Trinity College, a small liberal arts college in Hartford, Connecticut, is home to roughly 2,300 students from all different backgrounds. Regarded as an elite institution, for many local Hartford children “Trinity is like the epitome of…where the kids want to be… everyone always talks about you know wanting to get to Trinity” (Abby page 40). On campus, Trinity proudly boasts a 20% diversity rate, higher than most comparable schools, and 40% of students receive some form of need-based financial aid. Within the school itself, these statistics can seem somewhat distorted; the student body is largely a group of affluent, white young people and the gap in race and social class on campus can have a big influence on the experiences people have here. To study this, our seminar interviewed a group of seventeen Trinity sophomores from all different walks of life. Our results showed that while some students felt Trinity is a liberal and welcoming community for everyone, these students had a tendency to belong to the racial majority (white), the social class majority (non-financial aid), or both. Meanwhile, students of either minority generally felt and more saw segregation on the campus. Trinity College is a small enough school to have a social hierarchy, and this paper argues that students feel the pressure to fit in with the majority but ultimately befriend those they perceive as social and/or racial equals.
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’s appearance and how he or she dresses is one of the most socially uniting, or dividing, factors at Trinity College. For those with the fiscal means, concern with one’s appearance results in the phenomenon of “everyone looking the same”. According to Andres, a sophomore, “the joke at Trinity College is that… if you see a blonde girl, you’re referring to almost half of the student population” (Andres, page 11). Owning the same coat or pair of boots can foster relationships between students, while potentially excluding those who do not own the same things, whether for personal or financial reasons. This obsession with appearance is evidenced by the fact that, out of seventeen conducted interviews, twelve students alluded to appearance, with seven of these explicitly mentioning it. Of those seven interviews, six students were on financial aid and only one of them was white. On a campus where only 40% of students pay financial aid and there is only 20% diversity, it is unsurprising that the combination of these two minorities would lead to an increased awareness of what it (apparently) takes to fit in at Trinity. Yvonne, a self-proclaimed middle/lower-middle class African American student, states that her appearance directly impacts how people treat her. She says “the way that I dress and the…things that I have…people might assume that I am higher class… if my hair is not done or if I’m wearing…something that does not look name brand…people are less likely to acknowledge me” (Yvonne, page 20). This theme of “dressing to impress” is seen in several students including Abe (white/financial aid), who, like Yvonne, intentionally dresses nicely and as a result feels that people believe he is wealthier than he actually is (Abe, page 45). This practice has helped both students feel more accepted. Juan, meanwhile, feels that looks, whether biological or material, dictate one’s position on the social ladder: “You could be the poorest person but if you look good… you’re immune to that” (Juan, page 5). Based on the experiences of Yvonne, Abe, and Juan, social pressures at Trinity mean that having an “acceptable” and impressive appearance is important for fitting in. It would seem that, whether they have the fiscal means or not, Trinity College students see the social value of acting as though they do.
This concept, that one’s looks correlate directly with one’s social strata and can thus lead to acceptance on a college campus, is discussed at length in Armstrong and Hamilton’s book Paying for the Party. To write Paying for the Party, Armstrong and Hamilton, along with a team of researchers, conducted a longitudinal ethnography that followed a group of women from their freshman year in a party dorm at the unidentified “Midwest University” through a year after graduation. They focused on the effects of social class on the lives of women during and after college. Armstrong and Hamilton suggest that the more willing a woman is to party, and the more money she has to spend, the stronger her college social experience will be. For example, in the sorority rush system at Midwestern University, the sororities claimed to “select girls on the basis of ‘personality’ rather than parental income” (Armstrong & Hamilton 79). Unfortunately for those of lesser income, oftentimes this personality comes across when the girls can relate to each other on a class level- through their clothes, where they vacation, where they like to shop, etc. (Armstrong & Hamilton 81). Girls from wealthier backgrounds were advantaged in the sense that they had the means to make their image acceptable. At Trinity, Luisa, a non-white, non-financial aid student, considered joining a sorority but was ultimately deterred by the fees and expenses that went along with membership, saying that “I don’t know if I’d… socially or economically fit in with them” (Luisa, page 9). In this statement, Luisa subconsciously grouped social success with economic status, suggesting that one must be wealthy in order to fit in with Greek Life, which arguably dominates the social scene at Trinity. Armstrong and Hamilton also discussed at length the concept of “cuteness”: the idea that it is “possible for everyone to be well dressed and well groomed” (Armstrong & Hamilton 82). “Cuteness” also had financial and racial implications. It requires “the sustained investment of money, time, and cultural know-how” and in terms of race, “cuteness” is tied to “blondness”: “blue eyes, white but tanned skin, and straight hair”, which favors white women (Armstrong & Hamilton 82). Juan, a non-white, financial aid student at Trinity, feels that looks, whether biological or material, dictate one’s position on the social ladder: “You could be the poorest person but if you look good… you’re immune to that” (Juan, page 5). Armstrong and Hamilton’s study focuses mostly on social life and having the funds to participate, and based on our interviews, this focus on partying at MU is comparable to Trinity’s focus on clothes and appearance. How a person looks and what they can afford to wear has a direct impact on their social experience at Trinity.
