Hidden Behind Headlines: Experiencing Class at Vassar

Disclaimer: My experience with class is unique and influenced by my race, gender, sexuality, appearance, ability, and other factors. I do not wish to speak for any other students and can only surmise about how others may feel. I do not intend to attack the behavior of students; I only intend to raise awareness about classist actions that I assume are unknowingly committed.

At Vassar we often talk about the “Vassar Bubble,” the concept that we are sheltered in an unrealistic environment and often lose sight of the bigger picture. Many students are caught up in campus activities and Vassar-centric dialogues that neglect to address Poughkeepsie or the outside world. While some things were blurred by the isolation of the Vassar Bubble, socioeconomic class became much more conspicuous to me during my time on Vassar’s campus.

I started to get a better idea of what my socioeconomic class was when I started applying to colleges. I had always known that some of my peers had a little more money than me—I lived in a modest house on a rural back road, and lots of them lived in housing developments in mansions with triple the square footage of my home. Wealth is relational by definition, and I felt that I was wealthy enough because there was nothing I was really lacking from a “normal,” “middle class” lifestyle, except maybe a swimming pool and a television in my bedroom. I didn’t think much of it until some of the wealthier kids in my high school got into Ivy League schools because of “connections” or “legacy.” It was the first time I realized that I was actually at a disadvantage compared to my peers because of my family’s relationship to money compared to theirs.

Princeton was my top choice, and two people got in from my high school. Surprise: neither of them were me. Both students were wealthier than me and personally knew administrators at Princeton. I became angry and didn’t know how to voice my frustration; I lacked the language to express why this was unfair. My acceptance to Vassar seemed to welcome me into a world of class mobility—that Princeton feeling, just without the brand name.

Unfortunately, there were more obstacles to overcome. After going through the tedious processes of applying for financial aid, including the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and IDOC, I found out that my need-based financial aid from Vassar would not be nearly as much as my parents and I expected. We had spent hours filling out these complicated documents, figuring out how much money my parents had to their name and how much money I had in my bank account after working throughout high school. I was lucky to have both parents accessible to me, as my parents are not divorced nor estranged from me, which is a challenge for many students when applying for financial aid. I was also lucky to have had parents that had gone through this process before when sending my three older sisters to college.

My parents and I would both have to shoulder the financial burden of loans to send me to Vassar instead of a perfectly decent state school, which I could attend for free. Despite the guilt associated with the choice, I felt like Vassar was the answer to my frustrations; going there would mean I would no longer feel inferior. I felt like I could buy my way into class mobility and a lifestyle that I imagined would be sophisticated and careless. I was misled, assuming Vassar would solve all of my problems and rid me of my internalized classism.

I was greeted by a much different experience. Most of my peers were much wealthier than anyone from my hometown. I was mystified by what it meant to not be on financial aid. The forms of social and cultural capital my peers had access to felt unreachable to me. Everyone had been to lots of foreign countries and played sports and instruments throughout their entire childhoods—I’ve heard people say often, “everyone played piano when they were a kid” or “everyone played soccer in elementary school” (Guess what, I didn’t). Some peers’ family friends were notable people, reminding me grimly of my rejection from Princeton because I didn’t have any “connections.” Access to social and cultural capital had groomed and prepared my wealthier peers for their Vassar experience in a way incomparable to how I had learned skills from my older sisters, parents, or employers.

Over time I was subjected to numerous microaggressions that erased class differences and assumed that everyone was in the same socioeconomic class. This ranged anywhere from my friends assuming I could go out to eat four times a week, to birthday dinners, to people not understanding that I had to commit extra time to my work-study job, to people saying they hated when people “made them feel bad” for how wealthy their parents were. What is most scary about the latter is that it seems to confirm Vassar students’ acceptance of the meritocracy story—their parents worked hard, so why should they apologize for their wealth?

