, I vividly recall a number of experiences from my first few weeks at the College that ultimately led me to hide my family’s financial status and avoid talking about my father’s inclusion in the College’s Class of 1982. During those first few assemblies as the Class of 2013, I listened to members of the administration celebrate how many people of color, international students and first-generation students made up our class and left Chapin Hall with two main takeaways. First, that I was lucky to be surrounded by people from backgrounds I had not known much about before and who I would hopefully get many chances to be exposed to and learn from. Second, that my own status as a white, upper-middle class student from a Midwestern college prep school was something that I should hide, and perhaps even be ashamed of. I was at the College because I had been given so much more than others. Maybe I had earned my admission – the grades, the extracurriculars, the lost nights of sleep were, in fact, mine – but my achievement was nothing compared to what others had to overcome to get here, and my right to be an Eph was somehow lessened or cheapened by this contrast.

I do not mean to marginalize, belittle or brush off the difficulties of life on campus for a student of color, a student on financial aid, an international student or a first-generation student. I also do not mean to imply that one should always feel comfortable in discussions and throughout the process of learning. Rather, I seek to underscore the importance of that first week of meetings that every first-year class goes through. The tone set there is the basis for the next four years of engagement with the College community, but even more importantly, it is a key reflection of our values and opinions as a community.

I also urge us as a community to consider, and value, the nuances of life on campus for the recruited athletes, for the legacy students, for those who are being exposed to many types of diversity for the first time in their lives and for those who are not on financial aid. These students’ experiences, difficulties and backgrounds are every bit as beneficial to the community and important as other students’, but they are often made to think that they are not as welcome at community forums, at activist groups’ meetings or on campus in general, at least in specific circles. While it is important to create spaces in which minority students can feel comfortable, those spaces do not need to be and should not be unwelcoming to those students considered to be in the majority, especially because those spaces are meant to be safe and welcoming to all members of the community. Blaming students from more privileged backgrounds not only fails to solve issues of division and fragmentation of the community, it sends negative and potentially lasting messages about divisions between groups, possibly implying that they are fundamental differences in background that cannot be bridged. Learning to put one’s privilege in perspective is an important lesson that the College can help us to learn, but excluding privileged groups from the discussion in those first few unwelcoming meetings starts many students’ careers off by shutting down the conversation.

If we truly hope to engage in constructive community discussion and to affect change on campus – or, even more importantly, for each of us to have the ability to affect such change after we graduate – we need to ensure that everyone on campus feels welcome to enter the discussion. That discussion should not be comfortable, but absolutely no one should be turned away at the door. While I have found this to be a principle that many leaders, both in the administration and among the student body, aspire to, it was certainly not the message I heard in August of 2009.

I am advocating a reexamination of First Days programming and those first few meetings, but more importantly, I think it is crucial that we as individuals within the community examine and rethink our approach to conversations about difference on campus. The rhetoric so present in First Days is coming from somewhere within our community, and it is a destructive, divisive force. Many students at the College are ready to learn. It is no one’s job to teach others if they feel uncomfortable doing so, but it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that everyone – from the first-generation student, to the legacy and everyone in between – is comfortable learning here, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Meghan Kiesel ’13 is a Chinese major from Edina, Minn. She lives in Poker Flats.

Comments (4)

  1. If a reexamination of First Days is what you are advocating, perhaps this article is a bit outdated. One of the biggest events during First Days, which is mandatory for all first-years, is Voices– members of the Williams community share their experiences and thoughts about what “community” means here and how they have experienced it. For the most recent one (for Class of 2016), they had six students and two administrators.

    One student talked about his return after time off going through major brain surgery and therapy, one talked about being first-generation (myself), one talked about sexual abuse, one talked about his false assumptions of people, another student talked about being a transfer student, and finally, the sixth student talked about being a legacy student.

    I understand that this is an opinion piece, but you as a journalist/member of the Record, did you do any research on the First Days from the years after your own? It seems like you are speaking from only anecdotal experiences, and those anecdotal experiences are not truly reflective of the changes that have been made.

  2. I’d just like to point out that the legacy student who spoke also pointed out her experience as a “diversity” student – being a member of the queer community. She really is not the “white, upper-middle class, priveledged majority” that I think Meghan is referring to. The person who spoke would likely feel welcome in first days and is not marginalized by the program.

  3. And by priveledged I obviously mean privileged – commenting while druuuunk

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