In accordance with the social structure imposed on Trinity students as a result of their appearance and social class, the interviews made it apparent that Trinity students tend to be friends with people to whom they are similar. In the interviews, ten of the seventeen sophomores either explicitly or implicitly stated that students tend to self-segregate in terms of race, social class, or both. Luisa says that “that’s how the groups at Trinity form…you kind of become friends with people who you perceive [as] equal” (Luisa, page 8). Juan, Andres, and Serafino express similar thoughts: that it’s a “naturally occurring thing, that people tend to gravitate towards people of their own background or ethnicity” (Serafino 34). One clear example of these group divisions is in Mather Dining Hall, as Michael, Luisa, and Kirsten stated. Kirsten says “there is a sports side and…a minority side” (Kirsten page 18). Each of these three students speak of Mather’s segregation as a given- in Ali’s interview with Michael, Michael refused to say what exactly happened in Mather, instead saying “I mean you know how it works…”, suggesting that Ali should understand the system in its obviousness (Michael page 3). Many students at Trinity seem to simply accept this segregation as the reality. Luisa and Andres, who are both Hispanic, also mentioned the stratifying power of societies like LVL (La Voz Latina, the Latin American cultural society on campus). Luisa wanted to join LVL, but ultimately didn’t because she didn’t speak Spanish and she felt that “the people were kind of secluded in their own…I feel like they were really cliquey” (Luisa, page 10). Andres said something similar; he never felt the need to join LVL, and felt that “they’re harboring kids a little more than they need to… there are also people who are a little bit (pauses to think of wording) negative towards the social division” (Andres, page 13). Essentially, there are well-established systems at Trinity (like Mather or LVL) that facilitate segregation based on race.
On the other side of the spectrum, some students felt that there was no social segregation at Trinity in terms of race or social class. These students tend to be upper class and/or white, like Steve who says he is “friends with wide range of students, come from all backgrounds… and countries” and claims that no one judges people based on race or social class (Steve, page 44). Overall, there appears to be the general pattern that while social can partially dictate what activities people can participate in, race seems to be more influential in terms of who people spend time with. People will always be more comfortable with those they perceive as equals.
Beverly Tatum’s racial identity development theory may help explain the racial divisions at Trinity. Tatum argues that all people go through stages of racial identity development, with these stages being unique to African Americans or Whites, respectively. For African Americans, she argues that there are five stages of racial development: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion, internalization, and internalization commitment. She then argues that white students go through six stages: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independent, immersion/emersion, and autonomy. Based on Mather and LVL, she would likely suggest that the minority students on campus show evidence of being in either the encounter or immersion/emersion stage. The encounter phase is characterized by “an event or series of events that force the young person to acknowledge the personal impact of racism” (Tatum 55). This causes black students to lead a “more active search” for their identity (Tatum 56). For some students at Trinity, coming to such an affluent and predominantly white school could cause the kind of “event” that brings students into this stage. As a result, this might lead minority students to join organizations like LVL or MOCA (Men of Color Alliance) to help them find a community. The transition to the immersion/emersion stage causes minority kids to self-segregate, and “the developing Black [or minority] person sees White people as simply irrelevant” (Tatum 76). If a large number of minority students at Trinity are in the immersion/emersion stage of racial identity development, this could help explain on-campus segregation, such as in Mather.
By taking a stratified sample of the sophomore class, we interviewed as even a distribution or white, non-white, financial aid, and non-financial aid students as possible. This statistical diversity helped us get a fuller picture of the experiences Trinity students have. In the interviews our seminar conducted, one of the clearest differences between interviews was how included or excluded by the Trinity community students felt. A student’s feeling of inclusion or exclusion is generally tied to how others perceive their race and/or their social class, and how easily they can access certain aspects of campus life. Our data shows that, for the most part, students who reported more insightful observations of the racial and social structure at Trinity had a tendency to be either a minority, on financial aid, or both. The social structure of Trinity makes it easier for students to stay close to those they consider equals, which perpetuates campus-wide segregation.
Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Laura T. Hamilton. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2013. Print.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel., PhD. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic, 1997. Print.