College Equals Identification Time
One of the most entertaining parts of being a college student is figuring out who you are. College is the first time, for many students, that there is no such thing as a “boss”. Every decision is made solely by the individual and he or she will have to face the consequences. Sometimes, an unseen “boss” is present and consequences are handed out. This “boss” is also known as society. Society is driven by the social norms instilled within it’s boundaries and therefore, if any individual strays from the norm, pressure is felt to blend into the rules of society. The hardest part about finding yourself, is figuring out how big of an influence society has in your life. Finding yourself is seemingly impossible to do as the “new kid on campus,” however, many sophomores here at Trinity College have begun to figure out their standing in the hierarchies present on campus. Trinity College, though populated by a majority of white, non-financial aid students, is more beneficial, in the social learning aspect, to non-white students. This remains true because non-white students are more aware of their social class as well as their race. On top of that, they’ve learned to recognize assumptions being made about their social class and race.
To investigate this topic, our seminar conducted an interview-based study of students’ perceptions of race and social class at Trinity. Our interview guide posed ten open-ended questions and three demographic questions that explored topics, such as personal awareness, social interactions, and other students’ assumptions regarding racial and social class differences at Trinity. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning provided our professor with a stratified random sample of 55 sophomores from the Class of 2016, categorized by race (white or non-white) and first-year financial aid status (receiving or not receiving). Our professor sent personalized email invitations to this group, and assigned each of us to conduct an interview with all who responded and agreed to participate. The typical interview lasted about ten minutes, and was transcribed by the interviewer. The final sample consisted of 18 interviews: 10 students who received financial aid (4 white and 6 non-white), and 8 students who did not receive financial aid (4 white and 4 non-white). All names are pseudonyms and personally identifiable details have been masked, in accordance with our research ethics confidentiality agreement approved by the Trinity College Institutional Review Board.
One aspect about individual life that is blatantly exposed here at Trinity College is one’s social class and the ability to become aware of where one falls in the social hierarchy. This is a difficult task, especially for college students. On this campus, one would think that students in the upper class level of society would have their eyes opened to the fact that their affluence is prominent in many aspects of their lives since they’re now surrounded by students who are in the same social class and thus participate in the same activities. However, they seem ignorant of that fact. Only half of the white non-financial aid students claimed to have become more aware of their social class upon arriving at Trinity College whereas ¾ of the white financial aid recipients claimed to have become aware. For example, Frank, a white financial aid recipient responded in this way when asked whether or not he has become more aware of his social class: “Certainly.Before I came to Trinity,I had no idea I was poor. I thought I was living pretty darn good life–still am-- but when I came here and I saw how rich people really are, I was like ‘wow’ and it really hit me… I don’t have money…” (Frank 47) It is obvious here that within one’s own race, there is a huge divide based on how much money your parents have. Some students disagree with the amount of emphasis that is placed on social class, like Andres, when he states: ” Um, I don’t think it’s really come up. Social class I believe is a more subtle thing at Trinity…” (Andres 12). This proves that everything is based on perception. If one chooses to see the college in a particular light, that’s what will happen. However, initial responses don’t necessarily remain the same once thought comes into play. Andres was asked some follow up questions after the initial interview and he mentioned the following:
Yeah I knew Trinity was known for being a little bit more full of richer people, and even in my own town we had our high school but literally less than a block away was a private school [private school name] which a lot of Trinity school kids come from, and it cost about thirty grand to go there so it’s like…sort of like…a typical thing. You go to [private school here] and then you come to Trinity. So I was aware of like, there is a social class, [but] I never really had to interact with those kids until now (Andres 12).
Even Andres can see a glimpse of social class playing a larger role here than he initially thought. As a non-white, financial aid, student this opens his eyes to a part of the world he is yet to have really been immersed in: the upper class. Unfortunately, it appears the more upper class interviewees are oblivious to the privileges laid out in front of them.
