Class Awareness Month began this November in their third year with an opening panel about Academics and Social Class. Andrea Cornejo, 2010, facilitated the discussion between a panel consisting of both alumni and current students, touching on topics from professor-student relations and resources at the school to issues of admissions and funding.
Valeria Jokisch ’01, and Robert Hawrylak ’77, represented the alumni on the board while Grace Kaissal ’10, and Susannah Gund ’08 represented current Swarthmore students. The panelists’ differences provided a natural springboard for discussion about class and how it figured into the academics.
They come from diverse backgrounds—one grew up in El Salvador and attended a premier private school there. Another was raised in the low working class, not expected to attend college, whereas her peers self-identified as part of the “privileged class.”
It became clear to Hawrylak that class figures much more prominently into the current Swarthmore experience than his experience in the mid-‘70s.
“I’m amazed,” he said after Kaissal and Gund shared a few anecdotes about class divisions. “There was not an issue [of class] that I remember.”
Kaissal related that some school financial policies did not accommodate low-income students very well. The SBC and SAC funds, for example, are given by reimbursement—this assumes that the student has free money to spend in the first place.
All of the money given to her as a Gates Scholar arrives through Swarthmore in a very slow process, which meant that she had to pay out-of-pocket before receiving her scholarship check.
“I had to choose my classes last semester based on how much money I had in my bank account,” Kaissal said. “So I couldn’t take certain classes because there were too many books I couldn’t buy.”
Hawrylak then asked if class lines seemed to disappear after some time at Swarthmore—the jocks and the “granola burnout” hippies tended to sit with their own groups rather than with each other, but over time he noted that such a sociological Sharples seating chart faded.
“I think people are friends across socioeconomic classes,” Gund responded. A friend of hers entered Swarthmore as part of the working class, but felt he had left as part of the upper class having learned a new skill set and vocabulary. “I think class lines disappear because people are taught more discourses of the upper-middle class.”
Still, she mentioned, some would continue to be more privileged—“some people know their parents are going to pay for an apartment after school. Some people know that ‘Even if we don’t get a job, we’ll be okay.’”
“I think it just becomes dormant,” Kaissal remarked. “You sort of forget. It’s times when you have to go home for break, or when you have to go out of Swarthmore, or when you have to graduate… that you get hit again.” The realization comes that some can study abroad in the summer whereas others must work.
Most agreed, however, that education provided a way to rise in socioeconomic class, in part because Swarthmore provides an environment where all can access the same resources.
Jokisch said that to her, the resources almost seemed daunting. She noted that this may have been an issue of class—not having a writing center or people to help at her high school—but may also have been a personal issue.
“The mentality of just having the entitlement to ask for those resources—go to the Writing Center, go seek help—I was never really addressed. I had to sort of talk to the deans and have them reiterate that it’s okay or that it’s not a sign of failure to go ask for help.”
Later the same issue of a different high school education came into play, especially with assumptions that the College makes.
“I had never used any of the equipment and I had no idea what writing a lab report was about,” Jokisch recalls about her first laboratory section, which assumed she had such knowledge. She dropped the class.
At times professors can be uneasy about issues of class and race, as well. During the Q&A session an audience member mentioned that a $6,000 minority grant went unfilled for a few years because professors did not know how to approach possible candidates about the issue.
Kaissal mentioned that she has met some inflexible professors. She once bought a plane ticket before she found out when a final was scheduled—otherwise, the prices would have become much too high—and talked to her instructor about rescheduling. The professor became angry.
“It was so awkward…How do you tell someone—‘look, I don’t have the money for it’?” Kaissal has become more “abrasive” about it, she says, but so few solutions are available—other than a loan or summer earnings, which may detract from time for internships or other career advancements.
In the closing remarks Hawrylak mentioned the need for a petition for change.
“Have you invited the professors to have this discussion? Professors—since they are part of the process, they should be aware of it… name names if you have to. Just because they have tenure doesn’t mean they can do as they please.”
Jokisch also mentioned, crucially, the strength of the alumni network to push the College to change. Should admissions continue to admit more students of color and increase the socioeconomic diversity?
After all, at a later panel Jokisch had discovered that the class of 2000 had been somewhat of an experiment for the College, an attempt to recruit from more students of low-income in inner-city schools.
“They brought in the most diverse class that Swarthmore ever had.”
But much of the reaction had been negative. Many professors complained that students were not prepared for their classes, and that they never wanted another “class of 2000.”
Swarthmore, as many panelists mentioned, tries to equalize social interactions between students by making all events free, and allowing, as one panelist put it, for all friends to “get smashed at Paces together.” But that does not make the issue disappear.
Gund summarized in her closing remarks, “We can’t deny that the second we step out of the bubble, reality is going to hit us in the face.”
The panelists and audience members then discussed possible solutions and steps to take to address issues of class. Other than involving professors and alumni in dialogues about class, possible changes to freshman orientation and education about Swarthmore’s available resources were also brought up.
Class Awareness Month will continue through November with more dialogues, movie screenings, and other events regarding social class.