Class divisions lie at root of diversity issue

Parents’ Weekend is awkward for me every year. Last weekend, I shuffled my parents to lunch in a dining hall, to glimpse the inside of Sterling, and to one of the several a cappella concerts. At the end of the day, I wondered if my parents really got to see all of Yale.

But the awkwardness of Parents’ Weekend can be even more acute for students whose parents are not here come late October, whose parents have perhaps never stepped foot on this or any college campus. Often (but not only) for financial reasons, many Yale parents never see the campus that they work hard to send their sons and daughters to for four years. My nervous mother worries about safety as it is; how would I explain to her the safety of New Haven if she could not visit me when she wanted? How would I describe my meals, my friends or my classes? The difficulty is exacerbated for students whose parents never attended college. How would you describe all of campus life to your parents if they are completely foreign to it? How would you talk to them about bombing your psych midterm, or rushing a fraternity or sorority, or choosing a major, or finding a summer internship, if they never had such privileges?

Socioeconomic diversity has recently become a popular issue on campus. Just last month, Harvard announced its decision to end early admissions, reasoning that the practice gives an unfair advantage to students from affluent backgrounds; Princeton followed, voicing the same commitment to a more egalitarian admissions process. In the wake of these announcements, Yale’s student publications have run numerous articles and opinion pieces on socioeconomic class and diversity. At the start of this month, a weekend conference was dedicated to discussing socioeconomic diversity in higher education. And it was less than three years ago that students staged a sit-in at the Admissions Office, demanding increased financial aid and socioeconomic diversity. Yalies hardly ever suffer from a dearth of strong opinions, but what do we mean when we demand socioeconomic diversity?

Let’s start by pressing this idea of social class. Karl Marx saw basically two classes in society, the haves and the have-nots; Max Weber outlined four basic social classes. And contemporary sociologists often contend as to how social groups can be broken down: by occupation, wealth, income, or cultural and social resources, by big classes and small classes, and the ranges and variations in between. I wonder what we refer to when we discuss the issue of social class and socioeconomic diversity on campus.

But I fear that while we study theories of social class and debate the politics of socioeconomic diversity and admissions policies, we forget an aspect of the issue that lies much closer to home: the social class diversity that currently exists on campus. For a final paper last year, I interviewed some juniors about their experiences at Yale and how social class may have affected them. Surprise, surprise: I discovered that social classes reach beyond Parents’ Weekend; they surface, in fact, in some of the most unexpected ways, particularly during freshman year. For students who come from family backgrounds or public high schools that are very different from Yale, just being on campus can in itself feel like being a guest in someone else’s fancy home. Approaching and making friends can reveal another level of class differences, from something as banal as splitting the cost of dinner or going out to a movie, to giving and receiving birthday gifts, or sharing the costs of common room furniture. But in more long-term ways, social class affects how one views oneself in relation to other people: for example, the confidence to speak up in a challenging class or apply for a competitive position. Going home, too, reveals social class tensions. For example, how does a working-class student understand her own Ivy League identity when she returns to friends from home who may not be attending prestigious colleges, or college at all?

Why talk about these issues at all, and why should we care about social class and their effects on student life on campus? I can name a number of often used appeals to the benefits of meritocracy, to conceptions of equality, to sociological research pointing to increased inequality in American society. But I will run with our championing of “socioeconomic diversity.” As students, we argue that diversity teaches students outside the classroom, and that we learn best when we learn about each other. But like all learning in college, we must be open and willing to accept challenges and ideas. No one will force us to go to class or write our papers, and certainly no one will force us to meet people who are different and learn about their experiences, but to benefit from the diversity we so passionately demand — which exists right under our noses — we have the obligation to seek it.

Tina Wu is a junior in Calhoun College and the leader of Class Matters.