A second aspect of individual life that students are more exposed to here, is people to people interaction. Not only do students have the opportunity to have a light shed on their social class, there is also an open door for the thoughts and judgements of others to infiltrate. According to our data, half of the white students had had assumptions made about their social class. Even still, one story stands out and it is Abe’s story. He states: “Well, I usually dress up really nicely so people think that I am from upper level. You can tell…that they think that I am wealthy, which I’m not,…so I feel like at Trinity people judge you by the way you dress more than anything and the way you act you know, [and they] don’t actually want to get to know you…” (Abe 45) Abe is in between ignorance and realization because he knows that something is amiss, however he has yet to find the drive to fix it. He is content with assimilating himself in order to fit in with the wealthier students. On the other hand, 6 out of 10 of the non-white students had a story to tell about an assumption made about their social class.But one student’s lack of storytelling made him stand out in the crowd. Andres stated above that he did not feel social class was that prominent, however, he continues the statement with a contradiction: “…Sorta like…it defines who people hang out with; it defines who people talk to more often.Directly, I’ve never had any problems with people about social class, but…indirectly it probably is the reason why I don’t know some specific people or some people probably just don’t even care about me because of my social class, but I wouldn’t know that directly.” (Andres 12) He starts out by saying that these assumptions define who you hang out with, yet he has never had any problems “face to face” with someone. However, he tries to disguise the fact that he knows assumptions have been made and could be completely false, yet he continues on to blame these assumptions on why he does not have certain friends. Andres, a non-white financial aid recipient would be in the Pre-encounter stage according to Beverly Tatum. Tatum is a psychologist who explains the theory of racial identity in her piece “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” In the pre-encounter stage, minority children absorb beliefs and values of the dominant white culture, including white superiority and black inferiority. In this stage, racial identity has “not been realized…and not yet under examination” (Tatum 55). Though Andres is no longer a child, he has yet to understand the links between activities in his life and the preconceptions other people have. He has room to grow and seems to do so throughout the interview.
The second major topic of discussion is race, and initially, if any certain students have come to a realization about their race that has, therefore, made them more aware of it. There is a correlation between race and financial status, as to whether your race has been put into perspective. This is made evident through the responses of the interviewees. For example, this is Kirsten’s response when asked if she had become more aware of her race: “I think so; yeah for sure cause I don’t meet a lot of Asian students… Um and then when you do meet Asian students, they’re either…really…white Asians or the really like nerdy Asians, so you get two different spectrums of Asian students on campus. So it’s hard to find out which group of Asians you belong in I would say.” (Kirsten 17). Kirsten is a non-white financial aid recipient and is having a hard time identifying because she feels she has to choose an identity. Stacy Lee is a professor in Educational Policy Studies and noted for her work “Unraveling the Model Minority” . Lee has a theory on identity formation that explains why Kirsten feels the way she does when finding a group of Asians to identify to. “The process of identity formation among all of the Asian American students was influenced by their perceptions regarding their positions and locations within society and their understanding of their interests. Asian American students in all four groups judges their situations by comparing their social positions to that of whites, non-white minorities, and other Asian Americans”(Lee 121). In other words, the stereotypes and preconceived notions of peers and administration lay the foundation that leads Asian American students making a choice of who they are and who they want the world to see them as. 6 out of 10 non-white students felt they had become more aware of their race and Kirsten was one of them, whereas 2 out of 8 white students felt more aware. Interestingly enough, 5 out of 9 financial aid recipients had become more aware of their race whereas only 3 out of 9 non-financial aid students felt that way. Of those three, one, Victoria, began her response as a borderline “yes” and finished as a solid yes though seeing the effects on other people of her race. Victoria declares:
I think yes and no. I think…it’s [a] very different environment from [home city] where everyone is kind of mixed together more, so to speak…here I think what has definitely bridged the gap for me is the fact that, you know, I’ve had the fortune of…playing [a specific sport] or going to a prep school and so, you know, people don’t necessarily just look at me and say ‘Oh, she’s, you know, from [country she was adopted from]’, … they’re able to see more in common. That has definitely been interesting to watch, just because I have friends who are…more…identifiable [stumbles on “identifiable”] by their race than I am, per say. And they have been, I don’t know, sidelined by it, a bit more (Victoria 25).