Unfortunately, it is likely that I was subjected to these microaggressions due to assumptions about my class based on my appearance: white, middle class passing. Passing is a concept that can apply to many different identities, and arguably class is more difficult to distinguish from someone’s appearance than some other facets of identity. The way I dress, speak, and act affects how my class status is perceived. Since I grew up with many middle and upper-middle class friends, I am able to pass as upper-middle class, as well. We frequently make judgments and assumptions based on people’s appearances and might censor what we say based on who is present; in my case, peers choose not to censor themselves.

I have tried to take my peers’ attitudes about class in stride. After all, money is a taboo subject in our society, so it makes sense that very wealthy people do not fully comprehend their privilege in that respect; it just doesn’t get talked about. Nonetheless, it is a struggle to exist in this ignorant environment. The reality of my lived experience is erased when people assume I am as wealthy as they are simply because I pass as upper-middle class. It is ignored that I’ve worked twenty hours a week since I was a sophomore in high school; it is ignored that I pay for my groceries with my work-study money; it is ignored that I pay for my own car insurance; it is ignored that my family struggles to send me here and I must cope with that guilt every single day. These are important nuances to my identity that are overlooked when my peers assume my class status.

I find myself just as frustrated as I was in high school. However, I now have the language to understand that class is one facet of my identity among many. I’ve learned that class is a system of oppression intertwined with race, gender, sexuality, ability and other matrices of domination. I understand how to analyze my environment using my class as a perspective lens. I’ve also learned that many other lower-income students struggle with identity when matriculating at universities. It’s not just important, but necessary to organize with other students in similar situations, if only to discuss the analogous struggles we face.

Vassar also “promises” upward class mobility to low-income students. The financial aid information page claims that “You do not have to be wealthy or even well off to attend Vassar” and “If you are considering Vassar, do not hesitate to apply because you think your family cannot afford it.” These claims, however, can be easily disputed, especially since Vassar is not “need-blind” for students on its waiting list. I have found that coming to Vassar as a student on financial aid has been seriously emotionally splintering, and I’ve had little support from the Vassar community to cope with this. While I struggle to find my place among my wealthy peers, I often attempt to socially adapt to their customs, simultaneously alienating myself from my wonderful and supportive family.

Vassar can bring low-income students to it’s campus, but cannot support them within the environment it maintains. Our administration should be dedicating more effort to ensuring the success of its students, rather than using them for political leverage. While I support the concept of need-blind admissions, I am wary of our president’s ostentatious celebration of our financial aid policies because I know that many students like myself are struggling tremendously in our environment.

In addition, students on financial aid are exploited to solicit donors at events such as the Scholarship Tea, which I was aggressively invited to by “President Catharine Hill” multiple times through email. It was also suggested that I not only write a thank-you letter to the “donor” that allows me to attend Vassar, but to also be attendance at the Tea to mingle with donors and show them just how well adjusted I am. I do not take kindly to these obvious exploitations, and as a student on financial aid with extra burdens, like a work-study job, I frankly do not have time to suck up to donors at a Tea – an event often associated with the upper-middle class and elite. I am not a product of Vassar College, ready to be labeled with a sticker and shipped off to my professional career. I am a complicated human being, and though grateful for being at Vassar, I do not feel that I owe my entire existence to our financial aid office.

It is crucial that students develop a more open dialogue about class and how it is uniquely experienced on our campus. Student Class Issues Alliance at Vassar has sponsored workshops the past two semesters urging students to “learn how to identify classist practices or assumptions and explore socioeconomic class and its intersections.” The workshop I went to was poorly attended, but very helpful for my personal exploration. We discussed signifiers of class such as family income, the way one dresses, cultural and social capital, and how we interpreted others’ class, as well as our own, on a daily basis.

I would encourage all students to engage in dialogues like these with students different from themselves. Being as this is a taboo topic, it may be uncomfortable—but it is necessary to experience this discomfort, especially if you are a student who claims to fight “the system.” We all need to be more aware of our class privilege, myself included, and to acknowledge our complicity in class oppression, both inside and outside of Vassar. We need to acknowledge that capitalism enforces the taboo of not talking about class. This is bigger than the Bubble.


Recommended Readings:

“The Immortality of College Admissions” on Aljazeera

Colleges Guide Low-Income Students from Getting in to Graduating on NPR

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