Belonging from the beginning

From a young age I was told, guaranteed even, that I would obtain a college degree. Because of my scholastic performance, despite my family’s financial difficulties, it was assumed that such a degree would come from some hallowed out-of-state institution. I was presented this image of a single path to success, for which hard work alone would be sufficient. That success would be delivered to me not as a college degree, but through that degree. Getting accepted to Williams and given a scholarship, while a joyous occasion, constituted an installment in a much longer narrative.

Many students are not fed the narrative that I was growing up. Many students grow up knowing that a college degree is often a necessity in the U.S. now, but also are made aware that the journey to acceptance at a college, attaining the money to go and graduating are going to be won through unremitting uphill battles involving not just academic work, but combating histories of discrimination, complicated family dynamics and society’s frenetic growing pains in which certain types of difference are spotlighted while others are ignored. These students are not told throughout their lives that college is a place where they will thrive, that it is where they inherently “belong.” So, when they arrive at Williams, the college attempts to embrace them and say, “Yes, you should be here.” I do not seek to represent these individuals, but I hope that the conversations I have had with peers can illuminate my unique experiences regarding this approach.

I understand the sentiment that the reassurance of, “Yes, you should be here,” can appear exclusive and excluding, and if you start the timeline of that narrative from our arrival at Williams, perhaps the claim is valid. But I challenge students from “privileged” backgrounds to think of another time when they felt excluded from the idea of living on a college campus. I question the implication that the sense of security that our entire lives have reinforced cannot stand up to First Days’ orientation. Perhaps it does sow some doubt to be made to feel as though some are being reached out to more than others, but that doubt has an empathetic power: it is a doubt that I believe many share.

As fellow students are being celebrated, they are also being incorporated into a system that provides them with resources they may never have had at their disposal, and they too are likely encountering diverse identities to which they had not previously been exposed. What is, for some, an attempt to reduce culture shock during First Days might unintentionally create shock for others. It is important in those moments, though, to question what is most difficult: the doubt and shock as emotions, or the newness of such feelings for those who have long taken for granted that a place like Williams was our place?

I agree that serious discussions should be had about privilege and perspective. Coming from one place of socioeconomic privilege to another, as a private liberal arts school surely is, bears its own pressures and complexities and deserves a space in campus dialogue. However, socioeconomic advantage represents only one form of privilege. As a student on financial aid, a member of a religious minority, a heterosexual woman and a white student, I might be privileged in some ways and not in others. Conceiving of privilege as predicated on material comfort gives an overly narrow definition. So by all means, let’s talk about our privilege, but let’s not begin the narrative within the Purple Bubble, because the experiences that predate our time at Williams form the parts of ourselves that deserve the most critical, careful analysis when we come together in this amazingly diverse space. Our diversity extends far beyond labels such as legacy, first-gen and minority. To paint any collective as a monolith and to treat any student as a representative of a monolithic “identity” or “special interest” group forecloses on these conversations. It fails, among many other faults, to recognize that being outside of the majority is not tantamount to having experienced diversity. A student who grew up in a majority Latino/a neighborhood and went to a majority Latino/a school is no more ready to encounter diversity than a white student from a similarly homogenous background. At Williams, our focus should be on appreciating and respecting diversity, rather than on being different in isolation. Diversity, like privilege, is relative.

It is comforting to know that many students sometimes doubt whether they belong here. However, if we conflate our need for safety with our desire for comfort, these conversations will never begin. Comfort is ultimately not productive; pushing past comfort is. There are places for comfort on campus, some of which are tailor-made for first-years. Entries continuously strive to be such places. First Days, on the other hand, is not a time for comfort. Rather, it is the perfect time for those who feel ready to learn, which should be anyone who received that thick purple-cow-stamped envelope, to take initiative and demonstrate that readiness. Creating forums and empowering individuals to launch uncomfortable conversations and to ask questions that might be formed out of ignorance or confusion in a way that will invite others to share their stories rather than alienate them is one method for encouraging continuous discourse. First Days may be our first impression, but as such, it is a conversation starter.

Rachel Hagler ’13 is a political science and Arabic studies double major from Riverhead, N.Y. She lives in Wood.