Finally, when asked about assumptions being made about one’s race 8 out of 10 non-white students shared examples about assumptions being made while only ⅜ white students felt assumptions had been made. Of the non-white students, two experiences shed a harsh light on the reality of Trinity College. Yvonne shares the first story.
…people have assumed well after they get passed the whole thing that I’m not rich then they assume that I’m from an urban area, which I am, I’m from [a particular city], which is a predominantly black….. city but it’s not like the only race there…people also, well on this campus, more recently have questioned whether I go here like specially if I am in sweatpants or like if I look like not put together they would question whether I go here or if I’m from the Hartford area (Yvonne 20).
In order to be “put together” this non-white student would have to be dressed in high class fashion and carry herself in a way that would blend in with Trinity culture. In order to stay the individual she is, she bears the burden of racial profiling. The fact that she recognizes this happening would allow Beverly Tatum to declare that she is in the Encounter phase. At this point, the individual experiences a certain level of racism, which leads to self- segregation and an active desire to find those who have shared experiences (Tatum 55-56). Yvonne knows there is a problem, especially since being “put together” would mean being something she is not and she has thus begun her ascent on the racial identity ladder. The second experience that deserves attention is Fred’s. “I think people correctly assume that I’m African American. A couple times Campo [Campus Security] has stopped me because of it…they’ll stop and ask me…well I assume it’s because of it [my race]…they’ll stop and ask me if I go to school here, questions like that, but that happens rarely, once in a while.” (Fred 23). This proves that it is not just students judging each other because judgement is being cast by employees as well. Both of these students have experienced a profiling of sorts and have now become more aware of the assumptions being made about them. The white students seem to have a little bit harder of a time with the realization that their race plays a role in more than they imagined, but a few have experienced encounters with profiling.
One of the three white students who felt assumptions had been made about her race had an experience that rubbed her the wrong way.
“ I think, like, people because I am white and upper middle class they think I am spoiled and I have never worked to earn anything kind of so that has been definitely something where I am like you don’t know anything about me, like, just because of these simple facts doesn’t mean anything, like, even if they were right even if I hadn’t worked for anything in my life, like, you don’t know that. I was at [a place to eat on campus] and… or not that place… I was at [another place to eat on campus]… [I went up to] the lady and I was like ‘hey can you check how many bantam bucks I have left?’ and she was like ‘yeah um oh you have 15 dollars left, oh your parents came through for you’ and I was like first of all I can get you fired for that and second of all that is very rude and making a ton of assumptions about, like, who I am and what I do and don’t work for because I have a white friend and she literally works for every single bantam buck she puts on there and she was with me and was like, what the?” (Alice 43).
At first glance, one would think Alice is dignified in her anger since someone made an assumption about her social status, profiled her, without knowing her. However, her anger about being profiled comes across as out of place when presented to a minority student who would not see this as a profiling incident. What Alice didn’t understand is that having one’s parents “come through” for them is actually a good thing. Alice took the statement to mean that she must be rich since she is white and therefore her parents put money on her card. But the truth of the matter is that the phrase means that you’re in good hands and someone is watching out for you. There is an obvious cultural barrier here considering Alice didn’t understand the true meaning of the phrase and then proceeded to feel dignified in threatening the job of the woman just because what the lady said did not sit well with Alice. She, as a student, felt she had the power to remove an adult from her position at the college solely because she was offended by what the woman said to her. Alice neglected to say anything directly to the woman about this threat, so she doesn’t really have as much “power” as she thought. Had alice been made aware of the meaning of the phrase as it is used in the woman’s culture, her reaction would have been a “thank you” instead of a threat.
Students at any multi-racial and socioeconomically diverse college will experience issues and learning experiences. What each student does with this new knowledge is up to that individual. Even though the majority of students here at Trinity are white, the real learning outside of the classroom benefits the non-white students because they are put in a position where learning from experience is inevitable. Students on financial aid experience the same types of inevitable learning when it comes to realizations about their social class. When all is said and done, it is the minorities who get the most social learning out of their attendance at Trinity college because they get to see the world in a different light.